The Hidden Gem of the Midwest: A Travel Guide to Minnesota’s North Shore

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In the most famous song about the state (as far as I’m concerned), Minneapolis hip-hop duo Atmosphere raps, “Minnesota is dope, if only simply for not what we have but what we don’t” and proceeds to rhyme about the lack of movie stars, nightlife, and guns.

Instead, Atmosphere claims, the “land of ice and snow” offers alternative perks like ample parking spaces, things to do with your kids, and the ability to drink tap water and breath the air. To most Minnesotans, this rings true. And most of us would like to keep it that way.

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Yet, Minnesota is more ecologically diverse than many outsiders expect. It’s more than cornfields and Interstate routes like much of the Midwest – at least not all of it. Most commonly known for Prince, Mighty Ducks, Mall of America, and 10,000 lakes, the state often gets overlooked for more iconic travel destinations. Don’t let that fool you. If you leave the population centers in the south and head north you’ll find an area both unique and awe-inspiring—the North Shore.

Sitting in the northeastern corner of Minnesota, north of Duluth and west of Lake Superior, lies the unheralded North Shore. The area has 10-times more deer than people and 90% of the land is federal forest. The North Shore has long been a mecca for hikers, canoers, fishermen, snowmobilers, and hunters, and has seen recent growth in mountain biking, surfing, and rock climbing, among many other activities.

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Getting to the North Shore may not be easy, but it’s undoubtedly worth it for those who do make the journey. Here are the top things to do and places to visit.

Highway 61

Regarded by many as one of the most scenic roads in the country, Highway 61 runs 149 miles from Duluth to the Canadian border, adjacent to Lake Superior. The windy two-lane highway offers frequent vistas of the lake and surrounding boreal forest, while passing through a series of small mining and fishing towns, now thriving off tourism. The must-see pulloffs along the way include Split Rock Lighthouse, Palisade Head cliffs, Caribou Falls, and Devil’s Kettle (the mystery of the North Shore).

Photo: Andy Cochrane

Boundary Waters

The true gem of the north is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a sprawling network of lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands. There isn’t anything like it in the US—or possibly the world. The Boundary Waters is a bucket-list item for many, attracting nearly 200,000 visitors each year, the most of any National Forest in the country. If you’re looking to go paddling for a day or week, Sawbill Outfitters is the best place to start.

Photo: Andy Cochrane

Superior Hiking Trail

Considered one of the best long-distance hiking trails in the country, the Superior Hiking Trail runs 313 miles from south of Duluth to the Canada border. Winding its way up and down the Sawtooth Mountains, the trail is filled with river hikes, big views, and wildlife. It also can be hiked in sections, with access points every 4 to 10 miles along the trail.

Photo: Andy Cochrane

Lutsen Mountains

Best known as a ski destination in the winter, Lutsen offers an array of hiking and mountain biking trails in the summer as well. The ski resort boasts one of the largest cross-country trail networks in the country, 450 miles of snowmobile trails, and the largest alpine resort in the Midwest. It may not be the big mountain skiing of the Rockies, but it’s perfect for families and locals in Minnesota.

Photo: Andy Cochrane

Grand Marais

For a town of only 1,300, you won’t find better food or activities. The pebble beach in town is considered one of the prettiest in the country. Angry Trout, which sits on the harbor, is often ranked as one of the best restaurants in the state. Recently launched Voyageur Brewing is locally owned one of two micro breweries on the North Shore. North House Folk School was the fourth folk school in the country that has become an epicenter of craftsmanship around the world, teaching walk-in classes like timber framing, blacksmithing, basket weaving, and many other traditional skills. For gear rentals in any season, head to Stone Harbor to collect whatever you need.

Photo: Andy Cochrane

Grand Portage National Monument

The only National Park unit in the U.S. that is co-managed by local Native Americans, Grand Portage was historic trail used by fur traders and early explorers that connected the great lakes with the hunters and trappers to the west. The Northwest Fur Company depot has been rebuilt with historical accuracy, surrounded by nearby Ojibwe tribal lands. One of the best restaurants along the North Shore, Naniboujou is nearby, adjacent to Judge Magney State Park.

Naniboujou Lodge, originally founded in 1927 as a private club for celebrities like Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, and Ring Lardner. Photo: Andy Cochrane

Photo: Andy Cochrane

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