Exploring Minnesota’s North Shore: A Travel Guide

As Minnesota starts to warm up, I’m on a mission to visit places in my home state that I’ve never been to. Recently, that has included the Ely/Boundary Waters area and the North Shore. Both are beloved places here in Minnesota and yet places that I had never been to up until now.

I started with Ely back in April, and early May was dedicated to the North Shore. So here we are!

I love researching and preplanning for trips. I find that it helps me to get a sense of the area and what options are available for things to do. So, a few weeks before my North Shore weekend, I started figuring out what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go. As always, you need to start planning based on where your home base is at, and for this trip that was Tofte, Minnesota.

Even though Tofte is a small town it had everything that I needed, including a cafe, lakeside restaurant, gas station, a general store, and more. Plus, it was close to a lot of state parks and just 34 minutes south of Grand Marais. For accommodations, I found a cute lakefront condo via Airbnb. It was such a cozy spot to enjoy after a full day of hiking and exploring. The view of the lake was great and it even had a wood-burning fireplace, which is always a big thumbs up in my book.

Plus, down a few stairs and you’re on a bluff that overhangs Lake Superior, which was a perfect spot to catch a pretty sunrise.

I can share more about my Airbnb if you’d like (just ask in the comments section below), but for now, I’d love to get into everything I did while exploring the North Shore of Minnesota.

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Things to do in Minnesota’s North Shore

Scroll to the bottom for a handy interactive map that includes most of the places noted in this post. It’s a helpful way to visualize where everything is at and makes it super easy for you to plan your own trip up north.

First things first: If you’re going out on an adventure for the day, make sure to stop at Lockport Marketplace near Lutsen for snacks and supplies. I stopped in a few times for food, firewood, and other essentials. Plus, they serve breakfast and keep coffee brewing all day. Essentially, it’s a little general store that was built in 1928 and has kept all of its charms.

Alright, now that we have that covered, let’s go into what you should plan to do while exploring the North Shore.

Go hiking. There are SO many trail options, and that’s because there are ten state parks along Highway 61 starting at Gooseberry Falls up to the Canadian border. Here are a few of my recommendations (* are trails I went on):

Pro Tip: If you love waterfalls, spring is a great time to go hiking on the North Shore as the falls are typically at their fullest with all the snow melting.

Taken at Temperance River State Park.
Taken at Temperance River State Park.
  • Gooseberry Falls State Park*: North of Two Harbors, Gooseberry Falls highlights include scenic waterfalls, camping, hiking, and biking trails. A popular trail includes the route to the Lower and Upper Falls (Upper Falls Loop* 1.2 miles). If you want to keep going, head to Fifth Falls for fewer crowds (Fifth Falls Loop 2 miles). I also hear that Agate Beach is fun to check out (Agate Beach Loop 1.5 miles).
  • Bean And Bear Lake Loop: Located in Silver Bay, this is a popular hike for Instagrammers, as it has a pretty epic overlook of a pretty lake surrounded by a sea of pine trees. Get there early and get ready to work: It’s a 6.5 mile with over a 1000 ft elevation gain. But it’s worth it!
  • Tettegouche State Park: I wanted to try the Baptism River Trail (2.9 miles) on my way back home, but it ended up being cold and rainy that day. So next time, I guess? Shovel Point and Palisade Head are also supposed to be pretty in the summer or fall. If you’re thinking about stopping, Tettegouche is a great park for hiking, camping, rock climbing, cross-country skiing, and wildlife. P.S., it is pronounced “tet-a-gooch” and I’ve been saying it wrong for a long time!
  • Temperance River State Park*: This was one of my favorite stops. There are trails along the Temperance River Gorge that are quite scenic and I couldn’t get enough of it. You can also head down to the Temperance River Lagoon, where you can watch the river break into Lake Superior. Here, I found a few men fly fishing for the afternoon. It’s peaceful and would make a great picnic spot. I specifically did the Temperance River Falls Loop* (3.3 miles) which I highly recommend.

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Taken at Temperance River State Park.
Taken at Temperance River State Park.
  • Cascade River State Park*: Rocky and rugged, this park reminded me a lot of Temperance River Start Park as trails follow along the Cascade River Gorge. If you’re chasing waterfalls, there are at least six waterfalls that you’ll find here. Five small falls and then the larger Cascade Falls on the Cascade River Loop* (7.3 miles). This trail connects to the Superior Hiking Trail, which I thought was kind of fun to say that I had officially hiked on the SHT!
Taken at Cascade River State Park.
Taken at Cascade River State Park.
  • Judge C.R. Magney State Park: Highlights for this park include more waterfalls, trout fishing, camping, hiking, and wildlife observation. Devil’s Kettle trail (2 miles) was recommended to me and leads to a two-pronged waterfall. Unfortunately, I didn’t get enough time to do take this hike but it was on my list.
  • Grand Portage State Park*: If you drive up to the Canadian border, you’ll find the tallest waterfall in Minnesota. A 120-foot waterfall to be exact. And usually accompanied by a rainbow. High Falls Trail* (1.2 miles) will bring you to the waterfall, where you can wave at our Canadian friends across the river as you snap photos from various viewpoints.
Taken at Grand Portage State Park.
Taken at Grand Portage State Park.

Fun Fact: The Ojibwe called it the ‘Great Carrying Place” as it was the first major detour for them upriver from Lake Superior. To get around it, they had to portage for 9 miles before they could get back onto the river due to the rugged terrain. Hence the name Grand Portage.

Take a scenic drive. Highway 61 is an easy one because that’s typically the route most people take as their exploring all the state parks in the area. It’s the main drag as you drive along the coast of Lake Superior starting at Duluth and all the way up to the Candian border.

Another fun drive is the Gunflint Trail, which is a 57-mile National Scenic Byway that winds through the heart of the Superior National Forest at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) and Canada’s Quetico National Park. It’s a fund drive if you’re looking for wildlife. And if you time it right, you can enjoy a few stops along the way:

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Take a boat tour in the summer. This is a fun thing to do and will give you a feel for how big Lake Superior is. Check the weather though as the lake is known for its gusty winds. And if you want something a bit more adventurous, there are also charter fishing options as well.

Explore Grand Marais. Once named America’s Coolest Small Town (via Budget Travel Magazine), this harbor village is a great place to stop on Highway 61. Big on arts, its natural beauty, and traditional crafts, there’s a lot of inspiring spots in Grand Marais, including:

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” – John Burroughs

  • Artist Point*: There’s a trail that leads back into a magical forest that has grown on a small peninsula. The trees, moss, and light were lovely. With birds singing everywhere. No wonder artists come here for inspiration.
  • Drury Lane Books: A cute little bookstore that’s fun to hop into while you’re in town.
  • Upstate MN: Self-described as “Northwoods modern”, if you’re looking for some up north vibes apparel or decor, this cute gift shop is for you.
  • Joy + Company: This shop is full of an eclectic mix of jewelry, ceramics, records, artwork, and more.
  • North House Folk School*: I stopped by to snap a few photos of the buildings, but you can also enroll in a variety of fun classes, including basketry, woodworking, painting, pizza making, and more.
  • The Blue Moose: A cute garden center and a gift shop. I saw it from the road and was bummed I didn’t make the stop. So don’t make my mistake and let me live vicariously through you!

Go skiing or snowshoeing in the winter. It will be frigid, yes, but there are still some fun activities you can partake in. Lutsen has a ski resort for the bunnies out there, and most of the hiking trails I mentioned above have snowshoeing or cross-country skiing options. Even in the winter, the scenery can still be quite beautiful.

Take a day trip to another country. Depending on where you decide to stay, the Canadian border is an easy day trip if you’re looking for more things to do. From Tofte, where I stayed, the border was just 1 hour and 15 minutes north. And if you go to Grand Portage State Park, you’re just a couple of hundred feet away from Canada when you’re at the Upper Falls. So cool!

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Places to eat along Minnesota’s North Shore

Alright, on to some recommendations for places to grab a bite or drink while you’re driving along the North Shore. I’ve broken it out by the various cities that you’ll drive through. I am very likely missing some good recommendations for Two Harbors and Lutsen, so definitely put some of your recommendations in the comments section below and I’ll add them to the list. As always, * represents where I’ve been.

After your get out of Duluth:

  • New Scenic Cafe (+ Mise en place marketplace)
  • Russ Kendall’s Smoke House*: A great place to pick up fish, cheese, beer, and more for a yummy picnic later on.

Two Harbors:

In Tofte:

  • Bluefin Grille*: Has an excellent menu with lake views. It was a pretty spot to go for dinner to watch the sky change colors for sundown.
  • Coho Cafe + Bakery*: A great place to grab breakfast or lunch with an outdoor patio.

In Lutsen:

In Grand Marais:

Map provided by Wanderlog, for itineraries on iOS and Android

Whew! That was a long one. But it just goes to show that there is SO much you can do along Minnesota’s North Shore. I spent a long weekend there, but you could easily spend an entire week up there and not get bored. It’s such a pretty area and I’m so happy I was able to get a moment to explore it. Until next time.

Let’s go places,

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Have you been to the North Shore of Minnesota? If so, share your favorite place or experience in the comments section below.

All photos on this blog post are mine. Feel free to share but please credit me with a link back to the blog. Much appreciated and thank you for your support!

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