Ten years ago, a woman living near Dallas, gripped by wanderlust and the sadness of impending empty-nest syndrome, went to a search engine and typed in "waterfalls" and "hiking." That's how I came to be sitting on a rock outcropping beside a river as it churns foam while rushing down a narrow gorge — not in Colorado or West Virginia but Minnesota. Yes, Minnesota.
That was where Yahoo! directed her, a 1,500-mile distance from the Alamo. And now, five years after I married her and persuaded her to move to Chicago, that's where I've come to overcome my skepticism that the Great Lakes region has anything to rival the rugged trails and breathtaking vistas of Colorado (where we spent a recent vacation) or the Adirondack mountains of New York, which we've visited twice. It didn't take long to dispel every doubt.
We're only a mile or two from Lake Superior, which contains more water than all the other Great Lakes combined, and all that water has to come from somewhere. More than 300 rivers and streams empty into the lake, including many in the stretch of Minnesota between Duluth and Grand Portage, on the North Shore.
The Cascade River, which we are hiking today, drops 900 feet in its last three miles, and even at the low water levels prevailing on our visit, it was obvious how the river got its name. Every 10 steps, there is another view of a zigzag corridor of waterfalls. For ambitious hikers, there is a steep 7.8-mile loop. A 2.6-mile round trip will take you to the top of 600-foot Lookout Mountain, which furnishes views of Superior. Casual sightseers, however, need walk only about 100 yards to mount a platform with a close-up view of a 50-foot fall.
We got started late on the Cascade trail and made slow progress, partly because of the demanding uphills but more because of frequent stops to marvel at the views — and, in the case of my professional freelance photographer wife Cyn, to frame postcard shots. So two hours up the trail, we decided to retrace our steps. The views were almost as good going back.
The rivers and falls are mesmerizing, but it feels a waste not to make some use of that inland sea. So one bright morning, we showed up at North Shore Expeditions in Grand Marais for a kayak outing with instructor Bryan Hansel, a cheerful Iowan. He says the water has been rougher lately, but today it's as smooth as buttermilk. We paddle out of the harbor and turn south, with hardly another boat in sight. We eventually beach near a waterfall, of the Fall River, visible only from Lake Superior. After half an hour of rock hunting — another of Cyn's obsessions — she loads her finds in the cockpit of her kayak, which is consequently a bit nose-heavy on the trip back.
We spend the rest of the day exploring Grand Marais, reading at our rented cottage and assembling our gear for the next stage of our trip. Early the next morning, we drive to Grand Portage to board the Voyageur II, a passenger ferry that makes the two-hour passage to Isle Royale, the biggest island in Lake Superior and the least visited national park. It's also part of Michigan, though just off the Minnesota shore.
It's a sunny day, and the water is again calm. We chat with Sarah, an intrepid 50-something from Massachusetts who plans to spend nine days camping solo in the backcountry.
On arrival at Windigo, on the far western side of the 46-mile-long island, we get a jolly orientation from ranger Cindy Crosby of Glen Ellyn, who delivers a warning. "I came here as a backpacker and I got one of these," she says with a smile, brandishing her badge. "You think you're just here for a short visit, but you could end up wearing gray and green for the rest of your life."
We learn the island has no bears or raccoons but does have moose, wolves and red foxes, which Crosby says will steal not only food but anything else left out. We get our camping permit and walk 10 minutes to the Washington Creek campground, which offers well-spaced sites with screened wooden shelters amid the woods, close to outhouses and a water faucet. We hike down the Feldtmann Lake trail to an overlook, 31/2 miles round trip, then return to our campsite to pitch our tent, read and listen to loons chattering across the cove. In the evening, we walk back to the dock to watch the sunset over the harbor. The wind picks up overnight, and by the time we board for the afternoon return trip, Superior has 4-foot waves that leave some passengers queasy — and us, enjoying the views outside on that bucking bronco, soaking wet.
From Grand Portage it's a two-hour drive south to Two Harbors, where we check in at Gooseberry Cabins and Motel, a down-home place with a few cabins overlooking Lake Superior. We walk across Wisconsin Highway 61 to the Rustic Inn and Cafe, where we have two different, delicious walleye dinners and some local craft brews. Around noon the next day, we set out to hike the 5-mile loop of the Split Rock River Trail, where we find the most spectacular scenery yet. The water being low, we hop from one dry rock to another to eat our lunch next to a waterfall on an expanse of midstream rock. We also stop to climb up a 20-foot outcropping that cleaves the river like a ship's prow, just below the towering split rock. The hiking is reasonably strenuous, and we reach trail's end, across the highway on Lake Superior, at 5:30.
It was as good a hike as I've ever taken — a high reward for a moderate investment of time, effort and gas. For this part of Minnesota, though, that's just what I've come to expect.
If you go
Getting there: Two Harbors, on the southern end of the North Shore, is about a nine-hour drive from Chicago. Duluth International Airport, a half-hour drive from Two Harbors, is served by United and Delta, with direct flights to Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Detroit.
Kayaking: Outings and instruction can be arranged at several outfitters in the area, including North Shore Expeditions at 10 S. First Ave. West in Grand Marais (218-370-8351, northshoreexpeditions.com).
Isle Royale: The Voyageur II departs from Grand Portage to Isle Royale each Monday, Wednesday and Saturday during summer (through Sept. 15 this year) and returns Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. It doesn't operate on Fridays. The round-trip fare for Grand Portage and Windigo, on the western tip of the island, is $67 ($46 for kids 11 or younger, free for those 3 and younger). From Grand Portage to other sites on the island, including Rock Harbor at the eastern end, the fare is $80. A $4-per-day park user fee also is collected (in cash) for all passengers 12 or older. On the island, campers are advised to boil water or use a 25-micron filter because of tapeworm eggs (218-475-0024 or 218-475-0074 isleroyaleboats.com).
Where to stay: The Lutsen Mountain Inn near Grand Marais has rooms for about $110 a night (855-458-8736, lutsenmountaininn.com). Bob's Cabins in Two Harbors has rustic lakeshore housekeeping cabins starting at $105 a night (218-834-4583, bobscabinsonlakesuperior.com). On Isle Royale, the Rock Harbor Lodge offers housekeeping cottages starting at $248 per night in peak season and lodge rooms starting at $256, as well as rustic one-room cabins (without indoor plumbing) starting at $48 (906-337-4993, rockharborlodge.com). Campsites with screened shelters are available at numerous sites on the island. There is no fee, but a camping permit is required (nps.gov/isro).
Where to eat: Grand Marais has plenty of dining options. The Pie Place, 207 W. Wisconsin St., serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, besides a staggering array of pies (218-387-1513, thepieplacecafe.com). World's Best Donuts, 10 E. Wisconsin St., offers cake-style doughnuts (218-387-1345, worldsbestdonutsmn.com). Sydney's Frozen Custard & Wood-Fired Pizza has pizza, hot dogs and frozen treats, which you can enjoy on its rooftop terrace overlooking the beach (218-387-2632). The Gun Flint Tavern, 111 W. Wisconsin St., has a varied menu, from steaks to pasta to Mexican fare, and a long list of craft beers (218-387-1563, gunflinttavern.com).