Minnesota’s North Shore Scenic Drive is a gateway to pristine wilderness, spectacular Lake Superior beaches and endless waterfalls. With over a dozen state parks and waysides along historic Highway 61 in northern Minnesota, one of only 27 designated All-American Roads in the United States, there’s something for everyone to experience.
From hiking and biking in the summer to skiing and snowshoeing in the winter, you can spend your time outdoors or head into town to shop and eat along a route that will transport you to the 1920s – when Highway 61 was still a dirt road winding up the shore. From the harbor of Duluth, Minnesota, one of the world’s farthest inland ports for oceangoing ships, to the ancient “Great Carrying Place” – an ancient transcontinental trading route near the Canadian border – the North Shore Scenic Drive is abundant with history, geology and plenty of places to explore in any season.
Minnesota’s North Shore Scenic Drive along Highway 61 begins in Duluth, Minnesota, at the tip of Lake Superior, and ends at the United States-Canadian border. Most visitors access Highway 61 via the junction of I-35 and Highway 61 on the eastern end of Duluth. An expressway at the beginning of the route offers a quick jumpstart for those eager to head up the shore, but we recommend visitors begin by taking Old Highway 61 along the Lake Superior shoreline.
Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) is the closest major airport to Duluth, Minnesota, just 157 miles (252 kilometers) north of the city via the interstate. The drive is roughly 2.5 hours, depending on traffic. Alternatively, the Duluth International Airport is serviced by multiple major airlines, with direct routes to Chicago, Fort Myers & Phoenix.
Most visitors arrive in Duluth by car via I-35. While regular buses run between the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) and Duluth, there is no public transportation for traveling on the North Shore Scenic Drive.
You’ll need a car to explore Lake Superior’s North Shore completely. This scenic drive is a great road trip destination and while there’s plenty of things to see and do, they’re spread out and most are only accessible by car.
There are a handful of state parks on the North Shore Scenic Drive that require a Minnesota State Parks Vehicle Permit, while others allow free parking near the visitor centers but require an admission fee to access amenities or visit certain areas of the park.
A Minnesota State Parks Vehicle Permit is valid for one year from the month of purchase and offers unlimited visits to all of the 75 Minnesota state parks and recreation areas. Vehicle permits are available for purchase online or in-person at any staffed and open Minnesota State Park Office. You can also find them in Minnesota at REI stores in Bloomington, Maple Grove, and Roseville – but be sure to call ahead for availability. You do not need a Minnesota State Parks Vehicle Permit to visit designated Scientific and Natural Areas.
Accommodation along the North Shore Scenic Drive will vary in availability based on the season and location of your stay. This is true the further north you drive, where options at resorts and vacation rentals will be limited, especially during the busy summer and fall months. Make sure to book well ahead, especially if you’re planning to camp in one of the state parks. You can find traditional hotel options in the towns of Duluth, Two Harbors, Silver Bay and Grand Marais.
Located at the southern end of the North Shore Scenic Drive, Duluth offers a wide range of accommodations ranging from modern hotels right next to Lake Superior, to rustic cabins just outside of town, to historic Bed and Breakfasts tucked inside leafy green neighborhoods. If you want to stay really close to the water look for lodging on Minnesota Point, a 7-mile (11.3-kilometer) sandbar adjacent to the iconic Aerial Lift Bridge near Canal Park.
All of the state parks on the North Shore Scenic Drive offer a variety of camping options, with most campgrounds offering pull-in sites for campers along with pristine backcountry spots for long-distance hikers. You can reserve campsites in the Minnesota State Parks system up to 120 days in advance, so plan ahead, especially if you’re looking for a place to land on a summer weekend. The most desirable campsites fill up immediately, but if you’re traveling mid-week, you’ll have better luck finding a spot if you’re willing to be flexible.
The campground at Split Rock State Park offers 20 unique cart-in sites, all within 2,000 feet (600 meters) of the parking lot. Wheeled carts are available for you to haul your gear to a secluded site that gives the allure of being in the backcountry, while really being just a few steps away from amenities like showers and local restaurants. Most of the sites are inland, but a handful are set high on a cliff next to the lake with a view of Split Rock Lighthouse.
It’s important to note there is no camping allowed in Grand Portage State Park, but the Grand Portage Lodge offers affordable lakeside camping a mile from the park.
The charming harbor town of Grand Marais offers everything a visitor to the North Shore could ask for: lakeside views, galleries, beloved restaurants, the unique Northhouse Folk School, and a variety of lodging options. There are plenty of vacation home rentals to choose from, but they can stretch a budget if you’re looking to book last minute or during peak season, like mid-summer or during the fall colors. There are a handful of hotels near downtown within walking distance of shops and restaurants.
If you want to stay near Grand Marais, but don’t need to be right downtown, the historic Cascade Lodge is a 13-minute drive from downtown Grand Marais. It offers rooms and cabins next to Cascade River State Park, along with a restaurant and pub worth treating yourself to a meal – even if you aren’t staying at the lodge.
One of the best times to visit is mid-September through October when the maples and birch burst into color, and cooler weather coincides with the end of bug season – making any time in the woods more pleasant. But if you don’t mind a little (okay, alot) of snow, the North Shore is also a beautiful place to visit in winter. During the winter season, from mid-November through April, the world-class Lutsen Mountain Ski Hill offers seven ski lifts and 95 runs across 1,000 acres.
During the winter months most of the state parks remain open with groomed ski and snowshoe trails available for visitors. And yes, with the right gear, you can camp in the winter! Split Rock State Park, Tettegouche State Park and Cascade River State Park all keep sites open for brave winter campers. Because the deep snow can stick around into May, if you’re looking for a warmer vacation experience wait until early June to plan your drive. Although, visiting in early spring is a great time to see many of the waterfalls at their peak when the snow melts.
Without stopping, you can drive from Duluth to the United States-Canadian border in under three hours. But what’s the rush? When driving up from Minneapolis-St. Paul, many visitors stop over in Duluth or Two Harbors for the night, or continue all the way to Grand Marais for a long weekend. If you’d like to visit multiple state parks, give yourself at least two full days to enjoy the drive and all of the sites along the way.
The busiest state parks, like Gooseberry Falls and Split Rock, offer exciting experiences that are close to the visitor center and easy for everyone to access. But there’s always more to see, and it’s usually on the other side of Highway 61. So if you’re looking for a little more space, look for trails that head away from the lake. Many will follow creeks or streams.
If you’re visiting during the summer, visiting any of the state parks early in the day or in the middle of the week will also help you avoid crowds. When school begins in early September there’s a noticeable drop in traffic up the shore, except on the weekends when fall colors are at their peak.
While the lake has plenty to offer, the North Shore Scenic Drive isn’t the only road worth exploring. If you want to do a little inland exploring, try taking a detour down Highway 1 to the quirky town of Finland, or driving the beloved Gunflint Trail, a 57-mile (92-kilometer) National Scenic Byway near Grand Marais that travels through one of the most geologically and botanically unique areas in Minnesota. There will often be fewer crowds and when you turn around and head back towards Highway 61, you’ll be treated to panoramic views of Lake Superior.
Bean and Bear Lakes hike – aka Twin Lakes – is a relatively short and easy hike that is representative of many of the wonderful hiking trails along the route. The trailhead is located near Silver Bay, and is especially spectacular during fall colors.
There’s an abundance of sweet options on the North Shore Scenic Drive that will give you a taste of North Shore history and satisfy your need for dessert any time of day. Betty’s Pies near Two Harbors is a local institution. For decades hungry North Shore visitors have found their way to this historic restaurant to get their fix. We’re a big fan of their five layer chocolate pie.
One of the most visited historic homes in Minnesota, Glensheen Mansion also is also the site of a famous Minnesota murder mystery. Located on the eastern end of Duluth, it’s also a beautiful place for a picnic.
Millions of years of geological and glacial sculpting of basalt have gone into the creation of these very pleasing falls. Gooseberry Falls State Park is a very popular stop, especially since we get four waterfalls all in the one place.
This charming harbor town approximately two hours from Duluth stands out for its lakeside views, galleries, beloved restaurants, the unique North House Folk School, and a variety of lodging options. There’s nothing else like it on the North Shore.
The Ojibwe call Grand Portage “The Great Carrying Place” because it marks the start of an 8.5-mile (13.7-kilometer) portage between Lake Superior and Pigeon River. Today, you can step onto this ancient trading route yourself.
If you like to be haunted by history, the Hovland Dock is a great place to stand still and imagine all the lives that have passed through this area. Today, the dock is all that remains of the once-thriving fishing village.
Devil’s Kettle Falls in Judge C.R. Magney State Park is a double waterfall that forms where the Brule River splits into two falls separated by an outcropping of hard, volcanic rhyolite rock. On one side, the river falls into a pool of water and continues on its journey to Lake Superior. But where does the other side go? It’s a mystery you’ll have to see for yourself.
Popular with peregrine falcons, rock climbers and the casual driver, this geologic landmark near Silver
Bay is one of the best viewpoints along the entire North Shore. The sheer cliff offers wide-ranging views and parking at the top.
Without a doubt, Split Rock Lighthouse is one of the most iconic photographs to capture on your tour. One infamous storm in 1905 all but destroyed 29 ships, leading to the construction of this navigation aid 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Two Harbors. Not only was it purposeful – the setting is majestic. Please share your photos with us!
The Superior Hiking Trail or SHT, as it’s known to locals and thru-hikers, is a rugged footpath that runs 300 miles (483 kilometers) from Jay Cooke State Park south of Duluth to the Canadian border near Grand Portage. The SHT is maintained by a small but mighty army of volunteers and staff working tirelessly to keep the trail accessible. Because it crosses over 80 different private properties and hundreds of parcels of public land, it’s no small task coordinating all of the stakeholders. But the result is a beloved trail used by everyone from casual day hikers to committed thru-hikers. Backcountry campsites are located along the entire length of the trail and are shared among hikers. They don’t require reservations ahead of time.
But if the whole thing sounds like a little too much (!), sections of the trail lead to excellent viewpoints, waterfails and lakes. We’ll point out a selection of our favorite trails on the tour. And if you’re looking for in-person recommendations about where to hike, the Superior Hiking Trail maintains an office in downtown Two Harbors, or you can visit their website.
Iona’s Beach is tucked back inside a quiet, crescent-shaped cove, between Gooseberry Falls and Split Rock Lighthouse State Parks. Most visitors speed right past it on their way to the next state park, but the pink rocks at Iona’s Beach are unlike anywhere else – they were formed by fallen pieces of a nearby rhyolite cliff. Most of the rocks have been worn smooth by erosion, and as the waves hit the shore they, well… some people think they hear a singing sound. The land was previously owned by the Lind family, whose nearby resort opened in 1938. In the 1990s, the family transferred ownership of the property to the state so that everyone could enjoy the singing rocks. Beyond the beach there are paved trails that access the Gitchi Gami State Trail.
Besides having one of the ”sweetest” names on the North Shore Scenic Drive, Sugarloaf Point is also a Scientific and Natural Area (SNA). In Minnesota, SNAs are public lands set aside by the state to preserve areas vital to our natural heritage. These are permanently protected places of rare and significant value. There are only 160 in the entire state, and Sugarlooaf is one of only three SNAs on the North Shore.
Although Sugarlooaf Cove is preserved today, from 1943 to 1971, Consolidated Papers, Inc. used this quiet cove to store pulpwood logs that were then towed by tugboat each summer across Lake Superior to Ashland, Wisconsin. In 1992, a proposed marina rallied locals to form The North Shore Stewardship Association and protect the site. Since then they’ve worked tirelessly on restoration events while providing educational opportunities to the public.
The North Shore of Minnesota is filled with historic lighthouses or all sizes, some that are still in operation. In Duluth you can find remnants of the old Minnesota Point Lighthouse, the first lighthouse built in Minnesota, at the Park Point Recreation Area. Or, walk right up to the Duluth North Pier Light in canal park, which has guided ships into the Duluth Harbor for over a century. Further up the shore, a two-story red brick lighthouse at Two Harbors is the oldest western Lake Superior light station still in operation. The most famous lighthouse, Split Rock, is located 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Two Harbors and was constructed after a late-November storm in 1905 left 29 ships damaged, run aground, or broken in half, including three ships in the Duluth Harbor and two near the Encampment Forest.
Many state parks and waysides on the North Shore Scenic Drive have a waterfall for visitors to enjoy. Some are easier to access than others. The waterfalls at Caribou Falls Wayside, Gooseberry Falls State Park, Split Rock Lighthouse State Park and Cascade River State Park are easy to access from the parking area. If you want to earn the view, hiking a little bit further to see the waterfalls in George Crosby Manitou State Park and the High Falls in Tettegouche State Park will take more time, but they’ll be worth the effort. The best time of year to enjoy waterfalls on the North Shore is April when the snow typically melts, sending water crashing through the rivers that feed into Lake Superior.
The Ojibwe call Grand Portage “The Great Carrying Place,” because it marks the start of an 8.5-mile (13.7-kilometer) portage between Lake Superior and Pigeon River. Today, you can step onto this ancient trading route yourself. Why were early travelers carrying their things for this distance? The Pigeon River was like a superhighway for early travelers who wanted to access the interior of the continent. From the Pigeon, they could paddle all the way up to Hudson Bay 1,200 miles (1,931 kilometers) north of here. Or, they could head west, all the way to the Columbia River Gorge, after crossing the Rockies of course. When French fur traders arrived in the 1730s, it didn’t take long for them to see how valuable the site could be for moving and exchanging their own goods.
There’s an abundance of sweet options on the North Shore Scenic Drive, including three landmark businesses that will satisfy your need for dessert at any time of day.
Betty’s Pie’s started as a fishing shack selling smoked fish in 1956, but the menu quickly turned into hamburgers, hot dogs and mouth-watering pies. The fish shack-turned-pie cafe has greeted locals and tourists traveling up and down the shore ever since.
A few miles from Betty’s, The Rustic Inn Cafe – another long-time Highway 61 staple – serves full-meals and yes, too many pies to count, from a restaurant with a century-old log cabin interior. Both restaurants stay busy all summer long. If you’re pulling a camper, the Rustic Inn Cafe offers a better parking lot for maneuvering large
Further up the shore, you’ll want to stand in line for the World’s Best Donuts in Grand Marais. You’re probably wondering if they really are the best. Well, there’s only one way to find out. Right behind The World’s Best Donuts is Drury Lane Books, arguably the World’s Cutest Bookshop with a million-dollar view of Lake Superior.
Layers: Temperatures tend to be cooler by Lake Superior as much as 10-20 degrees compared to a few miles inland, even in the hot summer months, so bring lots of layers. Plan for cold wind by the lake and humid buggy conditions as you move away from the shore. Conditions can change rapidly and weather can vary dramatically between Duluth and Grand Portage, and during the summer, it’s not uncommon to need a winter hat in the morning and short sleeves by early afternoon.
Footwear: A pair of comfortable walking shoes will work well for short hikes, but you’ll want to pay something sturdier for longer hikes. Even if you’re planning to stick close to the shore, you’ll want sturdy shoes for the rocky trails connecting the parking lot to the beach.
Beach Supplies: In the summertime, the water is more than fine – it’s a delightful escape from the heat. And if you don’t want to get in the lake, there’s no better spot for setting up camp to watch the sunset. So ,remember to bring your beach gear. A bathing suit if you want to go in, towels, blankets to sit on or beach chairs, flip flops. If you’re taking a dip and then getting back in the car, bring a dry set of clothes.
Daypack: A comfortable pack makes all the difference. In addition to carrying an extra layer and water, it’s a good idea to throw a few snacks in there as well.
Bug Repellant: With lots of water comes lots of bugs. If you’re planning to hike, especially in the spring and summer months, plan for mosquitoes and black flies. Bring bug spray, but also consider a bug net to cover your face. Hiking with long pants and sleeves that can breathe in the heat will help you stay comfortable when the bugs are really active.
Sun Protection: No matter what time of year you go, sunscreen is a must. In the summer, the sun shines brightly, and in the winter, the sun not only shines – but also reflects off the snow. And make sure to bring sunglasses, and protect your eyes while you’re catching rays at the beach.
Water: You’re in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, so there is no excuse not to drink a lot of water. Always bring water with you on a trail and make sure you drink it! Some trails will have streams that you can use to refill long the way, but don’t count on it. Assume you need to carry your own water. If you’re planning to refill in the woods, be sure to bring a water filter or iodine tablets to ensure the water is safe to drink.
Binoculars: Bring some binoculars for a chance to spot peregrines along the rocky Lake Superior shore, or get a close up look at some of the big ore boats crossing the lake.
Phone Charger: There are tiny hardware stores and gas stations along the North Shore where you might be able to find accessories, but if you need a special cable for any of your technology, the closest big box store will be in Duluth. Make sure to pack or stock up on what you need before leaving town.
Plastic Bag: We always carry a plastic bag when we hike, so we can do our part and help keep the trails and waterways clean. If you see some trash along the way, pick it up, drop it in the bag. When you get back to the trailhead, simply drop your bag in the recycling or trash bin and voila! You’ve helped keep the parks beautiful for everyone who visits.
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