Photograph by Susan Dykstra, Getty Images
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A hiker pauses along the craggy North Shore of Lake Superior.

Photograph by Susan Dykstra, Getty Images

Road Trip: Northern Minnesota

From the August/September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

The roar of America’s Jazz Age echoed in the Minnesota wilderness. At a time when anything seemed possible, why not an exclusive club for the nation’s elite, up where the rugged North Woods and mammoth Lake Superior collide?

A group of Minnesota businessmen put plans in place for such a resort, which they named Naniboujou for the Cree Indian god of the woods. Some 600 potential members, including heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey and slugger Babe Ruth, signed on, seduced by visions of an opulent lodge, bathhouse, golf course, and tennis courts on 3,000 acres blessed with “birches like Greek columns and cedars like Gothic pillars.” The Great Depression quashed this outdoorsman’s dream, and only the lodge was built. Still, 85 years after its conception, the inn survives, its riches unchanged from the doomed club’s prospectus: “the rustle of the pines, the brawling and babbling of the stream, the muffled murmur of the breakers on the beach.” Extreme nature dominates northeastern Minnesota, setting the scene for a drive combining coast and forest, small-town character and deep-woods seclusion.

Road trips up the Minnesota shore of Lake Superior begin in Duluth, an industrial harbor town at the southern end of a wooded triangle called the Arrowhead and two-lane Highway 61. Also called North Shore Scenic Drive, the paved boundary between woods and waters delivers views of the ancient volcanic basalt cliffs that plunge into Lake Superior, so vast it merges with the sky on the horizon. At the turn of the 20th century, outbound ships loaded with northern Minnesota’s prized iron ore ranked Duluth among the U.S.’s busiest ports.

Life here is still trained on the water. “One of the many pleasures of living in Duluth is that you have to look at the lake a lot,” writes author and resident Barton Sutter in his book Cold Comfort: Life at the Top of the Map. “You might only mean to get some groceries, but on your way you see something so grand, so terrible and beautiful, that you absorb your daily requirement of humility just by driving down the street.”

Canal Park, a onetime warehouse district, is now filled with lakeside restaurants, shops, hotels, and historical attractions. On board the S.S. William A. Irvin, a 610-foot retired ore and coal ship, tour-goers explore everything from the engine room’s brass controls to the sophisticated wood-trimmed visitors quarters. Working ships still dock here, too (about a thousand vessels annually, more than any other Great Lakes port), lending authenticity with their massive, slow-moving presence as they request passage under the 1905 Aerial Lift Bridge, on occasion still letting out deep, vibrating honks—long-short-long-short. Interaction between boats and bridge complements the Lake Superior Maritime Visitors Center near the bridge’s foot.

About 30 miles up the road, on the east edge of Two Harbors, a faux-log cabin beckons from the side of the road, as it has for the past four decades. One of a handful of smoked fish purveyors along the shore, Lou’s Fish House expertly prepares Lake Superior trout—brined in teriyaki, cured in brown sugar, or worked into a spread. Then it’s on to Gooseberry Falls State Park, the first of eight state parks that line the 150-mile-long stretch between Duluth and Canada. More than half a million annual visitors stop to absorb the thunderous, misting cascades along Gooseberry’s namesake river, one of many that tumble out of the forest and into Lake Superior.

A few more minutes on the road brings drivers to Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, 2,200 acres edged with steep shoreline trails. Among them stands the black-capped Split Rock Lighthouse, a beautiful beacon born of tragedy. In 1910, Congress commissioned the lighthouse atop a 13-story hunk of gray cliff after one of the notorious November gales damaged 29 ships, two of which crashed onto the rocky shore. Navigational tools rendered Split Rock obsolete decades ago, but visitors poke around the keepers’ quarters and climb the lighthouse tower, both outfitted as if operating during their 1920s glory days.

About 40 miles shy of Canada is Grand Marais, which was once an 1800s trading post and fishing village. Current residents of the one-stoplight town of 1,400 tend to be creative types and outdoor enthusiasts, some who lead dog mushing and canoeing trips. “Living at the end of the road helps you take every day for what it’s worth. Nature’s at your doorstep,” says Kelly Dupre, who works as an artist, author, and volunteer coordinator at North House Folk School, which gives classes on northern skills and crafts, from wild rice harvesting to sweetgrass basketmaking.

During fall in Grand Marais’s three-block downtown, jewel-toned paintings of local landscapes fill galleries, pub microbrews turn dark, and seasonal wild rice and mushrooms take over restaurant menus. Painters, writers, and tourists follow a half-mile ancient lava flow to Artists’ Point to visit the squat white lighthouse or find a moment of peace within the jumble of rock.

Grand Marais is the lakeside end point for the Gunflint Trail National Scenic Byway, which cuts a 57-mile corridor through the three-million-acre Superior National Forest. This remote region grabbed national headlines last August when high winds shifted a small, naturally occurring fire into a voracious blaze, producing smoke that traveled as far away as Russia. The largest the forest had weathered in more than a century, the fire burned into October and scorched a 100,000-acre scar into the Arrowhead. One year later the episode is just another chapter in the land’s rough-and-tumble tale. “Fires are part of life up here,” says Sue Kerfoot, who has lived in the area since the 1960s and runs Gunflint Lodge with her husband.

The Arrowhead’s Canadian edge is laced with the daisy-chained lakes and lanky pines of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, over a million motor-free acres that look as they did when American Indians and French fur traders paddled them in the 18th and 19th centuries. A footpath trampled by native Ojibwe thousands of years ago, today the Gunflint Trail passes moose-crossing signs, sapphire lakes, a sprinkling of resorts and lodges, and hiking trails that offer close encounters with wildlife, from foxes and loons to the occasional black bear. The attractions here are the natural ones that lured VIPs to Naniboujou in the late ’20s: the “breath of balsam, the scent of pine … Deer will pose at the edge of the woods to stare at you.”

St. Paul–based Berit Thorkelson is the author of Only in Minnesota.