Summer in Northeast Minnesota is filled with beauty and excitement—nature, national parks, charming towns and, of course, water activities on the lakes. If you listen, you can hear it calling to you every year about this time. Whether you’re looking for a wilderness adventure, an exciting new city or just a sandy spot on the shore where you can sit and think for a while, the 12 experiences below make up the ultimate northeast Minnesota summer. Choose your favorite and create your own exciting adventure.
Head to the North Shore to catch waterfall season in its prime! With well over 10 falls within an hour’s drive of Two Harbors on Hwy 61, this waterfall tour is one you don’t want to miss. Start with a hike along the Knife River, then continue up the shore to Gooseberry Falls State Park for several sets of falls. As you continue north, park at the Split Rock River Wayside and hop on the trail leading inland, with multiple waterfalls all in one hike.
Next up is Tettegouche State Park for the highest waterfall entirely in the state of Minnesota! End your tour by turning on Hwy 1 past Tettegouche and drive one mile to the parking area for Illgen Falls. If you’re up for a more grueling hike, continue along Hwy 1 to Crosby Manitou State Park for the gorgeous falls there.
Border Country always seems to be where the adventure begins. This region is a gateway to Voyageurs National Park and Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. Entering new territory, exploring new land and discovering a national treasure in the wild outdoors will get you excited. With unlimited recreational activities—boating, fishing, swimming, skiing, tubing, kayaking, canoeing, camping, paddleboarding, hiking, ATVing and snowmobiling—the memories never end.
Grand Rapids is one of the more well-known Minnesota vacation destinations—and for good reason. There’s a wonderful mixture of outdoor recreation, culture and history. In one day, you might paddle down the Mississippi River, hop on a bike to pedal through downtown and stop by the Forest History Center to uncover the fascinating past, present and future of Minnesota’s vast forests.
Pro tip: Journey on the Edge of the Wilderness National Scenic Byway to follow the route once used by voyageurs and loggers. Gorgeous vistas of rolling hills and sparkling lakes are a bonus.
Tucked into the shaded woods along the shores of beautiful Pelican Lake, Orr is where to go to answer the call of the wild. At Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary, it’s practically guaranteed that you'll see black bears. Don’t forget your camera—from a raised observation deck, take in the 360-degree view of aspen forests, ponds, cedar swamps and meadows, and be ready to snap a photo of the elusive black bear. You won’t be disappointed: Naturalists explain the bears’ behaviors, and before you know it, the bears will come.
International Falls is, in a word, quaint. Four large, gorgeous lakes always ensure something new—but for first-time visitors, we highly recommend the Voyageur boat tour that will take you across Rainy Lake and give you a great introduction to Voyageurs National Park. The tour stops at the Little American Island Gold Mine, where a short hike reveals the mine’s backstory with interpretive signs.
Another good one? The Kettle Falls Cruise, an all-day trip to remote and fascinating historic locations. From there, if you have your own boat, you can get into the other main lakes of Voyageurs—Kabetogama, Namakan and Sand Point. A very popular option is the North Canoe Voyage, where you dive right into history by helping steer the 26-foot cargo canoes the voyageurs themselves used.
In the heart of Voyageurs National Park is Lake Kabetogama, a place with some of the brightest stars and bluest skies you’ll ever see. You’ll feel like you’re stepping into a postcard when you walk along the shoreline beside clear waters or hike into the spectacular green of the surrounding forest. Ancient Native American petroglyphs reveal that humans have enjoyed these beautiful surroundings for centuries.
Ellsworth Rock Gardens, “The Showplace of Lake Kabetogama,” is another highlight. Jack Ellsworth created a terraced garden on a natural rock outcropping—it’s a distinctive landscape of tough rock, 13,000 lilies and more.
Commonly known as a "Gateway to the Boundary Waters ," Ely is also the proud home of the International Wolf Center and North American Bear Center. See both species in their respective habitats and learn about their behavior, ecology, and their relations with humans. With rotating exhibits and daily programming, it's an experience of a lifetime that your family will likely make a tradition. Both centers offer close proximity to Ely's many accommodations, shops and restaurants. Visit ely.org to start planning your trip.
Head to Grand Marais when you’re suffering from creative block. Touted as “America’s Coolest Small Town,” this harbor city is folded between the Boundary Waters and Lake Superior, and it's so easy to be inspired here. A stroll along the dock to watch otters play brings out a childlike wonder topped only by catching glimpses of painters reimagining waves, sailboats and the lighthouse on canvas at Artists’ Point.
Head to the North House Folk School and Grand Marais Art Colony to immerse yourself in a class. After creating your own work of art, wander through local shops, find hidden treasures to take home and keep the creativity going.
Proctor, Minnesota, overlooking Lake Superior, offers trails with breathtaking vistas and incredible challenges at Willard Munger State Trail, Jay Cooke State Park, the Superior Hiking Trail and Spirit Mountain Bike Park. An easy drive from the Twin Cities, come home to Proctor for amazing hiking, biking and ATV trails.
Mesabi Iron Range
A favorite spot within the Mesabi Iron Range is Giants Ridge, a four-season resort with two of the most gorgeous golf courses you’ve ever teed up on (The Legend and The Quarry). But this place isn’t a one-trick pony. Rent a bike and hit the Mesabi Trail. Fish at the resort or rent a boat and venture out into the deeper areas of the lake, searching for walleye. Try your hand at disc golf. Find your balance (and strengthen your abs!) on a paddleboard. Lace up your hiking boots and take to the trails. Or simply push off from the shoreline in a canoe or kayak and let the gentle breezes take you where they may.
Even if you’re not known for your fishing skills, Lake Vermilion, one the largest lakes in Minnesota, makes it easy. Maybe it’s because of the lake’s world-renowned walleye fishing, but you’re likely to catch at least one gorgeous fish when you visit. Lake Vermilion hosted the 2015 Minnesota Governor’s Fishing Opener, if that tells you anything about how great the fishing is here.
And what a view! Gaze out over the horizon and you’ll see some of the 365 islands and the beautiful shoreline.
More urban than most of northeast Minnesota, Duluth is a small city where nature meets a vibrant community full of great cuisine and great events, on the shore of the greatest of the Great Lakes. Spend an afternoon in Canal Park watching the iconic Aerial Lift Bridge raise to welcome 1,000-foot cargo ships into port, or choose the perfect smooth rock to skip across the surface of Lake Superior.
Life in Duluth centers around the lake. Many of the world-class events that come to the city are hosted right on the harbor at Bayfront Festival Park. Fans of blues music, local craft beer, fireworks and much more will find fun on the bayfront this summer. Get a view of Lake Superior from a little further away by exploring the city’s miles and miles of trails. The “big lake” is pretty impressive up close, but it’s worth seeing her from a vista atop the hill, too. After spending some time outdoors, enjoy a pint of craft beer or cider made with Lake Superior’s deliciously fresh water.
Discover more of beautiful Northeast Minnesota and plan your summer getaway.