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Highway 61: Duluth to Canada
The Scenic North Shore Drive along Lake Superior
Minnesota’s Highway 61 heading north from Duluth, Minnesota to the Canadian border takes you along the beautiful shores of Lake Superior. This historic and scenic drive offers up rugged topography with rock cliffs, expansive lake views with cobblestone beaches, state parks and forests, road tunnels, quaint restaurants and shops, museums, national monuments, recreation trails, and more. And bring your passport, just in case you decide to head into Canada before you come back!
Begin your ride in Duluth, the only major seaport in Minnesota. Coupled with its sister city, Superior, Wisconsin, the area is known as the “Twin Ports.” Duluth sits at the very western tip of Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake by area. From the Port of Duluth, seagoing vessels can access the Atlantic Ocean via the Great Lakes – a distance of 2,300 water miles. But with the city’s maritime prowess, it’s no surprise that Duluth would host the Great Lakes Aquarium, the only all-freshwater aquarium in the U.S.
The Aerial Lift Bridge dominates the city view; built in 1905 and modified by 1930, this vertical lift bridge allows major vessels to cross between Lake Superior and the Ports of Duluth and Superior, which are inside a protective peninsula called Minnesota Point. The bridge goes up 25-30 times daily during the busy shipping season; visitors can watch the action close up as they hear the horn sequences that blow between the ships and bridge operators.
Plenty of activities and events take place around the bridge in Canal Park, an old warehouse district bustling with restaurants, nightlife, the Amsoil Arena, the Lake Superior Marine Museum, the William A. Irvin Floating Ship Museum, and the 4.2 mile-long lakewalk and lighthouse pier. The rest of the city, including downtown, stair-steps up hills that rise about 600 feet back from the lake – giving Duluth one of its nicknames, the “San Francisco of the Midwest” due to the similar topography (alas, not a similar climate).
Trivia: Duluth is home to the first modern indoor mall built in the United States (1915), is considered the official birthplace of pie à la mode, and along with nearby Hibbing is the original home of Bob Dylan.
Starting north along Highway 61 from where Interstate 35 ends, it doesn’t take long to get nice views of the lakeshore and the first attraction: the Glensheen Historic Estate. A 38-room mansion built in 1908, the estate covers 7.5 acres of lakefront property and is now managed by the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Tours of various levels of the home’s interior, the carriage house, and the rest of the grounds are available; hours vary throughout the year, so call ahead (218-726-8910).
Further past Duluth, you have two options: for time, many follow today’s Highway 61, a four-lane divided expressway that gets you to Two Harbors in about 20 minutes. Those with extra time can follow the old road, which runs closer to shore. Over its length, it goes by Old 61, County 61, Congdon Road, Shore Drive, and Scenic Drive. Little eateries along the old route focus on seafood, such as the New Scenic Café, known for tuna tacos and mussels, or Russ Kendall’s Smoke House, a longtime area favorite specializing in smoked fish. In Knife River, the Great Lakes Candy Kitchen’s third-generation candymakers can satisfy your sweet tooth.
Both roads reunite just before entering Two Harbors, which sprouted from two previous villages called Agate Bay and Burlington. Each town had their own harbor; when they merged they settled on the name Two Harbors and the new town incorporated in 1888. Two Harbors thrived on the railroad and lake shipping connections, and it’s still a big factor in the local economy; over 10 million tons of ore are shipping from the port in Two Harbors each year.
While checking out Two Harbors, tour the Edna G. Tugboat, the Two Harbors Lighthouse Station (the oldest continuously running on the North Shore), or the Duluth & Iron Range Depot Museum. The downtown area also offers antique shops, restaurants, and several art galleries, including Waterfront Gallery and Silver Creek Art Gallery.
Past Two Harbors, Highway 61 stays a two-lane highway for the rest of the journey. A stop at Betty’s Pies, a famous food find since 1956, allows you to choose from over 300 pies they bake every day. Across the road, you can follow a path down to Kelsey Beach and enjoy the water cascading across the dark cobblestones. You’ll also find the Silver Cliff Tunnel, a nice addition to the drive – especially because it removed the most treacherous curve on the highway when it opened! A number of beautiful bluffs, overlooks, and state parks lie ahead.
Though it’s not the only state park and waterfall on Scenic Highway 61, Gooseberry Falls State Park is probably the most popular. The Gooseberry River spills over five waterfalls and runs through a beautiful gorge on its way to Lake Superior, making for photo ops a ’plenty. Extensive hiking and mountain bike trails wind through the park, and Agate Beach is covered with the lava flow rocks that helped shape this landscape tens of thousands of years ago. Also, check out the terrific stonework in many of the park’s buildings; Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers constructed them during the Great Depression.
Less than ten minutes later, you’ll find Split Rock State Park the beautiful scene of Split Rock Lighthouse. Built in 1910, it is a National Historic Landmark. The lighthouse is a 54-foot tower perched 130 feet above Lake Superior on a sheer cliff. Visitors to the lighthouse can take tours of the structure, the original tower and lens, the fog-signal building, the oil house, and the three keepers' houses, most restored their late 1920s appearance. Tours of the lighthouse structure take place during between May 15 and October 15 each year; the Visitors Center is open year ‘round.
The next town up is the city of Silver Bay, home to a large taconite processing and distribution center, which you’ll clearly see right along Highway 61. Tettegouche State Park awaits next, with Shovel Point’s spectacular overlooks and Palisade Head, the highest cliff in Minnesota: 350 feet. Look for signs directing you to Palisade Head, where the gravel road will lead you to incredible views of Lake Superior, Shovel Point, and more cliffs. On a clear day, it’s possible to see the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin, more than 25 miles away. Rock climbers love this spot, too.
Plenty of hiking trails are available; many approach inland lakes that are only accessible by foot. Minnesota Highway 1 starts here, where you can head inland to Finland or Ely on the return trip if you’d like.
Meanwhile Highway 61 continues the picturesque journey. Just past Little Marais, you’ll find George H. Crosby Manitou State Park, which offers more waterfalls that cascade through volcanic canyons amidst the forest. Extensive trails wind through, up, and down the increasingly rugged topography we’re seeing as we continue to head northeast.
Heading into Cook County, which occupies the rest of Minnesota’s Arrowhead region, the views just keep mesmerizing as you reach the Temperance River and Temperance River State Park, where you can hike to Carlton Peak, which stands 1,526 feet high – about 925 feet above Lake Superior. The Temperance River Gorge is a great view from the Highway 61 bridge, or the pedestrian bridge closer to the shore.
Tiny Tofte is next, where you’ll find the North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum, which details commercial fishing in Lake Superior – which has plenty of treacherous tumultuous history and fascinating stories.
More peaks, referred to as “mountains” more frequently, show up along this stretch. Lutsen is home to Lutsen Mountain Ski Resort, one of the northernmost ski areas in the U.S. and the largest downhill ski area in the Midwest. This area is part of the Sawtooth Mountains, and activities can include an alpine slide, over half a mile long; the North Shore Mountain Tram, which runs to Moose Mountain which towers 1,000 feet above Lake Superior; several miles of hiking trails; and Voyageur canoe tours of the Poplar River.
More waterfalls and a great lookout tower on Cascade Mountain await at Cascade River State Park, just a few miles past Lutsen.
From a high perch, Highway 61 descends into Grand Marais, named by French explorers after a marsh that bordered Lake Superior. Here, the Gunflint Trail branches off and heads for the interior Boundary Waters region (Canada’s getting pretty close). Grand Marais’ downtown has a variety of unique shops, and the lovely harbor area provides not only nice views of the lake, but the jagged teeth of the Sawtooth Mountains to the southwest – those are the ones we just drove past on Highway 61. There are also historical sites like the Lightkeeper’s House Museum, the Johnson Heritage Post Gallery, and the Fish House in the downtown area.
Grand Marais has the Best Western PLUS Superior Inn & Suites, perched right on the beach.
North of Grand Marais, it’s about a 40-minute drive to the border – if you head straight for it. There are other things to and enjoy, though, like Judge CR Magney State Park, with the peculiar Devil’s Kettle waterfall that forks on its way down. The Brule River, which includes the Devil’s Kettle waterfall, is a great fishing spot and is also popular with whitewater kayakers – but it’s not for novices!
As you continue through this stretch of the Grand Portage National Monument, part of the Superior National Forest, you go through tiny Hovland and into the Grand Portage Indian Reservation, including Red Rock. Numerous opportunities to stop and admire Lake Superior’s waves and shoreline exist along this stretch, which often runs at lake level.
Rounding some higher bluffs, you reach Grand Portage. Before cars, trains, and airplanes, goods had to be transported somehow, and boats were often easiest. However, the rivers in this area were too rough for boats, and traders had to “portage” between interior sections and Lake Superior; countless furs and other goods passed along the Grand Portage Trail through the centuries, first by Native Americans and later by Europeans. The trail covers 8 ½ miles and bypasses the waterfalls and rapids on the last 20 miles of the Pigeon River (the border) that made boating so difficult.
The Grand Portage National Monument holds a reconstructed fur trading post as plenty of artifacts and exhibits on traditional Ojibwa culture. Check out the Heritage Center, the Historic Depot with plenty of buildings and gardens, or hike some of the trails. The views are spectacular. You can even jump a boat to Michigan – Isle Royale National Park lies about 15 miles to the east – in Michigan waters – and is as close to pristine wilderness as anything you might experience in the country. It is often visible from Highway 61 when you’re traveling on a bluff.
But we’re heading northeast over land, because just beyond Grand Portage, you reach the international border with Canada. The Pigeon River separates the U.S. from Canada; Minnesota from Ontario; the Central Time Zone from the Eastern Time Zone; Cook County from … well, you get the idea. Everything here changes except the scenery. A major series of waterfalls (including High Falls and Middle Falls) and plenty of rapids characterize the Pigeon for about 20 miles upriver; where Highway 61 meets it, things are a little more calm… at least naturally.
Here, the international border means U.S. and Canadian Border Patrols and checkpoints. You have one last “turnaround” option to stay in the U.S.A. right before the Pigeon River bridge; if you don’t use it, well, you’re going to Canada. The Pigeon River itself isn’t very wide at this point and the road bridge is one you might not even take notice of in most other places. However, the presence of border signs, stations, and flags will remind you otherwise.
If you choose to go to Canada, be sure you and everyone you’re with is carrying a valid passport. The Ontario Welcome Center lies just beyond the inspection station. Ontario Highway 61 continues north to Thunder Bay, about 40 miles (and we should say 64 kilometers) distant; of course you can return to the U.S. and Minnesota as well, just be sure to have the proper documents ready on the American side too. And then you can work your way back to Duluth, or explore more of Minnesota’s interior, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, or whatever tickles your fancy. Happy roadtripping, eh?