Having traveled Minnesota’s Scenic North Shore a few times, you might think we’d have found everything there is to enjoy, right? Wrong. We spent a week traveling from Duluth to the Canadian border along Highway 61, aka the Scenic North Shore. From locally-sourced maple lattes to seeing Canada across a lake, we enjoyed exploring Cook County in northeast Minnesota, along Lake Superior.
Starting our experience with a couple of days in Lutsen, we loved taking in the fall colors on Lutsen Mountains and its neighbors. With the Superior National Forest calling the area home, we inhaled the vibrant orange, yellow and brown of the trees hugging the hillsides.
Our visit to Lutsen included a ride on the Summit Express Gondola, which takes you over the treetops, offering majestic views of the tree-covered mountains on one side and Lake Superior on the other. Our gondola ride dropped us off on Moose Mountain – popular with skiers and snowboarders during winter – where we hiked along trails that took us to the edge of bluffs and cliffs. We noticed some people standing fairly close to the edges for selfies and other photos. I’m good standing a few feet from the cliff, where you’ll see the same trees in the background without fearing falling hundreds of feet down.
As we hiked the area, so many paths tempted us to explore areas off the main route. Checking out open-air ski lifts, old buildings, trees and plants, we enjoyed spending an hour or so trekking the trails. It was tough to pull ourselves away from the beauty of the area to get back on the gondola for the ride back to Lutsen.
Cascade River State Park
With a pull-off along Highway 61 located about five minutes north of Lutsen, Cascade River State Park offers a variety of hiking opportunities. While the Cascade River follows a series of waterfalls along a 17-mile route over volcanic basalt rock, the state park features hiking trails that take you along a variety of vegetation from brush to tall trees. You’ll find bridges that you can cross the river, as well as stand and listen to the rush of the water as it drops from higher falls to lowers ones before eventually calmly flowing into Lake Superior. You can hike a series of trails that connect with the longer Superior Hiking Trail or the North Shore Trail. We enjoyed about a two-mile roundtrip, which allowed us great views of the river and nature along the way. We spotted a few squirrels and ground squirrels, but nothing like wolves, bears and moose you may see deeper into the forest.
The river bed’s slow current is perfect for fly fishing, and several people were taking advantage of that during our visit. The view of Lake Superior must add to the fishing experience.
Nicknamed “America’s Coolest Small Town,” Grand Marais could easily be mistaken for a New England fishing town. It’s easy to spend a full day in Grand Marais, taking in the dozen or so art galleries and studios, downtown boutiques and shops and public art attractions, such as a mosaic mural depicting the town’s beauty.
Even the bait shop seems like a piece of art. With the head of a sturgeon biting its way on a corner of the building, Beaver House is part fishing store and museum. The store has been in the family for more than 55 years. The owners created lures that are used by anglers who flock to the store when looking to fish area lakes.
Artist’s Point and lighthouse
While in Grand Marais, take a walk along Artist’s Point, a peninsula that juts out on Lake Superior. A short walk from downtown, you’ll appreciate the view of the lake as you walk along volcanic rock and stand under tall evergreens. Artists love setting up their easels and painting the scenery, including the lighthouse, the Sawtooth Mountains to the south of town and the lake.
Walk along the concrete seawall that takes you to a working lighthouse. It’s a comfortable walk, but it’s not accessible for people needing help walking or who use a wheelchair. The lighthouse is a popular spot in Grand Marais, with several people using it for selfies and group photos. The lighthouse stands at the edge of the bay, with all types of boats passing through. You’ll see speed boats, sailboats and even small fishing boats. The view of the area of the majestic, including Lake Superior and the town with the forest in the background.
While in Grand Marais, we visited World’s Best Donuts. The seasonal bakery is known for its variety of cake donuts and special donuts, such as a creme-filled Bismarck with chocolate frosting.
Kicking off in the center of Grand Marais, the Gunflint Trail is a 57-mile-long scenic highway that takes you through the heart of the Superior National Forest and several of Minnesota’s “10,000” lakes. While discussing our plans to drive the trail, Lisa asked me how far I wanted to drive. Then, she shook her head and said, “We’re driving the whole thing, aren’t we?” She knows me so well.
We did, in fact, drive the entire length, ending the drive at the turnaround at Ham Lake, the northernmost point of the Boundary Waters. You can see Canada from across the water. As we were standing there enjoying the view, a man carrying a canoe above his head walked past us and set it down next to the water. Then, we heard a moose call from the woods. Other than seeing a moose, which freely roam Cook County, hearing one was nice.
Along the way to Ham Lake, we visited a few lakes and walked a few trails, to enjoy the experience. Each lake offered its own personal experience and views. It was recommended that we visit Honeymoon Bluff, a mile-long trail that takes you above Hungry Jack Lake and a seemingly endless forest. The initial part of the trail is steep, which may be challenging upfront, but the walk back is all downhill at that point. You may see wildlife, such as moose or deer, during your hike, so you’ll want to be aware of your surroundings.
During our drive, we stopped for lunch at one of the roadside diners. We chose to eat at Trail Center at Poplar Lake, where we enjoyed homestyle cooking. Lisa went with a walleye fish sandwich, while I chose the Thanksgiving sandwich, turkey, cranberry sauce and gravy. We split a side of homemade mac and cheese.
Grand Portage State Park
Located on the Ojibwe reservation, Grand Portage State Park is the only state park jointly operated between the state and a Native American tribe. Hugging the Canadian border, you can enjoy a walk along a paved trail to the High Falls, which includes a few overlooks, each offering a different view of the 120-feet-tall waterfalls. It’s the tallest waterfall that is partially located in the state. Dropping tons of water into the Pigeon River, the Grand Portage falls are beautiful to watch and worth the drive to the northern edge of the scenic North Shore drive.
You’ll want to check out the visitors center, which includes a look into the Ojibwe history and culture. As you visit, you may want to learn the traditional names for animals, such as a bear, duck and otter, which are featured on placards near the entrance.
A short drive south of the park is the Grand Portage National Monument. The replica fort includes a stockade, great hall and kitchen. You’ll find Ojibwe tribal members who often share the area’s history and tribal culture. Grand Portage was a key area for transportation and trade between Indigenous people and European fur traders.
Caribou Highlands Lodge
During our visit to Cook County, we stayed at the Caribou Highlands Lodge. Offering a feel of a cabin, with the perks of a hotel, our room was comfortable and helped make our trip that much more enjoyable. I appreciate a spacious, comfortable workspace, for uploading and editing photos on my laptop. The desk was spacious enough to have my dinner on it, while I worked.
The bed was super comfy! We both enjoyed decent sleep after long days of exploring Cook County. Since we were there during the pandemic, we couldn’t access parts of the lodge, so we spent a lot of time in our room at the end of the day. The furniture was nice and easy to relax in. We kept a window open, so we could hear coyotes or wolves howl at night. We were advised there was a black bear that visited the property at night, so we kept an eye out for it, but no such luck.
Dining in Cook County
We enjoyed dinner at the lodge during our first night in the area. The hotel’s restaurant – Moguls Grille – offers sandwiches and burgers, as well as entrees. We tried the burgers, including a cheddar bacon burger. The food was impressive.
The next night, we ordered Buffalo wings and a Hawaiian pizza from Papa Charlie’s Tavern and Stage. The wings, with Thai chili sauce, were almost a meal themselves. They were some of the best wings we’ve enjoyed. The pizza had an enjoyable taste and definitely met our expectations.
We enjoyed breakfast at the local coffeehouse. Fika Coffee takes its name from the Swedish word for coffee break. With locally-sourced maple syrup, Fika’s signature maple latte is addictive. The drink alone makes me want to move there. While Lisa enjoyed a yogurt for breakfast, I went with yogurt, peanut butter and banana toast. It was a bit messy but tasty.
While we enjoy our visits to northeast Minnesota, we realize there is so much more to do. We didn’t hike some of the trails we wanted to, as well as learning about different places we need to check out. We’ve already planned a return trip next fall. And, since we are fans of the state, we strongly encourage you to visit the Scenic North Shore.