Summer is the perfect road-trip season, and the North Shore is Minnesota’s ultimate driving destination. If the thought of seeing a car-sized walleye or an illuminated lighthouse makes you giddy, this is the journey for you. Together, we will cover more than 100 miles of Lake Superior shoreline and make stops in Duluth, Two Harbors, and Grand Marais. Together, we’ll see five lighthouses, one historic manor, and three harbors (not surprisingly, two of them in Two Harbors), among countless other items that will make you say “uff dah” in delight.
We begin our journey roughly two and a half hours north of the Twin Cities metro in Duluth. Everyone knows Lake Superior, but it is the St. Louis River that separates Duluth from Superior on the Wisconsin side. Duluth is a historically rich yet modern port town of nearly 90,000 residents that features the perfect blend of gift shops, bistros, historic architecture, bridges, and lighthouses.
The Canal Park district is a must-stop. It offers a wide selection of dining options, including Minnesota-chain staples like Famous Dave’s and the original Grandma’s Saloon & Grill. There are plenty of unique gift shops for you to get your T-shirts and coffee mugs alongside antique stores and boutiques—all standing in the shadow of a 135-foot steel bridge. That’s the Aerial Lift Bridge, a fully functioning movable bridge. Built from 1901 to 1905, the bridge stretches across the harbor, allowing visitors to get up close to the two lighthouses found on each side.
Just 3 miles outside of Canal Park, historic homes dot the Lake Superior shoreline, including the famous Glensheen Mansion. Built between 1905 and 1908 by Chester and Clara Congdon, this 39-room mansion is a great stop for history fans and casual tourists alike. It offers guided and self-guided tours, 12 acres of grounds to explore, and some mystery for fans of whodunnits and true crime. Two people were murdered in the home in 1977, but the staff doesn’t mention it on the tours so you may want to do your research beforehand.
We’ll leave bustling Duluth and head up to the quiet, picturesque Two Harbors. From the road, Two Harbors looks like your typical Minnesota town with big-box shopping and chain restaurants. But as we near the harbor, the chain businesses are replaced by quaint shops with names like Moose-cellaneous Gifts and Do North Pizza. From there, we head south past the charming colonial homes and the Duluth and Iron Range Depot Museum to the harbor.
Here rests the Two Harbors Light Station Museum. Built in the 1890s, this historic site offers self-guided tours and a bed and breakfast. This attraction is open seasonally, from the end of May to the end of October. Just down the hill is the aptly named Two Harbors Lighthouse, accessible by a walk along the concrete pier. Along the way, you’ll find charming views of taconite chutes and get a loon’s-eye-view of the town (they can often be seen floating along the shoreline). Here, Lake Superior’s still waters surround you, reaching all the way to the huddling pine trees along the water’s edge.
Also, their Dairy Queen is adorable. “A Dairy Queen?” you ask. It seems like every town in Minnesota has a Dairy Queen. But this one has a walk-up window and a wooden bear eagerly waiting to greet tourists. You won’t find that just anywhere.
As we head north out of town, we’ll drive through the Castle Danger township, where we’ll catch more glimpses of Lake Superior through the pine trees. We’ll also pass several state parks, including Tettegouche and Gooseberry Falls, which house some of Minnesota’s most photographable waterfalls. At last we’ll come into the tiny, windy town of Grand Marais.
Resting among forested hills, Grand Marais has its very own harbor, complete with a lighthouse and a menagerie of sailboats. Quaint restaurants dot the main street, including the Blue Water Café, whose menu features homecooked Minnesota classics, including the Swedish Pantry breakfast and the Tent Warmer Omelet. Other icons like the famous Sven & Ole’s Pizza are just down the street and all within walking distance of the harbor and its pebbled beach. Small cafes and fudge-toting gift shops abound. Beaver House, a locally owned bait-and-tackle shop, even has a car-sized walleye poking out of the side of the building. We can’t get any more Minnesotan than that.
We turn off the main street into a stone-pebbled parking lot that leads to a forked trail. The trail to the left takes us through a dense, wooded peninsula until we feel like we’re lost. And just when we’re about to call the Coast Guard (which has its own historic station less than a quarter of a mile away), we’ll break onto Artists Point, a breezy beach made up of giant flat stones where local artists make sculptures out of loose rocks and boulders.
The other trail on the right of the fork takes you to the Grand Marais Lighthouse. The walk may seem a little precarious, as you have to walk single file across a concrete barrier wall and occasionally turn sideways to let other visitors pass. But don’t let that stop you—the view is well worth it.
The lighthouse at the end serves as the gatekeeper between Superior and the little harbor. Reaching it gives you uninterrupted views of the blurred, watery horizon and the town reflected in the still, freezing water. If you go around sunset, you may even hear folk or jazz music echoing across the harbor from one of Grand Marais’ rooftop restaurants.
On this trip up the North Shore, we have seen roughly 110 miles of Lake Superior shoreline and are now only about 40 miles from the Canadian border. If you find yourself not yet ready to leave the rocky shores and homemade fudge, you should keep going, because
welcoming sites like Grand Portage, historic Naniboujou Lodge, and Pigeon Falls await along the way. Even if you don’t make it all the way to Canada, there are plenty of small stops to discover and make you say, “Uff dah!”