Our shopping excursions and explorations to Duluth, Minnesota served as the impetus for us to take a vacation from our vacation. Although our campsite this summer on private property along a pristine lake in northern Wisconsin is beyond nice, Lake Superiors Northshore was calling. Al and I had not returned to this part of the country since the early 1990s and the pull to return was strong.
After a little research, I made a reservation at the Burlington Bay Campground in the town of Two Harbors, Minnesota. The easy thirty-minute drive northeast of Duluth made this the perfect location for our Northshore explorations. Since our reservation was made on rather short notice, I was only able to book three nights. We’ll take it! Oh, how we would’ve loved staying longer. Next time!
Once settled into our campsite, it was time to explore. Two Harbors, Minnesota is nestled along the beautiful north shore of Lake Superior. It’s a small quaint lakeside town rich in history and conveniently located to a bunch of scenic sites. It’s also home to a couple of historic sites that are found right in town.
Historic sites in Two Harbors
First lit in 1892, the historic Two Harbors Light Station is the oldest operating lighthouse in Minnesota. She consists of a two-story, square, redbrick dwelling, and a twelve-foot-square light tower attached between the gables. She no longer has her original lens (unfortunately), but still boasts an interesting twenty-four-inch aerobeacon. These days the lighthouse is in private hands, but she’s beautifully maintained & definitely worth a visit.
And you can even spend the night at the lighthouse. The Keepers Quarters is now a B&B.
For train enthusiasts, the Depot Museum is just down the road from the lighthouse and is housed in a historic brick building built in 1907. Today the building serves as a museum but was formerly headquarters for the Duluth and Iron Range Railroad which played a prominent role in the development of the iron ore industry throughout the region.
Towering strange man-made structures
Although my goal was to visit the lighthouse, once I had the truck parked, my attention was drawn across Agate Bay to some strange looking structures. The structures are docks that are made out of steel. They’re 1,300 feet long and seven stories tall.
The immense size of the docks allows ships to pull alongside some 112 chutes where the iron ore is then deposited into the hulls of the boats. These days, about 12 million tons of taconite are shipped out yearly headed south to the lower Great Lakes where it is then unloaded, heated up in blast furnaces, and eventually converted into steel.
The first dock was built in 1883 and by 1938 there were six fully operating docks. The docks were a major source of iron ore during World War II. By the mid-1950’s the docks were shipping out about 50 million tons annually, but this all came to an end in the 1960’s when iron ore was mined out. Area miners then began mining taconite as their primary source of metal. The development of taconite lead to the reopening of three docks in Two Harbors, and two of them are still in operation today.
Visitors can view the docks anywhere along the shores of Agate Bay and get an up-close look at some of the massive ships that enter/exit the harbor. And I thought our combination of truck and RV was long. How’d ya like to park this big guy? These ships are seriously huge!
If you’d like to see these ships in action, shipping schedules can be found online at harbor lookout.
Yesterday and today
The real reason for our visit to Two Harbors, Minnesota was to allow Al and me the opportunity to travel a route that we used to drive every summer during our first few years of dating and marriage. Al and I worked in the airline industry at the time and could’ve flown anywhere in the world for free or for mere pennies, but for our yearly vacations, we wanted nothing to do with flying, hotels, or dining out. After all, that’s what our careers were all about.
So, as an escape from our work lifestyle, we packed up our camping gear, strapped a canoe down on the roof of our vehicle, and drove north … more than 650 miles north of Chicago. The first couple of years, we ventured into western Ontario, Canada, but then we discovered the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota’s Arrowhead. And from then on, the Gunflint Trail in northeastern Minnesota became our summer vacation spot. Most times we camped while other times we splurged and rented a cabin.
So, our first full day camped in Two Harbors, we quickly set off retracing our driving route from years past. We found it amazing and rather exciting that very little had changed over the past umpteen years. There was a part of us that felt like we were just here yesterday and another part that felt like it was a lifetime ago … just another chapter in a life well-lived.
If we didn’t do anything else on our little excursion but visit two key stops, I’d be happy. My must-sees were the Split Rock Lighthouse and the town of Grand Marais.
As you drive along Highway 61, glancing to the south is Lake Superior; the largest of the five Great Lakes and the largest freshwater lake in the world. It’s also one of the chilliest lakes. A rocky cliff shoreline serves as a reminder that these waters can be dangerous, which is why there are so many lighthouses on Lake Superior.Lake Havasu built a beautiful replica. Now granted, it’s a fraction of the size of the real lighthouse, but wonderful nonetheless.
The Split Rock Lighthouse and State Park features a visitor center with a museum store, a lakeshore picnic area, a tent-only campground, a trail center, and hiking trails. Photographing this lighthouse has been a long-time dream of mine, but unfortunately, weather and timing conditions weren’t the best for anything better than a few snapshots. I was fine with that. The views were stunning!
Waterfalls and more waterfalls
While Lake Superior lies on the south side of the highway, dense forest and hills lie on the north side. Considering the north shore can receive well over 90 inches of snow during an average winter, all that snowmelt has to go somewhere creating some spectacular waterfalls. The waterfalls alone make visiting Minnesota’s north shore worthwhile.
The forecast for our day excursion consisted of cloudy skies with a 40% chance of rain which should’ve been perfect for photographing waterfalls … or so I hoped. Well, they couldn’t have been more wrong! The day turned into a beautiful day with totally clear blue skies and warmer than expected … not the conditions I was looking for to photograph waterfalls (much to Al’s delight). So, we changed our focus for the day and only stopped at the Falls at Cross River (around mile marker 78). These falls can be seen from the highway, thus requiring very little walking.
The day turned rather warm, humid, and buggy which did not put us in the mood for any hiking. Therefore, Gooseberry Falls State Park and Tettegouche State Park will remain on my must-see list for a future visit. Gosh, that list seems to be getting longer, not shorter! How does that happen?😏
If you love waterfalls and hiking, then the drive from Duluth, Minnesota to Thunder Bay, Ontario Canada is definitely an adventure to consider. The towns of Portage and Thunder Bay have some rather impressive waterfalls that should not be missed. This is already on my list for our potential itinerary for next summer. An unexpected kitchen remodel kind of curtailed our travels this summer (a forthcoming post is in the works).
It appears, most of the state park campgrounds along Hwy 61, do not offer hookups and are not big RV friendly. This is a tenters paradise and also perfect for cyclists biking the Gitchi-Gami State Trail. But for RV hookups along Lake Superior, we’ll just need to venture a little further down the road …
Grand Marais, Minnesota
The artsy little town of Grand Marais (pronounced – Grand Ma-ray) boasts a population of fewer than 1,500 people. It serves as the gateway to the Gunflint Trail leading visitors into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. When Al and I would vacation on Gunflint Lake, we would have to return to Grand Marais once or twice during our vacation to shop and replenish provisions.
Since our resort was an hours drive north of Grand Marais, we always made a day of it by strolling shops and going out to lunch. On this day, we happened to bring a picnic lunch and enjoyed eating it on a bench overlooking the harbor. After lunch, I took the interesting stroll out to the lighthouse and then we hit a few shops.Grand Marais manages an RV park that is big rig friendly with hookups and sits along the shores of Lake Superior. It’s nothing special and the sites are rather close together, but you can’t beat the location or views.
Burlington Bay Campground
We found this campground in Two Harbors to be the perfect place for us to use as a base for our Northshore explorations. We could even walk into town from the campground if we wanted to. There’s easy access to the kayaking beach and wooded trail along the lakeshore. It’s also an easy bike ride to the lighthouse, Ore Docks, and town restaurants.
There are four sections in the campground. We chose a site in the David Dill Addition which is the newest section and the only area in the campground that isn’t wooded – it’s in a meadow without trees. Yeah, we don’t like trees, or rather our RV isn’t a fan of tree branches. We loved our unobstructed view of Lake Superior and would definitely stay here again, but there was a downside regarding our sewer connection.
Those of us in the first row (sites 1B-12B) had trouble connecting to the rear sewer due to the height of the pipe. Al and I were in site 2 and fortunately, the folks in site 3 were also in a 5th wheel backed in allowing us to hook up to the intended motorhome sewer for site 3. Trust me, I was originally not a happy camper when the rear sewer pipe was sticking out of the ground so far that it was impossible for gravity to work with the sewer hose. The gal in the office said it was out of their control (appears they get a lot of complaints). The county health department determined the height. What’s interesting is the other tiers had properly cut sewer pipes. 🤔
Even with the sewer issue and unlevel sites, we would return and definitely relished not having to worry about roof damage from trees … been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt! But if you like trees, consider staying in one of the other loops.
Worth mentioning; we enjoyed picking up some sweets at Louise’s Place. Located in downtown Two Harbors not far from the Depot Museum and Paul Van Hoven Park. Louise’s is much like a local coffee shop offering breakfast and lunch along with homemade breads and sweets. We had to control ourselves from revisiting the next day.
If you love nature and beautiful landscapes, then you’ll enjoy visiting Lake Superior’s Northshore. With eight State Parks, a variety of National and State Forests, community parks, wayside rests, public beaches, and four-season trails, you’re bound to find something to make any visit worthwhile. We loved returning to an area that will always hold a special place in our hearts!
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