Water in its ice form is a mystery. Raging rivers suspend in pillars of ice. Gravity suddenly fails its duties as freezing temperatures transform running water into hanging art. The resulting waterfalls change daily, gaining and losing mass, clarity, and density. Close up, you’ll hear the remnant water gurgling, flowing, and churning, as if it’s trying to breathe again.
Now is your chance to witness water’s frozen forms; soon, spring will rearrange the water’s shape once again. Minnesota’s North Shore is the state’s top destination for frozen waterfall viewing. Go explore these natural wonders firsthand, before the rivers slither out of winter’s icy grip. Let them enchant you, refresh you, rebalance you. Before long, you’ll be hankering to try ice climbing.
Waterfalls are a source of awe for our nature-starved society. North Shore waterfalls, in particular, located where soft rock has been washed out over the eons from harder volcanic lava flows beneath, bring out our primitive appreciation for nature’s transformative abilities. How can a rushing river—a terrific torrent once spring arrives—be so passively locked in ice? How do frozen waterfalls constantly change shape? We are not in control here—the play of the flow and freeze cycles takes over, and we are left to contemplate the ephemeral qualities of ice. It could be gone tomorrow—so go now.
Tettegouche’s Waterfall Paradise
Minnesota’s premier waterfall destination is Tettegouche State Park, about 60 miles north of Duluth on historic Highway 61. The mighty Baptism River is a defining natural feature within Tettegouche’s park boundaries. The Baptism cascades down four different waterfalls within the park before emptying into Lake Superior. All four Baptism falls are within walking distance of major roads, and they can all be accessed for free.
Furthest upriver, and easiest to get to in any season, are the Illgen Falls. Park on the plowed gravel area abutting Highway 1 that heads toward Finland (our Minnesota version), about a mile and a half up from Highway 61 on your left. The falls are directly downhill from this parking area.
Kurt Mead, park naturalist at Tette-gouche State Park, calls 43-foot tall Illgen Falls “gorgeous.” He recommends wearing snowshoes, if you’ve got them, for the short walk, because of the deep snow in the Finland area this winter.
Next is High Falls—a 63-foot stunner. Mead recounts that flooding in the spring of 2022 obliterated the park’s swinging bridge, meaning that High Falls is now most readily accessed from the High Falls Trail east of the Baptism. To get to the High Falls trailhead, Mead suggests parking at the visitor center visible from Highway 61. “Because we’re a wayside rest, you don’t need a park permit to hike into the park from here,” he says. “Grab a map inside, then hike 200 yards down to the trailhead, which is right by our old bridge. It’s 3 miles roundtrip from there to High Falls.”
Winter walkers pack down the trail to High Falls pretty well. Still, Mead recommends wearing some kind of traction device, like snowshoes with cleats, or Yaktrax on hiking boots, for extra grip.
The third falls heading downriver is Two Step Falls. Mead calls Two Step “gentle,” adding “it’s not as dramatic in the wintertime as the other falls.” You can get to Two Step Falls by using a spur trail off the High Falls Trail, but Mead warns there is a steep elevation drop to get to the river there, and the stairway will be slippery. Keep those traction devices handy.
The Baptism’s fourth waterfall within the park as it approaches Lake Superior is Cascade Falls. Mead enjoys these falls as an off-trail destination. Under the right conditions, park goers can ski, snowshoe, or hike right up the frozen Baptism to get to the Cascades. Mead says this route, while not steep, is the riskiest. “When we talk about snowshoeing rivers, I just really want to reiterate the safety aspect of it. There’s flowing water, and ice levels are unpredictable. Stay on the edges, and if you know the river, stay over shallow areas,” he proposes.
This plethora of Tettegouche options gives visitors their best chance in Minnesota to extend winter’s dreamy waterfall season into early spring.
Next Level: Ice Climbing
So, where does our draw to water, specifically its frozen version, come from?
Felicia Schneiderhan, a writer and ice climber who makes Duluth home, describes “the call” of ice: “Water in its ice form is so changeable. It’s never the same. Even if you visit the same waterfall every winter, or even every day, it’s going to change. We get to watch nature transforming ice over and over again.”
Schneiderhan’s passion for water—and cold—led her to take up ice climbing. This brings her into direct contact with waterfalls on her climbs. “When you’re up against a frozen waterfall, it’s a totally new way of interacting with the ice,” she says. “It smells different. You can often hear the water trickling inside the waterfall, and there’s always the feel of the ice. Even now, I can feel it on my skin, on my cheeks. It’s just a tactile experience.”
Eldon Krosch Jr., vice president of the Duluth Climbers Coalition, says ice conditions can dictate a climb. “There are a lot of different conditions an ice climber can encounter,” he notes. “I’ve climbed super cold, bitter, hard ice, and I’ve climbed super soft ‘hero ice.’ The softer ice makes it easier to swing your ice axes into the waterfall, or kick your crampons into the ice. Of course, there’s a threshold: As it gets warmer, there’s a higher risk of ice fall, as stuff is melting.”
First and foremost on a climber’s mind when they strap into their harness is the physical and mental challenge ahead. “Ice climbing is so hard to do,” Schneiderhan says. “It takes so much adrenaline. And yet you have to stay really calm.”
There are certainly plenty of hazards to deal with. Both Schneiderhan and Krosch mention how wind influences the ice climbing experience.
According to Krosch, a lot of the places where people ice climb in Minnesota, like Nightfall on the Devil Track River, are protected at the bottom of the climb, but conditions change a you move higher. “It can get really windy up top when you’re setting anchors, or topping out. Sometimes the tops of the climbs are completely frigid,” he says.
The unpredictability of ice is both a boon and a bane to ice climbers. So, why not cheat? The Duluth Climbers Coalition began ice farming for the first time in Quarry Park in Duluth in January of this year. Ice farming is the process of making artificial waterfalls. Water is pumped to the top of a rock ledge then dripped down the rock face in cold weather. Voila! Other Minnesota ice farming parks have been established in Winona and Sandstone.
The Quarry Park system makes for high-tech waterfall management. Designed by Nick Fleming, the system can be turned off and on with a cell phone. “Nick designed a system that is connected to Wi-Fi,” Krosch explains. “We can monitor flow rates and turn the pump on and off remotely.”
Krosch says that if a sprinkler head blows out and maintenance has to be performed, a cell phone can be used to turn off the pump from up on the hill, then turn it back on. “With a traditional manual system, we would have had to hike up and down the hill each time to turn off the pump, install a new fixture, and turn it back on.” This is next-level plumbing.
The Quarry Park system can be used to make ice for beginning climbers, because water can be dripped in places that have lower-angle ice. This season, the Duluth Climbers Coalition held its first beginner ice climbing clinic on artificially made ice. The coalition conducts the Duluth Ice and Mixed Fest annually in February. Other beginner ice climbing options are the Sandstone Ice Festival, held in January, and various trips offered by the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Recreational Sports Outdoor Program. Gooseberry Falls and the Silver Creek Tunnel, both on Highway 61, are other common ice climbing destinations.
Solve the Puzzle
While waterfalls are a grueling, gravity-defying challenge to climb, Schneiderhan gets satisfaction from the process. “There’s the mental problem solving of it,” she says. “You’re using your body to implement those mental solutions, and that’s exhilarating. You also have to trust your equipment, and your belayer. I like the puzzle of it.”
Ultimately, when we let waterfalls work into our souls, we derive calm and wonder from them. “I really enjoy just getting to a waterfall in winter, sitting down, catching my breath, and spending a little time,” Mead says. “You’re going to hear water sounds that you don’t hear in the summertime. You can’t really see the water, except for the few spots where there’s open water. It’s kind of mysterious. I love that chill down moment of hanging out near a flowing waterfall in the wintertime.”
Schneiderhan, like Mead, describes letting the waterfall dictate its terms to her: “Every time I climb, I’m aware of my limitations, and it’s humbling. I think that’s important for grace.”
This season, let winter’s waning waterfalls pierce your soul before the rites of spring turn them back to liquid magic.