Exploring Lake Superior's North Shore
Bear with me here, I know it's cold and getting colder, and the last place you probably want to visit is northern Minnesota. BUT, Duluth and Superior's North Shore are spectacular right now. Trust me. It's the perfect time of year to still take advantage of the beautiful outdoor spaces that are way less tourist-populated that during summer, plus ski resorts have started making snow, and Lake Superior is as beautiful as ever.
What better way to stay in the North Woods than in an adorable, homey log cabin? These lodges have sizes to accommodate everyone, from two person parties to larger groups. They are located right on the water, with every cabin including a back deck to take in the views. Every cabin also includes a fireplace, and a traditional log interior. Probably the coziest way to stay. Located about half an hour north of Duluth, near Two Harbors.
For those of us that like the traditional hotel amenities more than the log cabin scene, Pier B is perfect. It's brand new, having opened last year. Right on the water, and also - for the holiday season - conveniently located right next to the Bentleyville "Tour of Lights". This also means that it will be quite a bit more expensive for rooms during the holiday season, but prices should return to normal after the Tour of Lights comes down. This hotel has a great view of the Lift Bridge, is conveniently located near downtown and Canal Park, and the rooms are beautiful. It's definitely more nautical/modern than woodsy and cosy.
If you're traveling as a couple, or with a close friend, or any combination of two people, check out Duluth's mansion scene (what a strange phrase). There are some very interesting bed and breakfast options in the historic mansion district. The Cotton Mansion, for instance, is a 16,000 square foot Italian Renaissance style mansion built in 1908 by Joseph Cotton, independent council for John D. Rockefeller. This mansion is as extra and luxurious as it was when it was built, with 15th century Italian Black Marble fireplaces. However the private jacuzzi you will find in your room is, presumably, not from 1908.
The best budget option. All of the above are going to be in the range of $189-800 (for the larger log cabins). You can find entire apartments for around $150-300 on AirBnb, or check out the option of renting a private room (shared house) for around $50/night for an upscale room in the heart of Duluth. Once again, AirBnb's are my favorite option for staying without spending your entire paycheck, and you meet the coolest people. Use my link for a $40 travel credit towards your first rental.
Duluth's food scene is a little limited but AMAZING. There are a few restaurants that I can't wait to get back to every time I visit.
This unassuming restaurant is located South of downtown in a building that used to house a Perkin's. From the outside, you would never guess the culinary heaven that awaits you. I'm not being dramatic, I swear. They source completely locally, and have an amazing selection for vegetarians, vegans, and meat-eaters alike. Their menu is HUGE, their breakfast, lunch, and dinner is amazing (also, they serve breakfast all day. can I get an amen.) It's almost always packed, but the wait times go by super fast. Prices are great and definitely fit a college-student sized budget.
Order the vegan burger (I can eat one of these in 60 seconds flat) and the brussel sprouts to start.
Another favorite, especially for breakfast. Such a cozy spot, and all the food is fresh and amazing. They've got a great drink menu and an amazing selection of teas. On a nice day, the patio comes with a view of Lake Superior. They have vegan friendly options, as well as a ton of amazing options that use wild-caught salmon smoked in-house. There's a ton of locally smoked, wild-caught salmon in Duluth and it's sooo good. Before I went veg one of my favorite menu options here was the salmon and pesto omelet. Again, they source most of their items locally.
Order the Cranberry Wild Rice French toast, and the back country blend tea.
This restaurant wins as far as location goes, except for maybe my next choice. It's located down in Canal Park, right next to the iconic lift bridge and Lake Superior. It's a bit on the pricier side, so if you're on a budget I would plan on going for lunch when menu items are less expensive. That being said, the dishes are luxurious and worth the dollar amount. Once again, they work with all local producers. Though they don't have many options for vegans, the vegetarian options are great. I had a smoked tomato gnocchi the last time I was there (as good as it sounds). The brunch menu is outstanding as well, with items like "Peach Pannekoeken" with rosemary pecans and anise syrup.
Order a Fig and Candied Pecan Pizza and pair it with an Autumn Spiced Sangria.
This is another restaurant that is basically unbeatable when it comes to views. It's located 20 minutes north of Duluth, near the town of Two Harbors. You get to drive on the North Shore Scenic Byway the entire way, with jaw-droppingly beautiful views of Lake Superior. The restaurant itself has a great atmosphere, with a northern cabin feel to it. They have a beautiful selection of artwork throughout the restaurant, most of which is for sale. Like the last selection, this restaurant is a bit on the pricier side. They have quite a few vegetarian dishes, though many of them incorporate mushrooms (good news for some, not so much for others). The combination of delicious, hearty food, the restaurant's atmosphere, and the views of Lake Superior this an unforgettable destination for a night out.
Pair the Wild Mushroom Crepe with the Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir.
My favorite spot to photograph on the entire North Shore. Palisade Head is rugged granite cliff rising 932 feet above Lake Superior. On a clear day you can see the Sawtooth Mountains to the north and the Split Rock Lighthouse to the south. With a permit, you can rock-climb here, or go simply to enjoy the views and soak up the late-autumn sun. Be aware, the upper parking lot is closed during the fall/winter months, so you have to park in the bottom lot and walk up to Palisade Head. It's a 10-15 minute uphill walk on a paved road.
Two Harbors has two major things to offer: the Castle Danger Brewery and the Split Rock Lighthouse. Novelist James Oliver Curwood proclaimed Lake Superior's north shore "the most dangerous piece of water in the world" after a single storm wrecked 29 ships in November of 1905. The lighthouse was erected in response in 1907 and today is one of the most photographed spots on the state. It's truly a beautiful scene and there are many hiking trails located near the lighthouse, including some through birchwood forests leading to the rocky beach.
3. Canal Park/Vikre Distillery
Canal Park was converted from a rugged post-industrial harbor to one of the busiest tourist locations in Duluth. A great place to walk around, do some shopping, eat at Lake Avenue Restaurant, and see the Lift Bridge. You can take a stroll down the boardwalk, or peruse some great art, pottery, or traditional tourist wares to buy. A fun spot to spend an afternoon. Vikre Distillery is an awesome spot right next to the Lift Bridge in Canal Park. The interior is a mix of industrial and posh, and they make amazing northern spirits like Spruce, Cedar, and Boreal Gin. Plus, the owners are about the coolest people you will ever meet.
Christened "America's Largest Free Walk-Through Lighting Display", Bentleyville runs from November 18th-December 26th. And this thing is PACKED. Traffic backs up the highway for people to get here, and for good reason. It truly is a beautiful Christmas lighting display. Plus, it's free. Personally, I like to view it from the road and keep driving, but that's only because I'm not a fan of anything packed with people. It's draws a pretty sizable crowd to Duluth every year. Free shuttles run from Canal Park (where public parking is free) to Bentleyville, if you'd like to skip waiting on the highway.
For any history buffs out there, Glensheen Mansion is a very interesting place to tour and learn a little bit about Duluth's long history as a harbor. This 27,000 sq ft mansion was constructed in 1908 by Clara and Chester Congdon and is the most visited historic home in Minnesota. One of the most interesting facts about the house is that the collection is completely intact. Clara's letters remain in the desk drawer, and the sheets in the closet were organized there by the 2nd floor maid nearly 100 years ago. Something the tour guides are instructed not to discuss are the double murder of the heiress and her maid, by the heiress's adopted daughter, that took place in the mansion in 1977. However, they will answer questions about it if you ask.
You can hear the thunderous Upper, Middle, and Lower falls as they roar through a river gorge cut into Gooseberry Falls State Park. There are many different options in this park. The paved walk to middle falls is easily accessible for those looking for an easy jaunt to enjoy the falls. There are more strenuous (though still definitely on the easy side) trails down into the gorge to lower falls, and up towards upper falls. This park has a beautiful view of Lake Superior through the many birch trees.
If you fancy some cold-weather hiking, the Superior Hiking Trail offers an unrivaled opportunity to hike 300 miles from the Minnesota/Wisconsin border to the Canadian border, all along the Lake Superior shoreline. The trail is laid out in sections of 3-11 miles with a parking lot at each trail head, to make for easy day hiking (assuming you don't want to hike all 300 miles). I suggest the hike to the Bear Lake Overlook, an easy 6.4 round trip hike with a 400 ft elevation gain. This trailhead is located near Silver Bay, about an hour drive north of Duluth.