For over a year, I pondered and planned a road trip to North Shore Minnesota and in September 2021, I finally made it happen.
Despite being only 3 days long, I have never in my life was able to see so much in a region like I did when I went here and in this post, I’d like to share every place I saw, each day that I spent in North Shore Minnesota. To put it mildly, I ended up seeing more in those 3 days than most people would in a week (or more). And this was because of the pace of my trip that allowed me to see and do so much there (as you’ll see).
Now some spots that I’ll be talking about in this post oneoare placeups I’m going to omit the details of out of respect to locals, but I can tell you that you will be able to find them if you do the research on them (this is what I had to do to find some of the amazing areas there).
- 1 Prelude: How my road trip to North Shore Minnesota came about.
- 2 What is North Shore Minnesota?
- 3 About kayaking in North Shore Minnesota (Sea cave info):
- 4 About finding northern lights in North Shore Minnesota (It’s not easy):
- 5 About North Shore’s scenic drive (61):
- 6 This 3 day road trip to North Shore Minnesota was actually 10 days long:
- 7 The 10 day road trip to and back from North Shore itinerary:
- 8 My 3 day road trip itinerary in North Shore Minnesota:
- 9 Day 1: 4 North Shore locations explored.
- 10 Day 2: 6 North Shore locations explored.
- 11 Day 3: 8 North Shore locations explored.
- 12 Finishing up our road trip to North Shore:
Prelude: How my road trip to North Shore Minnesota came about.
One of the people I follow on Instagram (Everchanginghorizons) posted an image he took from this area and I was stunned by what I saw. It was a picture of one of the many beautiful places in North Shore Minnesota.
After that, I began browsing more places on Instagram for this region and was amazed by the fact that I had never heard of this area before. To me, many of the spots I saw there looked like the Oregon Coast, and even the Washington Coast.
Some places even resembled the Maine and California Coasts too. And in terms of geography, I never knew Minnesota State actually had a coast to begin with!
After learning about this, I decided to share this info with my usual road trip buddy and it just so happened, in 2021, he was moving from NYC to Minnesota. I figured such an event was an opportunity to meet up with him and explore the North Shore.
I was so excited about this trip that beforehand I even wrote a post about the 10 places to see on the Minnesota Coast. In hindsight, I ended up exploring much more (and only in 3 days).
Before I get to the specific spots, let me share a few important details about this area:
What is North Shore Minnesota?
It’s a 140+ mile coastal area of Minnesota State. The body of water you’ll find there is Lake Superior and the entire region presents many opportunities for road trips, hikes, kayaking and many more adventures to explore. It is a popular area and highly worth seeing.
It begins in Duluth City and ends in Grand Portage. Along the way between these 2 spots are many places to see and explore.
About kayaking in North Shore Minnesota (Sea cave info):
You’ll find sea caves all throughout North Shore, but getting to them is a bit tricky. It requires that:
- You actually rent them from a nearby location that will actually do it.
- Find a spot to take them out onto the shore.
- Make sure the weather conditions are such that it’s even allowed (anything windy is a no go).
There are multiple locations available on North Shore to do this (kayak rentals that is), and for us, the spots we later learned were pretty good for disembarking into the water was:
- Black Sand Beach.
- Tettugouche State Park (you’ll find sea caves here).
- Areas near Palisade Head.
- Any area where you can literally walk down to a beach (a lot of spots in North Shore are huge cliffs).
So plan ahead and of course accordingly.
About finding northern lights in North Shore Minnesota (It’s not easy):
If you didn’t already know, you can literally see the Northern Lights in North Shore and in terms of timing, what I heard was that it’s year round. But you have to still get lucky and for us, that didn’t happen.
What I can tell you is that certain things need to be present:
- The northern lights actually have to be there.
- The more north you travel to the end of North Shore, the better your chances.
- Cloudy weather will prevent that from happening.
In fact, in our case, we did have such an opportunity present itself (which we took), but clouds kept us from seeing anything and it was a bummer. Given that this was my third attempt at seeing the northern lights and failing, it was one of the few disappointments in this road trip.
The first 2 times I attempted to see the Northern Lights were:
- In New Foundland when I did my Eastern Canada road trip.
- And another in Western Canada, when I traveled across the Canadian Rockies.
About North Shore’s scenic drive (61):
North Shore’s main coastal road which is scenic drive 61 is where you’ll find pretty much all the best spots on the coast. The drive itself rarely has any actual scenic views other than the coast, but overall, this will be the main road you take when you go there.
Seeing the fall/autumn colors in North Shore Minnesota:
My research showed that fall bloom in North Shore is somewhere in mid September through early October. Logistically, I was only able to see this area in mid September and had hoped to catch the autumn colors there.
Sadly, this was not the case. Perhaps it was a unique year, or perhaps it wasn’t, but either way, consider late September as being the best time to go here if you wish to see the fall colors.
This 3 day road trip to North Shore Minnesota was actually 10 days long:
While the actual exploration of North Shore was 3 days long, I decided to drive there and being that I live in New York City, it wasn’t going to be a quick trip either.
To reach the North Shore, I would have drive about 1,400 miles and while that would take quite a bit of time, I decided to make the best out of it, leave several days early and explore places along the way.
My buddy (the Minnesota resident) would meet me “halfway” and we would then explore North Shore for whatever days we had left, I would drop him off back home, and then drive home myself (while exploring other spots on the way).
And so, this is what ended up happening:
The 10 day road trip to and back from North Shore itinerary:
Day 2: I explored Ohio (Cuyahoga Valley National Park) and made my way to Traverse City Michigan (my friend flew out from Minnesota to meet me there).
Day 4: We finally reached the North Shore, and explored a few places there.
Day 5: We explored most of the North Shore in Minnesota and stayed in a Casino close to the border there.
Day 6: We worked our way back to the start of North Shore (Duluth city) and stayed the night there.
Day 7: We drove back to my buddy’s place in Minnesota and explored pieces of Wisconsin State.
Day 8: Explored a bit of Minnesota’s Rochester area.
Day 9: The drive back home began and I drove for 12 hours to reach Columbus, Ohio.
Day 10: I explored Hocking Hills State Park (in Ohio), and then proceeded to drive for 8 hours back home to New York to conclude this trip.
Now 3 of those days were spent in North Shore and while I saw so much in that time, I have to also admit I saw a ton of other things throughout the other regions I crossed. I’ll be making separate articles and linking them here (or throughout my site) so you can see.
But let’s focus on the 3 specific days I spent in North North Minnesota and what I saw (It was a lot).
My 3 day road trip itinerary in North Shore Minnesota:
I’ll be covering each day and the locations I explored. I won’t include all of the pictures (there’s literally 100s), but I’ll keep it to the best ones I was able to take.
Day 1: 4 North Shore locations explored.
We reached Duluth in the afternoon hours and started exploring whatever we could before the day ran out.
1) First we checked out Two Harbors and explored the train museum there.
The town was nice, the museum was pretty cool, but for us, the nearby park and marina with the giant boat harbor was what truly shined here.
2) Then we checked out and hiked through Gooseberry Falls State Park.
Gooseberry Falls was amazing. And considering it’s location, it’s one of the best waterfalls to see near Duluth.
We did a lot of exploration here, a bunch of impromptu hiking and got a lot of pictures because how could we not?
Overall, while out trip to this park was only about 30 minutes to an hour, I strongly recommend you take A LOT longer to explore this park.
In our case, we felt we saw enough with this waterfall and got enough of the views. Plus we had a little bit of daylight left to explore some nearby spots.
3) We then explored Split Rock Lighthouse.
Split Rock Lighthouse was one of the major places I wanted to explore in North Shore and we got our chance to do it on the first day we were there!
The area is beautiful to explore, and the hike to the shore is pretty easy to reach.
Overall, this is a very picturesque place to check out for multiple reasons. Reaching this famous location involves taking about a 10 minute hike down from the parking lot to the water area.
From there, you will have a few spots where you can take nice photos of the lighthouse and/or just get a nice look of it with amazing views of Lake Superior.
4) With 2 hours before sundown, we explored Black Beach:
We were told Black Beach was a fun place to check out and while the beach itself was not too exciting (the sand was more like dark grey than anything), there was a giant hill we climbed up to the top of right by that beach.
The climb itself was an incredible (and a bit dangerous) experience, but that was an awesome way to finish up the day! The picture you see here is from the top of the “mountain” we climbed.
It was only about 50 feet high, but involved a lot of boulder climbing and we didn’t have any gear. We just had to do this climb as is.
Once we were done, we then decided to drive back south to Duluth City to stay the night at an awesome Holiday Inn Express hotel.
Day 2: 6 North Shore locations explored.
Usually every day that my buddy and I are on a road trip, we’ll wake up very early because the distance we need to cover is vast (usually 500+ miles a day if not over 1,000). But in this case, being that the North Shore is pretty small in length, we decided to take our time.
We woke up around 8, got breakfast nearby and took our time traveling.
1) Split Rock State Park (not the lighthouse):
While Split Rock Lighthouse is one of the jewels in this region, we decided to explore the park itself and there is a ton to see there. There are many waterfalls, gorges and trails to check out, which we did. A few miles of hiking was done here.
2) Palisade Head:
Palisade Head is a giant overlook region you can drive to the top of.
In fact, I think it’s one of the highest points in all of North Shore.
Up there, you not only get great views of the surrounding area as well as Lake Superior, but you also can hike a bit and see gorges, crevices in the rocks and more.
We did explore a bunch of these spots in Palisade Head and even thought that some of the crevices could lead us down to the shoreline.
Trust me when I say it’s not possible and I don’t even recommend giving it a try because it is dangerous.
3) Tettegouche State Park (they have sea caves for kayaking):
Only 10 minutes away from Palisade Head is this awesome state park.
It’s gigantic, and like Split Rock State Park, has a coastal hike, and in shore park to explore with waterfalls, trails and a lot of beautiful sights.
My buddy and I first explored the High Falls trail of this park and while he turned back to go to the car, I did a bigger 5 mile loop that day.
When I returned to the parking lot, we decided to explore the shoreline of this park.
One thing to note about this park is that it has sea caves and if you can find a decent rental area (for a good price that is), there are places near there where you can take the kayak and do some shoreline exploration.
For us, that particular day was a miss because it was very windy and no rental companies wanted to risk it.
We did however do the “Shovel Point” trail which was a pretty nice walk around the edge of this park on the coast.
4) Sugarloaf Cove:
This was the next spot we explored and honestly, we didn’t stay long because the views weren’t that amazing. It’s a nice spot to potentially kayak from though.
5) Secret Gorge Waterfall trail:
Not every area I wanted to explore in North Shore was publicly known and this particular area is an example of that. I can only say it’s between Grand Marais and Grand Portage and takes time to find, but it’s a trail that is literally in the water which you take upstream.
You’ll cross 2 waterfalls, both are small, but it’s the region they are located in that makes this all so majestic.
The first waterfall gorge is beautiful, but not quite so stunning. You have to continue walking upstream before the gorge gets tight and at the end of it lies one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen in my life.
It’s also a waterfall, but it has a cave and the views are something else folks. It’s incredible to think that the parking area that leads to this river is so simple and hardly anyone could think it would lead to such an amazing spot, but we are happy we found it (I did hours of research to get here).
Note: You will get wet here. Wear good hiking shoes and water proof socks too. In my case:
- I wore the Salomon Speedcross sneakers.
- I also wore the Randy Sun waterproof socks (excellent for this area).
6) Judge CR Magney State Park (Devils Kettle Falls):
I was on cloud 9 after the gorge waterfall because the payoff for finding it was massive (and the views were incredible). But we had a few hours left before sundown and decided to make the best of it.
We visited this next state park and did a 1-2 mile hike up to see Devils Kettle Falls. It’s a beautiful 2 sided waterfall which goes into a cave. We got very close to it and really enjoyed the views. Being that it was getting close to sundown, no one else was there and it was awesome to have this park to ourselves.
From there, we traveled to Grand Portage and stayed at the Casino there (that wasn’t exactly a grand experience, but we had no choice).
Day 3: 8 North Shore locations explored.
We woke up pretty early, had breakfast at the casino and swiftly left. We continued as far north as possible to reach the border (but not cross it).
1) Grand Portage State Park:
This was a cool park to start the day.
There’s a river there that divides Canada and the U.S and besides that, there is a pretty beautiful trail there to a “High Falls on Pigeon River” available. It’s large and quite scenic.
However, because we had to make it all the way back down to Duluth that day, we couldn’t stay long.
Plus certain limitations on where and how we could hike here made us leave pretty quickly and by limitations, I mean a lot of the park is gated for safety reasons (including the views of the waterfall) and it was also raining a lot the morning we got to this park.
2) Grand Portage National Monument:
A cool little spot we found heading south on 64 (the scenic drive in North Shore).
It’s an old museum of colonial houses and more.
I rarely explore these things, but in this case, it was a nice area to check out.
It’s right by the shore and on a good day, you can even look out into Lake Superior and see Isle Royale National Park (we didn’t see it that day).
Exploring this spot was a nice “shakeup” to our usual “see only the most exotic nature destinations” habits.
3) A small Easter egg (Hollow Rock):
This is a natural bridge you’ll find off the North Shore, but it’s hard to spot unless you actually stop there and look. For us, we drove past it, but later realized what it is.
4) Return to the secret gorge waterfall:
I wanted to do some video filming in this area and did a quick hike through this gorge again. I rarely am so enthralled by a location that I keep coming back to it, but I don’t know when I’ll actually be able to see this place again, so why waste it? I re explored it again and it was certainly worth it!
5) Manitou River Falls (the only North Shore coastal waterfall):
One of the “secret locations” I wanted to find was this place and I literally looked through all of North Shore on a satellite map to do it. I saw tons of people posting pictures of this area and basically here is what you need to know:
It’s a waterfall that goes into Lake Superior, and the only one of it’s kind. To get there, you can either kayak (find nearby spots to do it), or you can try to ask locals if you can visit the roads nearby to hike there.
A lot of this area is private land and there were no trespassing signs all around. We couldn’t get in and it was a bummer, but I included an Instagram post to it in case you ever get there.
Next time I go there, I’ll do my best to make it but not only is it the actual waterfall, but also there are sea caves to explore there too.
6) Cascade River State Park:
This was a park we missed on Day 2’s trip and decided to make up for today.
It’s a beautiful park with scenic waterfalls, gorges and tons a lot to hike through and see. Highly recommended.
7) Temperance River State Park:
This was the last spot we explored before heading down to Duluth.
It’s a beautiful park with a nice gorge and bridge crossing it (road 64) that you can hike under.
Additionally, if you go further upriver, you’ll find more waterfalls, hikes and places to check out.
For us, we had done so much hiking that by that point it was enough.
We had enough of a good time seeing the gorge and coastal area here to be satisfied with what we saw.
Here is a picture from this area:
There’s even swimming holes and places in this small region where you can fish and even kayak on.
We felt after this area, we wouldn’t have much else to see, but we were wrong!
8) Cross River Falls:
This area felt like a better version of Temperance River (and it’s close by too).
It’s another bridges with huge waterfall underneath and it’s even bigger than the one in Temperate River.
There is a less official path here and it’s less known about like the others, but I am glad my buddy and I stopped here to check it out.
It was a nice way to end the day’s trip.
Overall, in a matter of 3 days, we saw nearly 20 iconic spots on Minnesota’s North Shore and explore one or more spots within those regions.
This certainly made for an eventual road trip, being that so many of these spots were so close to one another.
And it’s a trip I look forward to doing again in the future!
Finishing up our road trip to North Shore:
On our way back, we did find another area which I can’t disclose because it’s on private land, but we only saw it on the satellite map, which is basically the same image I found from that Instagram guy I told you about that originally brought me to this place.
I can’t disclose where it is (only include an Instagram post), but it is possible to kayak there.
Staying in Duluth (again):
Duluth itself has some really nice spots worth checking out. At night though, I’d be a little more careful though, but other than that, there’s cool restaurants, pretty good food and bars to explore there.
Concluding the trip:
The next day we excited Duluth and continued home to my buddy’s place as the above itinerary showed. Overall, the 3 day trip I had in North Shore was very satisfying and frankly speaking, out of all the road trips I’ve done, this is the one where I managed to see and do pretty much most of what I had intended to (with a few extra surprises).
That itself made the trip well worth it and possibly something I’ll redo in the future.
Yes, I am fully aware that North Shore has many more spots to explore, both on the coast and further west with the many lakes there were, but given the tight schedule we were on, I think what we accomplished in 3 days was pretty extraordinary and completely satisfying to say the least.
Now of course if you are planning your own road trip to the North Shore, I hope I’ve given you a lot of ideas to add to your itinerary but I have also included this post on TripAdvisor North Shore tips to help with that. You will find a lot more ideas there and be able to mix it up with what suites your preferences.
Thanks so much for reading this road trip post on North Shore Minnesota and I hope it helps you explore this area if you decide to go there too!