Travel bug: Minnesota’s North Shore

Sunrise over Lake Superior, as viewed from the beach near our Airbnb

My travel posts have been seriously lacking in 2020 because we haven’t really been able to anywhere! This is our first year in years that my husband and I haven’t had a National Park trip on the books (you can read about our past trips here to Badlands Nat’l Park, Glacier Nat’l Park, Zion Nat’l Park, Bryce Canyon Nat’l Park, and Grand Canyon Nat’l Park). It’s alright – we understand that limiting travel is part of slowing the spread of COVID-19 and my humble opinion is that it’s morally irresponsible for people to be hopping on planes right now if they don’t need to be. We have had the chance to take two roadtrips – including one with some of our dear friends to Northern Minnesota in August. This is a lovely part of the Upper Midwest and I’m excited to share the sights we enjoyed.

Minnesota’s North Shore refers to the 200 mile stretch on the Northeastern tip of Minnesota that borders Lake Superior, the northernmost and largest of the inland Great Lakes. The gateway to the North Shore begins in Duluth, Minnesota. Duluth is the fourth largest city in Minnesota (pop. around 85,000) and is home to the University of Minnesota-Duluth state university campus and is a major port / freight center.

Tips for Visiting Minnesota’s North Shore

Our charming little Airbnb in Knife River, MN
  • Where to stay: The downtown area in Duluth offers a number of hotels in a more urban environment. If you’re looking for more of an outdoor adventure (as we were), there are a number of lakeside campgrounds, cottages and smaller independently owned hotels along scenic Highway 61 on the Lake Superior lakeshore. We stayed in a charming Airbnb about 30 minutes north of Duluth in the small town of Knife River. Checking out the lodging search tool from the North Shore Visitor website.
  • How to get there: Northern Minnesota is about a five hour drive from where we live in Wisconsin, but only about two hours from the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area. For someone visiting from outside the upper Midwest, flying might be an easier way to get here, either to the regional Duluth International Airport or through the largest MSP Airport in St. Paul.
  • How to get around: While downtown Duluth is very walkable, you will need a car to access the wooded shoreline North of Duluth.

Where to Eat

The tourism industry helps to support a surprisingly robust food scene in this small city. There’s an emphasis on fresh seafood and Nordic foods/alcohol in this area, too – Minnesotans take their Nordic roots seriously and have really leaned into the hygge trend that has swept the United States in recent years. Just a note here – I’m sharing here some restaurants and breweries we visited on this trip and during my last trip to Duluth in 2017. Some of these locations I visited pre-COVID, but I have verified that the ones I’m sharing here are still open. Restaurants and breweries that are located NORTH of Duluth along the North Shore have their respective community noted! All others are located in Duluth.

  • Bent Paddle Brewing Co.: This brewery does distribute more regionally, but it’s always fun to try a brewery you’re familiar with at their home location AND to see what beers they might have on tap that aren’t available in your market. We brought lunch over and enjoyed their outdoor patio seating. This brewery was SUPER dog-friendly, too – even bringing over a special water bowl and treat for Paisley. This was great customer service and great marketing, because I bought a bag of the treats before we left, too. They don’t serve food here, but you can bring your own in.
  • Betty’s Pies: (Two Harbors) Almost every place I’ve traveled to has some sort of signature regional dessert. In many places, it’s some sort of local fruit-inspired dessert. Betty’s Pies has this and then some. The restaurant (in COVID-19 times) has a walk up window for pie (by the slice or whole) and features delicious seasonal flavors (blackberry peach) and all-around favorites (5-layer chocolate, for example).
A variety of herbs and veggies, growing in the parking lot of Duluth Grill
  • Duluth Grill: The Duluth Grill prides itself on using local, seasonal ingredients and even has converted a large section of their parking lot to raised garden beds to grow some of the produce they use on-site. The Grill offers a large variety of dishes in a diner-like setting. One feature we loved when we visited in 2017 was the grab and go picnic kits, where you could pick and choose out bottles of cheese, bread, and charcuterie items and even borrow a basket to take it with you for a trip up the North Shore.
Build-your-own charcuterie spreads
  • Castle Danger Brewing: (Two Harbors) This microbrewery in downtown Two Harbors features a rotating lineup of their approachable beers (nothing too hoppy or out of left field here) and has snacks available, as well as a food truck setup. When we visited on a Friday evening, there was a Mexican food truck onsite. I have to give them kudos for their sensible approach to COVID-19 distancing. At the time we visited (in August 2020), you could reserve a table online in advance and had 90 minutes to stay at your table.
Riding a ski gondola in the summer is a bit odd, but the views are fantastic!
  • Summit Chalet at Lutsen Mountain: (Lutsen) This was an attraction and restaurant I visited last time I was in Minnesota’s North Shore (in 2017). The ski mountain operates its gondola lift in the summer at a reduced speed for sightseers to take in the gorgeous views of Lake Superior. When you reach the top, the Summit Chalet is a lovely stop for a drink on their outdoor patio or a meal. More info about riding the gondola as a sightseer in the What to Do section below!
  • Hoops Brewing: Hoops Brewing is a basketball-themed microbrewery in downtown Duluth in the Canal Park district. This area is packed full of restaurants to choose from – which is perfect as you can bring your own food in.
  • Voyageur Brewing Company: (Grand Marais) This microbrewery in downtown Grand Marais is the northernmost microbrewery on your way up Lake Superior’s shore into Canada. Voyageur has a lineup of solid flagship beers (my favorite was the Boundary Waters Brunette Brown Ale) and a smaller selection of seasonals. They have bar bites and flights available, as well. We enjoyed their accommodating outdoor patio and delicious soft pretzel (what goes better with beer?) after a day of exploring.
  • Hungry Hippie Tacos: (Grand Marais) My thought is that tacos are always the quintessential crowd pleaser of a menu option because almost any diet can be accommodated. Hungry Hippo is locally famous for their fry bread tacos and featured some funky menu items I’ve never seen before – like a chorizo macaroni and cheese. We got our tacos to go (COVID-19) and enjoyed them at a picnic table along the lake.
  • Northern Waters Smokehaus: This Canal Park eatery features smoked meats AND locally famous smoked fish. Creative deli sandwiches and salads are available to-go during COVID-19. Their menu is mouthwatering and everything tastes oh-so-FRESH. I enjoyed the NWS Salad with smoked salmon and a zesty wasabi dressing… seriously delicious.
  • Cedar Coffee Company: (Two Harbors) This coffee shop is adjacent to a bike and outdoor shop and features a great wooded outdoor patio. They have locally roasted coffee, locally brewed beer (from Castle Danger mentioned above) and a delicious menu of food that you can enjoy onsite or grab and go to eat during a hike later in the day.
  • Vikre Distillery: This seriously hygge-inspired distillery has you feeling warm and fuzzy from their cozy Nordic vibes AND their liquor. We got a to-go cocktail kit from Vikre and built our own cocktails at home. We got one featuring aquavit, a liquor I’d not heard of before but very much enjoyed in our paloma-inspired cocktails. This is also in the Canal Park district of Duluth.

What else to see and do:

We used downtown Duluth as our area for dining and brewery-hopping, but both of my trips were largely focused on the scenic drive and hiking. You’ll see a number of parks noted here.

The Duluth Lakewalk is a fantastic publicly accessible way to get out to the water – I love that Duluth had the foresight to keep their waterways from being fully turned into private property.
  • The Duluth Lakewalk: This paved trail system (and part of it is boardwalk) connects a number of parks and districts along the harbor and Lake Superior shoreline. It spans 7 miles from downtown and is a lovely bike, walk or route to rollerblade.
  • The Summit Express Gondola: Lutsen Mountain operates their ski gondolas at a decreased speed in summer and fall for visitors to take in the gorgeous views of the lake and the fall color. You can enjoy a drink or a bite to eat at the top at the Summit Chalet.
A view of Canal Park district and the active Duluth harbor from Enger Tower Park
  • Enger Tower Park: Enger Tower Park is located on the top of the bluff in Duluth and offers a short climb to the top of a tower for a stunning view of downtown, the harbor and the lake beyond. It also features a Japanese peace garden honoring Duluth’s Sister City relationship with Ohara-Isumi City. The garden features a lovely peace bell and gorgeous setting just minutes from downtown.
Gorgeous overlooks like this grace the drive from Duluth to the Canadian border
  • Drive the Scenic Highway 61: Highway 61 weaves along the Lake Superior shoreline to the Canadian border just north of Grand Portage, MN. This mile marker by mile marker listing outlines the many attractions you can find on the way North out of Duluth.
  • Gooseberry Falls State Park: This state park features lovely hikes for all experience levels and gives you a chance to see some beautiful waterfalls.
  • Black Beach in Silver Bay: The taconite in the region contributes to a black sand appearance on some of the regional beaches. While some of the beaches are rocky (as Great Lakes beaches often are), it’s nice to dip your feet in on a warm day. Lake Superior is, as always, sure to cool you down.
Yes – there are guardrails here!
  • Palisade Head, Beaver Bay: This overlook over Lake Superior offers jaw-dropping views without the need for much hiking. If you have a fear of heights, this might not be for you!
  • Artist’s Point, Grand Marais: This lovely beach and walking area is right off of a main road – so you can quickly access the beautiful views without too long of a hike. From here you can also hike out to the lighthouse in the Grand Marais harbor.
  • Grand Portage State Park, Grand Portage: This state park is a few hundred yards from the Canadian border (which when we were there was closed due to COVID-19). The park features hikes of varying lengths and waterfall views of waterfalls both in the United States and some partially in Canada.

A weekend away on Minnesota’s North Shore was a nice respite from being at home, but still offered us the chance to travel safely and still follow good health practices. If you’re looking to plan a trip to Duluth or points North, be sure to check out the traveler resources from Minnesota’s Northern Shore or Visit Duluth. Happy travels!

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