In late September I mounted my camper on my pickup for my first ramble since last year. While I love the open spaces and big National parks in Colorado, Wyoming and the northwest, they just didn’t appeal to me this time.
During the past year or so I have come across some beautiful photos of the Lake Superior shoreline that caught my eye. Fort Calhoun photographer and videographer Brad Iwen recently produced “The Fisherman’s Daughter” for his Midwest Food Stories Journal on YouTube. The video features a small restaurant in Grand Marais, Minnesota and the north shore fishing industry. The video captured my imagination and whet my appetite for fresh fish as well. I just had to check this place out.
My first overnight stay was at Wild River State Park on the St. Croix River on the Wisconsin border. I arrived after dark and left at first light, but exploring and camping in the St Croix river valley could be a destination of its own.
Heading north I stopped at Duluth for tourist information and for lunch. The drive along Lake Superior through Duluth was much more attractive than I had remembered, and I especially enjoyed a mid-day stroll along the Lake Walk and Leaf Erickson rose garden.
The Split Rock lighthouse north of Duluth is another stop I highly recommend. The lighthouse was put into service in 1910 in response to a 1905 storm that sank or badly damaged 29 ships on western Lake Superior. While the lighthouse is adjacent to Split Rock State Park, it is owned and maintained by the Minnesota Historical Society and requires a separate entrance fee.
I was extremely impressed with Minnesota’s extensive system of State Parks. I was particularly pleased that the annual pass that I purchased is for an entire year from the date of purchase. By comparison, the Nebraska Park and Recreation annual pass is good for the calendar year which expires on December 31, no matter when you purchase the pass.
I stopped at a number of beautiful state parks along the north shore of Lake Superior including Grand Portage State Park on the United States border with Canada. A scenic trail leads to views of High Falls which is the highest waterfall in Minnesota. There are also steep and rugged trails that lead to spectacular views of the Pigeon River Valley into Canada in one direction and Lake Superior the opposite direction.
South of Grand Portage State park is Grand Portage National Monument. Grand Portage, or “Great Meeting Place,” is where the French voyageurs or trappers would transport their furs to sell to the Northwest Company – the most profitable fur trade operation on the Great Lakes.
A palisade, great hall, warehouse and other buildings have been reconstructed at the site where the trade depot and headquarters once stood. A seasonal ferry service departs and returns from the dock ent from May 15 through September 30.
My base of operation during my stay on the north shore was the Grand Marais Recreation Area and Campground. Originally I had planned to stay at state park campgrounds, but most along the lake shore were full up. That being said, I was very happy with the Grand Marais campground which is located on the harbor and within just a few blocks of the town center.
I also discovered that the campground is located near The Fisherman’s Daughter restaurant which was on my bucket list. The restaurant serves mostly fish and chip lunches and smoked fish with seating on a porch or balcony overlooking the dock and fish house where the fish arrive fresh each morning. Several other restaurants in town serve fresh herring, white fish and lake trout dinners and sandwiches as well.
After my fish and chips lunch I wandered into the North House Folk School book store and office which turned out to be more than just another quaint tourist shop selling books and trinkets.
The folk school was founded in 1997 and teaches a wide range of traditional northern crafts year round ranging from wood working and blacksmithing to boat making, baking and handcraft of all kinds. The school also teaches sailing and boat building and offers daily excursions aboard Hjordis, a 50 foot schooner named after the mythical goddess of war.
Another advantage was that a number of the locations on my itinerary were only a short drive from Grand Marais. One of those locations was the Lutsen ski area which overlooks Lake Superior. I drove the 20 miles south along the shore to Lutsen and then up the steep grade to the Lutsen Mountain Ski and Summer Resort. The mountain provides a magnificent view of Lake Superior, but unfortunately the day I visited, the lake was covered in clouds and fog. The fall colors on the mountain, however, were breath taking.
My other principal destination on this trip was Itasca State Park, best known as the headwaters of the Mississippi River. I have pleasant memories of spending a week in Itasca when I was a Boy Scout. One distinct memory is the sense of accomplishment I experienced after swimming across the lake under the watchful eyes of adult leaders in row boats to earn my mile swim badge. I think that may be why swimming is still my favorite recreational sport.
While I may have missed the peak of autumn color at Itasca, I certainly was not disappointed. It has been more than 60 years since I visited that park, but I don’t think it has changed all that much, and the facilities are well maintained. I particularly enjoyed the mild dry weather and sitting at my campsite after dark looking up at the clear and star filled sky.
I also made one final stop on my return home at Pipestone National Monument in southwest Minnesota. This was another nod to nostalgia revisiting a place where, as a small child, I had visited with my family. I remembered thinking the place was pretty cool, and still do.
For hundreds of years Indigenous people have traveled to the area to quarry the red pipestone to make ceremonial pipes. The practice continues today.
From the visitor center, the ¾ mile circular trail passes through a tall grass prairie, pipestone quarries and red quartzite rock formations and cliffs. The highlight of the walk is the beautiful Winniwissa Falls.
Incidentally, the Monument hosted an Indigenous People’s Day celebration on Saturday October 9. Luminary bags surrounded the ¾ mile with Indigenous musicians singers and dancers spaced at different locations.
I enjoyed my ten day wandering in Minnesota, and I look forward to visiting again soon.