During my tenure with Minnesota Monthly, I’ve visited many of the state’s iconic landmarks: the headwaters of the Mississippi River, the state border’s chimney-shaped protrusion into Canada known as the Northwest Angle, the self-proclaimed (and duly merited) World’s Best Donuts in Grand Marais. I’ve eaten lutefisk at the Swedish Institute’s annual feed, attended A Prairie Home Companion at the Fitzgerald Theater, and toured the Spam Museum in Austin. I’ve even seen what’s perhaps Minnesota’s version of a solar eclipse: a moose and two calves wading through the reeds in the Boundary Waters.
Despite my well-checked bucket list, I’m always chagrined by the gap between the sum of my experiences and the Things It Seems Like the Editor of Minnesota Monthly Should Know. A few such icons—the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, for starters—I’m okay with skipping. But passing by the original North Shore destination without stopping, as I’ve done dozens of times, is inexcusable.
My defense? I’m so enchanted by the adjacent Split Rock River, with its dramatic gorge and waterfalls, that I’ve never made it to the lighthouse. Split Rock’s geology is as beautiful as it is rare: The river carves through reddish-brown, granite-like rhyolite that was deposited by a massive lava flow. (Wait—there were volcanoes in Minnesota? Put that on the list of things the editor of Minnesota Monthly probably should have known!) The rhyolite forms striking towers and cliffs, and over the years, erosion has broken off large slabs of rock and small chips. A section of the Superior Hiking trail that runs along the river leads trekkers through a flow of the red shards resembling a dry, rocky streambed. Walking over the pile of stones creates a multi-pitch clinking, like the sound of horseshoes on cobblestones, that’s among nature’s finest music.
But Tim Gihring’s eloquent description of the Split Rock lighthouse—a romantic vestige of an era when the wilderness gave way to motorists racing up Lake Superior’s newly built highway—has me intrigued. Next time I’m headed north on 61, I won’t bypass the beacon.
Portrait by Erika Ludwig. Hair and makeup by Margo Gordon