If you’re looking for outdoor things to do on the North Shore in Minnesota you’ve come to the right place. Minnesota’s North Shore refers to the shoreline of Lake Superior that runs from Duluth, Minnesota to Grand Portage near the Canadian border. This drive is called the North Shore Scenic Drive and is a 145-mile scenic byway designated as an All-American Road. From Duluth, follow Highway 61 northeast and you’ll encounter all of these must-do stops on the north shore. On this road trip, you’ll encounter rocky cliffs, cobblestone beaches, scenic rivers and waterfalls, small towns, and hillside forests. These are the top 12 things to do on the north shore. Buckle-up because it is amazing!
You can pick and choose from this list of top things to do on the north shore, or do the whole list as stops are in order from Duluth to Grand Portage. If you hit some stops on the way up and back and then stay in Lutsen, Tofte, or Grand Marais this will position you well to be able to do many of these 12 things on a grand North Shore road trip.
A few North Shore trip planning tips
When to go
Truly there are great things to do on the north shore year-round. We’ve taken our family in every season and it’s a completely different trip each time. The fall months for leaf viewing can be a spectacular road trip. The window for peak fall color on the north shore varies anywhere from mid-September to early-October, but can still be great outside of this window. In spring/winter trails can be muddy/icy so plan ahead with boots, hiking poles, and shoe/boot traction but there will be fewer crowds. In all seasons, the weather on the north shore can be volatile so always pack in layers and be ready for dramatic shifts in temperature whether you’re closer to the big lake or more inland.
North Shore with kids or elders
A North Shore road trip is a great vacation idea if you’re traveling with kids or elders as many of the stops and hikes in this list are very accessible. This list of top things to do on the north shore will include short hikes that pack in lots of scenic interest, are easily accessible from Hwy 61, and can be shortened or lengthened depending on how much time you have.
Where to stay
We love staying in vacation rentals from VRBO or AirB&B on the North Shore as there are so many unique properties, and they provide more space for larger families. To be the most centrally located look for lodging in Lutsen, Grand Marais, Tofte, or Schroeder. If you can score a place on Lake Superior you’ll get 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 for the best selection as lodging frequently books up.
What to pack for the North Shore
The weather can vary greatly in all seasons 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. You can also check out The Ultimate Hiking Gear for Kids Guide.
12 Top things to do on the North Shore MN
#1 Canal Park
Here you’ll get to see the iconic Aerial Lift Bridge and explore the North Pier Lighthouse, which is on The National Register of Historic Places. Grab lunch on Superior Street and enjoy it near Lake Superior on the newly renovated Lakewalk. If you’re lucky you might be able to spot some big ships coming and going on Lake Superior. For those who like to plan ahead check the ship schedule here or check out Playfront Park which is only 5 minutes from Canal Park.
#2 Brighton Beach Park (temporarily closed)
East end of Duluth, MN
This stone-covered beach on Lake Superior with picnic tables, great climbing rocks, and is a favorite spot for rock skipping.
If you can’t hit Brighton Beach due to construction, Lester Park is very close and a hidden gem. It is overlooked by Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve. It has a newer playground near the beautiful Lester River with bridges and trails for exploring. Great place for a picnic.
#3 Kayak to see a Lake Superior Shipwreck
Multiple Locations along the North Shore
If you’re looking for a unique and memorable guided tour experience check out Day Tripper of Duluth. You can find a guided kayaking experience over a Lake Superior 1896 shipwreck. If you’re there in the winter and conditions are just right, you might even be able to try iceberg kayaking. Both of these experiences require a guide so don’t try to go it alone. Most of the tours are also kid-friendly. They have both kayak and mountain biking tours you can check out here.
#4 Gooseberry Falls State Park
Two Harbors, MN
There is a large parking lot and no park pass is required for entry. Consider planning this stop on a weekday if you can swing it on the way up or way back to minimize crowds. Short on time? Park at the visitor center and take the short, paved accessible trail to the Upper and Middle Falls or hike the 1-mile Falls Loop Trail. If you have more time, the Fifth Falls Trail is a great 2-mile gravel loop with boardwalks and places to stop and wade in the water depending on the season. If you want a more secluded hike with fewer crowds check out the Gitchi Gummi Trail which is a 2.2 mile loop trail with incredible views of the Gooseberry River Valley. Keep children close in the falls area as there are slippery rocks and cliff ledges without railings.
#5 Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
Two Harbors, MN
Head to the Lighthouse Visitor Center to pay and get the latest tour information. Each ticket includes access to the exhibit gallery, a 13-minute movie about the fascinating history of the construction of Split Rock Lighthouse, and access to the trails around the light station. There is often park staff near the lighthouse sharing the history and information. The lighthouse and historic building interiors are closed in the winter so check before you go. If you are already a MN History Center member the grounds pass is free. A top things to do on the north shore list would not be complete without this stop.
There are year-round hike-in campsites along Lake Superior at Split Rock State Park with views of the historic lighthouse. It’s quite popular, but if you can find one available what a unique camping experience. Try to score sites C1, 18 or 19 for the best views of the lighthouse and coastline. The Dyrt ranked this the #5 best campsite in the US, based on customer reviews from 45,000 campsites. Impressive!
#6 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 stop has amazing views of the changing leaf color in the fall.
There are two ways to get to High Falls. The quick way is to drive into Tettegouche State Park, from the visitor center head to the trailhead parking area (state park pass required). From there 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 longer 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. Taking this route, you will reach the base of the falls first, before hiking up the hill to reach the top of the falls.
#7 North Shore Adventure Park
Silver Bay, MN
If you’re looking for a non-hiking activity on the North Shore this adventure park includes a high ropes course and ziplines. There are multiple difficulty levels as well as an adventure playground for kids 3-6 years old. The park has great views and lots of room to spread out in this 3-acre outdoor playground. It is open seasonally mid-June through mid-October check details before planning a visit here. Tip: book online for a $5 savings per ticket from the in-person rates.
#8 Temperance River State Park
An easy, quick stop right off Hwy 61 that packs a big punch. There is parking along both sides of Highway 61. One falls is just below the highway and includes picture-perfect settings from the footbridge. Another footbridge is a little more than half-mile up the river and includes a river gorge, waterfall views, and a trail. Hike the popular riverside trails by parking along Highway 61 and follow the well-marked trail signs. Note: this trail has high drop-offs, rushing rivers, and at times slippery pathways so be careful with kids and pets.
#9 Summit Express Gondola and Alpine Slide
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 nice hiking trail at the top that provides stunning views. 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 but ask at the top as the trail can be difficult to follow depending on the season. Check the gondola times and rates here.
Also at Lutsen Mountain, you’ll also find an 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. If you time peak leaf viewing right you’ll get to enjoy amazing views like these.
#10 Cascade River State Park
You can park in the small lot right off Hwy 61 and there’s no fee. Cascade Falls Trail is an easy 1-mile trail and the trailhead is well marked. The Cascade Falls are easy to reach and set in a shady forest. It’s a beautiful trail year-round.
This stop provides great views with very little effort if you have young kids or the elderly along. You can walk up as far as you choose, as it keeps going upriver along the Superior Hiking Trail. This is an amazing stop if you’re there in the winter!
#11 Artist Point
Grand Marais, MN
This is a picturesque seaside harbor town. Grand Marais is a very walkable town so park your car and stroll along the main street with shops, galleries and don’t miss Java Moose and World’s Best Donuts before they sell out. These businesses have amazing histories and stories and deserve to be supported. At sunrise or sunset venture to Lake Superior from the Coast Guard station (use this for GPS), you will park in the large lot. You can explore Artist Point to watch the waves and sailboats roll in and out of the harbor. Next, walk to the left of the Coast Guard building. Walkout onto the peninsula to see the large rock formations, vivid watercolors of Lake Superior, and the lighthouse. Note: Some areas of the peninsula are very narrow with no guard rails to hold on to. Water is on both sides so watch kids closely at all times. This is a photographer’s paradise at sunrise/sunset.
Extra time? Check out the Gunflint Trail
The Gunflint Trail is a National Scenic Byway that will take you through incredible spots along the Superior National Forest right from Grand Marais. Coming from Lutsen it’s a left on 5th Ave W then a left on Gunflint Rd. This road has some of the very best wildlife spotting in the area. There are lots of turnoffs and hikes along the way and if you go at sunrise/sunset you can spot moose, fox and other wildlife. There is not cell service for many areas on this road.
#12 Grand Portage State Park
Lastly, 35-miles north of Grand Marais at the Canadian border, you’ll find Grand Portage and the tallest waterfall in Minnesota. This is an easy, paved hike along the Pigeon River to 130-foot High Falls. Also, there is Grand Portage National Monument, a reconstructed trading post of the late 1700s where you can learn about the area’s Ojibwe culture and the lives of the fur traders. Our kids loved this stop. They had staff in historical outfits, reenacting what life was like while educating you as you walked through the trading posts and large forts. Entrance to the Grand Portage National Monument was free with optional donations.
Hope you enjoyed this list of the 12 best outdoor things to do on the North Shore. There are so many hikes and great outdoor sites to see on the North Shore that every trip and season can be different. Check out our 6 best hikes to see fall leaf color on the North Shore MN. If you have any questions feel free to reach out otherwise we’d love to hear if you made the trip and your favorite stops on the North Shore.
More local tips for visiting the North Shore
East vs North
When you’re on the North Shore if you ask a local for directions you’re likely to hear “head east’ when you thought you were heading north. The term “up the North Shore” is frequently used but the North Shore actually runs on a southwest/northeast angle. So if you’re following Lake Superior up the shore you’re likely headed east. If your back is to Lake Superior and you’re looking towards the forest you’re generally looking north. So if a local tells you to head north they might mean into the woods!
Be aware when visiting
Staffing shortages are real on the North Shore right now like so many other communities. Many restaurants and small businesses have reduced hours and may be closed Mon-Wed so please check in advance, plan ahead and be patient with business owners.
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