Nothing is better than experiencing peak fall leaf color on the North Shore of Minnesota. Minnesota’s North Shore refers to the shoreline of Lake Superior that runs from Duluth, Minnesota to Grand Portage near the Canadian border. The North Shore is a special place and starts only two hours north of Minneapolis-St Paul airport. From Duluth, follow Highway 61 northeast for two more hours and you’ll encounter these great hikes along the way. The drive is part of the experience and you won’t be able to miss the North Shore’s vast changing leaf colors along the way. In addition, these are some of the best hikes in Minnesota for viewing the changing fall leaf colors. So get ready and let’s go!
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When to visit for the best fall colors
The window for peak fall color on the North Shore in MN varies anywhere from mid-September to early-October. However, the fall colors continue to be stunning in different types of forests at times outside this window. There are three main scenic drives in the area for viewing fall leaf color and they all change colors at different times. Rainfall and temperatures affect both when the colors change and how long they last, so it’s a surprise each year. The 2021 North Shore fall leaf colors may be impacted by the drought so check the color map and timing here. If you change the ‘region’ to Northeast you will see many of the areas covered with these North Shore hikes. This page also provides frequent updates during the fall leaf viewing season.
Where to Stay on the North Shore
We love staying in vacation rentals from VRBO or AirB&B on the North Shore as there are so many unique properties. Vacation rentals can also provide more space for larger families as well as a kitchen to save on the cost of meals. To be centrally located, look for lodging in Lutsen, Grand Marais, Tofte, or Schroeder. If you can score a place on Lake Superior you’ll have the added bonus of hearing the waves crash in when you sleep at night. There are other resorts in the area as well. In most cases, it’s best to book lodging 3-4 months in advance, but with the rising popularity of the North Shore since Covid-19, try to book as far in advance as possible. The fall season on the North Shore Fall is a very popular time to go. Try to plan a trip within the typical peak color time window (above) for the highest likelihood of getting to see the fall leaf colors during their peak.
What to pack for the North Shore
The weather can vary greatly during the fall. The average highs for September/October months can range from 70-57 degrees and lows near 48-36 degrees Fahrenheit. We’ve been in everything from down winter jackets and snow hats to shorts and t-shirts, so it’s a good idea to check the weather before you leave and then pack in layers for those dramatic changes in weather that often happen on the North Shore. If there was rain the week prior plan for trails to be muddy as this can be common. Also, the weather close to Lake Superior can vary greatly from inland areas. Here’s our recommended hiking pack list (coming soon!).
Kids and Trail difficulty
We use the AllTrails rating system of Easy, Moderate or Hard, and all of these trails (with the exception of Bean & Bear Lake) our kids have done with us. If kids get tired or it’s too much you can always turn back, but we find the hiking on the North Shore to be very kid-friendly. For younger kids, a hiking carrier can be nice to have if you’re planning to go a longer distance. We have used both the Kelty Journey PerfectFIT and the Deuter Kid Comfort Child Carrier with our twins and liked them both. There can be steep ledges and areas without guardrails so watch children closely on hikes.
6 best hikes when going to the North Shore MN for fall colors
1. Oberg Mountain
Oberg Mountain loop is considered to be Minnesota’s best fall color hike, but really is great year-round. What makes this trail so spectacular are the frequent overlooks, all with amazing views of Lake Superior, the Sawtooth Mountains, and Oberg Lake. This is a 2.3 mile loop trail that is rated as moderate and gains 508 feet in elevation. It begins with moderately climbing switchbacks leading to an easy loop at the top. The spectacular leaf color views are your reward along the way.
2. White Sky Trail
This is a 0.6 mile out and back trail, rated as moderate for some steep climbing required but it leads to great views. It features a log ladder in a great forest setting for amazing fall leaf viewing at the top. If going in the spring or winter hiking poles and shoe traction can be helpful as the steep climbs can be slippery.
3. George Crosby Manitou State Park
This park is a bit farther than the others from Hwy 61 (20min, includes unpaved, dirt roads) but is well worth it. There are fun boardwalks and waterfalls that cascade through a canyon surrounded by forest.
The Benson Lake Boardwalk trail (1.3 miles, easy) goes around Benson Lake and provides great views. You can connect to the Yellow Birch Trail, Cedar Ridge Trail, and Manitou River Loop which is an 8.5 mile loop, rated as moderate. It runs along the Manitou River and provides beautiful leaf viewing in the fall.
4. Tettegouche State Park
Silver Bay, MN
This park features four waterfalls along the Baptism River. The hike to Shovel Point is an easy 1.2 mile out and back with boardwalks, bridges over ravines, and steps up a steep incline leading to a great view. This has amazing overlooks to take in the fall leaf colors.
There are two ways to get to High Falls. The quick way is to drive into Tettegouche State Park, after the visitor center head to the trailhead parking area (state park pass required). From here you can reach both High Falls and Two Step Falls. It’s an easy walk through a pine forest about .6 mile. Take the steps down to the swing bridge that crosses the Baptism River and then it’s only a few more steps to the cliff above High Falls. From this vantage point, you’re above the falls looking down at the rushing water with a backdrop of the canyon walls. The long way is to park at the visitor center and take the trail across Highway 61. Hike about 1.5 miles one-way to High Falls. Coming this way, you will reach the base of the falls first, before hiking up the hill to the top of the falls.
5. Bean and Bear Lake
Silver Bay, MN
This is a ~7 mile out and back trail with an elevation gain of 997 feet. This is the most challenging hike on the list with steep, rocky ups and downs and rated on the harder end of moderate. Good hiking shoes/boots are best for this one and bring more water than you think you will need. Go to the end of the out and back trail and you’ll come to a fork, going down will take you to Bear Lake for swimming in the summer or the up brings you to the lookout point for great North Shore fall colors. This trail is a popular one and can get busy so go early.
6. Moose Mountain Gondola and Hike
This one is a bonus and a bit of a cheat as you get a ride up but the aerial gondola ride provides a great way to take in the best North Shore fall leaf color and provides some hiking opportunities at the top. On the way up, take in the fantastic views of the Sawtooth Mountains and Lake Superior’s dramatic coastline.
An aerial gondola ride over the Poplar River and up Moose Mountain is one of the North Shore’s most popular things to do. Stop at the Summit Chalet at Lutsen Mountain at the top to enjoy the views or get some lunch. There is also a great hiking trail at the top that provides stunning views of the fall colors. Turn right off the gondola into the woods by Mystery Mountain Overlook. If you want to hike back down (~4mil) you can follow the Spur trail to the Superior Hiking Trail. Check the times the gondola runs and rates here.
Also while you’re at Lutsen Mountain, you’ll find the alpine slide. We did both of these in one stop as they’re very close. There is a chairlift ride to the top of Lutsen’s Eagle Mountain where you get your sled and then head down the half-mile of twisting, turning, and great views. You get to control the speed and it’s almost certain you’ll want a second run down the mountain. Check here for more information.
Many, if not all of the day hikes above intersect with the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) in some way. So if you’re looking for longer hikes it’s easy to piece together additional sections of the trail. The SHT is a 300-mile trail that starts in Duluth and goes almost to Grand Portage at the Canadian border. The trail is routed along the ridgeline overlooking Lake Superior and goes through dramatic changes in elevation as well as diverse forest and habitat types. So keep an eye out for the blue “blazes” or signage that marks this amazing trail. To plan to hike a section, look at shuttle options, or consider a thru-hike experience of the SHT check out this site.
Lastly, a trip to the North Shore to see the fall colors is a bucket-list experience not to miss. If you can hit the timing during peak color you will be well rewarded on all of these hikes with fantastic views. The North Shore has so much to offer, so make sure to check out our other Top 12 Things to do on the North Shore MN. Follow us on social or reach out in the comments below to share whether you made the trip and what your favorite hike is on the North Shore.
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