Skirting the jagged, glacier-worn Sawtooth Mountains, this winding road follows the rocky shoreline of Lake Superior, passing lighthouses and cascading streams and penetrating the only part of the continental United States where the northern boreal landscape thrives.
The drive begins in Duluth, where you can obtain a free guide from Visit Duluth. After viewing the Aerial Lift Bridge and visiting the group of museums known as The Depot, pick up Minn. 61—the old meandering route, not the new four-lane expressway—and go northeast. Resort development sprinkles the first 30 miles, relieved by stands selling wild rice and smoked fish. About 4 miles beyond downtown Duluth at Lester River—the traditional beginning of the North Shore—walks, overlooks, and stairways reveal Lake Superior’s immensity. In surface area, it is the world’s largest freshwater lake.
Beyond Two Harbors the road climbs and twists among steep headlands, passing through tunnels bored through Silver Cliff and Lafayette Bluff to avoid the precipitous outer edge. Ancient volcanoes created the North Shore’s bedrock, which was then sculptured by the same glaciers that carved out the Great Lakes. A remnant of virgin white pine forest is visible as you cross the Encampment River.
From the Gooseberry River highway bridge, you can see the Gooseberry River drop 100 feet into the lake. This series of three cataracts, the centerpiece of Gooseberry Falls State Park, is the first of eight extraordinary state parks along the drive. Though this sight is all most visitors see of the park, other highlights include the Gitchi Garni Trail, with lake vistas and access to the Superior Hiking Trail, a 200-mile path along the North Shore’s rocky spine.
The road continues east, crossing over Split Rock River to Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, where a restored lighthouse sits atop a 130-foot cliff that juts into rocky shoals. First lit in 1910 after 215 men drowned during a disastrous shipping season, it now serves only visitors. The Split Rock History Center has exhibits on shipwrecks and commercial lake fishing.
Between Split Rock and Beaver Bay—one of the oldest continuous European settlements along the North Shore, platted in 1856—the terrain becomes more precipitous. But beyond the planned community of Silver Bay, the landscape softens. Just ahead is Tettegouche State Park, with 22 miles of trails through mountainous hardwood forest dotted with lakes. One of the park’s newest acquisitions, Palisade Head, rises 214 feet above the lake, with a spectacular view of the far-off Apostle Islands. Peregrine falcons nest nearby.
The drive continues across several rivers to Taconite Harbor Observation Area, where you can watch the action on the lake. Just beyond Cross River, a road winds down a bluff to a peninsula, where you find a reproduction of Father Baraga’s Cross. The missionary erected it in the mid-1840s in thanks for his safe passage across the lake in a storm. About 3 miles beyond Cross River you’ll find Temperance River State Park; thus named because there is no “bar” at the river’s mouth.
Soon the drive enters Superior National Forest, the heart of the boreal forest, characterized by mixed stands of balsam fir and spruce interspersed with red pine, white birch, and quaking aspen. Its inhabitants include moose, wolves, black bears, and loons. Near Tofte, outcroppings such as 1,526-foot Carlton Peak break the gentle terrain. For a sweeping view of Lake Superior, hike to the peak top from a Superior Hiking Trail parking lot. From up there you can also see how jagged the Sawtooth Mountains have become.
The drive continues through Lutsen to Cascade River State Park . If you take a short walk upstream you’ll see the river dropping off a cliff. Go a bit farther and you’ll find a rain forest setting, with water spilling over mossy ledges. Beyond, the road passes Cutface Wayside, which features a massive lava wall with red sandstone deposits.
About 5 miles ahead is Grand Marais, a resort town and artist colony at the base of a hill with a picturesque natural harbor and lighthouse, fine restaurants, and shops. But if you don’t go on, you’ll miss the most spectacular stretch of the drive.
A sense of remoteness envelops the road as it continues deeper into the realm of the early fur trappers and missionaries. Breaks in the trees frame Lake Superior to the right. The lake can appear to be calm and serene but may quickly release its legendary fury, thrashing icy waves against the shore. Just past the second intersection with Cty. Rd. 14, look for the “Moose Area” sign, a good spot to see a moose. Mile-long Paradise Beach is a wonderful place to experience the area’s solitude. Turn off the car motor and listen to the wind in the forest and to the lake’s surf.
The road continues through Hovland and enters the Grand Portage Indian Reservation, an area where Ojibwa Indians have lived for generations. Beyond this point, geologic processes have created spectacular mountains, ridges, and peninsulas. Grand Portage Bay, surrounded by jagged peaks, was the start of the historic Grand Portage between Lake Superior and Fort Charlotte, an 8.5-mile trail trudged by voyageurs and American Indians to avoid the rapids-filled Pigeon River. Their story is retold and preserved at Grand Portage National Monument, a reproduction of the stockade of the North West Company.
Beyond Grand Portage, the road climbs several hundred feet to a crest near 1,348-foot Mount Josephine, which juts at a right angle into Lake Superior. From a scenic overlook you can see the rugged escarpment, Lake Superior, Wauswaugoning Bay, the Susie Islands, and, on a clear day, Michigan’s Isle Royale. Here, a state rest area overlooks the bay and offers regional information.
As you’ve come this far, you might want to follow the North Shore Drive across the international border to Thunder Bay, Ontario.