The magic of Minnesota, land of Great Lakes and great roads
When my family moved from New York to Minnesota 16 years ago we moved from the east coast of the United States to the absolute centre of the country. We moved to a place known for its extreme cold temperatures and for being the home of the artist formerly known as Prince.
That’s about all we knew of Minnesota then, and it’s probably all most people could tell you today. But Minnesota has turned out to be a true gem, a hidden gem actually. Many factors put Minnesota near the top of US state rankings, like education, healthcare, biking trails and the economy.
But my personal favourite is one that can’t be put in a category, because it’s incomparable. The gem of this hidden gem is Minnesota’s magnificent North Shore – 150 miles of road starting from the port city of Duluth and following the northern coastline of Lake Superior, skirting deep bays and beaches, lighthouses, rocky cliffs, waterfalls, rivers and extensive forests, and stretching all the way to the Canadian border. This scenic drive is officially called Highway 61, a title that’s been immortalised in song by Duluth-born singer songwriter Bob Dylan.
But to capture the beauty of this region we must begin with the spectacular Lake Superior itself. Minnesota’s state nickname is the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but as locals will tell you, the number is actually higher. All of them, including Lake Superior, came into being many, many years ago when glaciers changed the landscape. Today Lake Superior is one of North America’s five Great Lakes. It straddles the US-Canadian border and is the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area, the third largest by volume.
In square miles it’s just a bit smaller than the country of Austria and therefore looks more like an inland sea than a lake. The North Shore of Lake Superior provides a bounty of beauty and adventure year-round. Visitors enjoy fishing, canoeing, kayaking, camping, skiing, snowmobiling, ice fishing, biking, hiking and more. One of my first trips to the area was the summer after my family moved to the state. It was a perfect inaugural visit, and one of many to follow.
We began our trip in Duluth. The North Shore scenic drive starts from Canal Park, but the city also offers hiking trails, harbour cruises and many museums, including the free Maritime Museum. Park Point Beach is a lovely sandy beach in Duluth while most others are pebble beaches, like the nearby Brighton Beach. But these too have their charm. Holidaymakers can wade into the water, skip stones or hunt for agate. After a short stop in Duluth we continued our drive to the first of eight national parks along the North Shore. Yes, eight!
About 40 miles from Duluth, Gooseberry Falls State Park is the first major stop for many visitors who make the trip for the 4-in-1 waterfalls. A short trail takes you to the impressive Middle Falls and then ahead for a view of the Upper Falls. The Riverview Trail runs south to the Lower Falls and to the mouth of Gooseberry River and Lake Superior. In the winter, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing trails run alongside the river and past frozen waterfalls.
Our next stop was a few miles ahead at Split Rock Lighthouse, built in response to the terrible shipwrecks of 1905. The lighthouse is picture-perfect and one of the most beloved and recognisable sights of the North Shore. Now a national historic landmark, Split Rock Lighthouse sits on a 130ft high cliff on the rocky coast of Lake Superior. Guided tours are available, but the view is priceless and free. Below, the cobblestone beaches lead to forests and lookout points for a picturesque view of the lighthouse itself.
Speaking of lookouts, Palisade Head in Tettegouche State Park is about 55 miles from Duluth and a beautiful place to stop next. A narrow, winding road leads to this clifftop point offering wide-angle, all-encompassing views of Lake Superior and its shores. Rock climbers need a permit to climb the Palisade, and they do so often. Black bears have been spotted in the area, and of course, deer are everywhere – even in the suburbs – but moose sightings are rarer.
At around 90 miles from Duluth, after driving by coves, beaches, more waterfalls and forests, we reached Lutsen where we planned to stay for a couple of nights. Lutsen Mountains are the tallest ski area in Minnesota, but even in the summer visitors can ride the gondola and alpine slide and enjoy dining and resort amenities as they gaze upon Lake Superior.
During our stay we went canoeing, a particularly serene and beautiful experience. Guides are available to accompany visitors who are new to the activity or need instruction in avoiding the gentle rapids. Lutsen and nearby Tofte both offer a range of activities year-round other than skiing, like sailing, kayaking, fishing, and of course, camping and hiking. Shops, restaurants and hotels are available for every budget and requirement.
A favourite hike nearby is the Oberg Mountain trail. It’s about three miles long and rises high above Oberg Lake, which lies in the centre of hills covered densely in maple trees. Autumn is the absolute best time to visit as this view transforms from deep shades of green to bright gold, orange and red as far as you can see.
Continuing the drive past Lutsen to the 100-mile point we arrived at my favourite place, Grand Marais. Leading up to it, the car turns a corner and you see that first glimpse of the town from a distance. It truly looks like the end of the world, like a suspended slip of land in a huge body of water that seems to curve away and down and then disappear into thin air. Perhaps it’s an optical illusion, but it’s ingrained in my mind. The town itself is quaint, and the Angry Trout Café is highly recommended. Grand Marais also offers a harbour of pebble stone beaches, a lighthouse and an island quite perfectly named Artist’s Point.
Grand Marais was our last stop in that inaugural visit to the North Shore, but visitors can travel ahead to the 150-mile mark from Duluth and reach Grand Portage State Park on the Canadian border. The Pigeon River separates the two countries here, and it’s where Minnesota’s tallest waterfall, at 120ft, drops into a rocky gorge. The oft-seen rainbow above is like a celebration marking the end of the scenic drive. And if you’ve checked the Northern Lights forecast and are lucky, you’ll witness luminescent lights dancing across the night sky, a glorious highlight of the trip.
A visit to Minnesota’s North Shore can take an hour or a year, and this little tour was just a taste of all the possibilities. For me, there is no beauty as majestic as our natural world and little did I know I’d be dropped right in the middle of it with my family’s move to the Midwest of the US. Even though I’ve shared this hidden gem with you, there’s a lot left for you to explore on your own, and Minnesotans will welcome you with open arms.
Under the Tamarind Tree by Nigar Alam is published by Bedford Square Publishers, priced £16.99, out now