Northshore – Revisiting our Past

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!

Burlington Bay Campground, Two Harbors, MN.

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.

(To enlarge photos in a gallery, simply click on any image)

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.

Ore Docks with tug boat in Two Harbors Minnesota

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.

An Ore ship pulling into docks in Two Harbors Minnesota Agate Bay
An empty ship pulling into the docks near sunset.

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.

Al carrying our canoe in 1990 near Gunflint Lake, MN. We had to portage around rapids.
Me, today, happy to be back visiting Lake Superior’s Northshore.

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.

The Split Rock Lighthouse is situated on Lake Superior’s Northshore and is one of the most photographed lighthouses in the nation. I’ve always been intrigued by this lighthouse and images of it remind me of my mother. She loved lighthouse and Split Rock was one of her favorites. I was extremely excited when I discovered Lake Havasu built a beautiful replica. Now granted, it’s a fraction of the size of the real lighthouse, but wonderful nonetheless.

Split Rock Lighthouse as seen from a scenic pull-out along Hwy 61

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!

A view of the shoreline from the lighthouse

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.

Falls at Cross River – In the spring the center rock is covered in rushing water. This is a light flow.

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.

The town is small and after walking around for maybe an hour, we’d seen just about everything and it was time to retrace our steps back to Two Harbors but not before checking out the local RV Park. The town of 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.

The RV Park can be seen along the shore. Not a bad location.

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.

The sites are tiered in the David Dill Addition offering nice lake views from all the sites and even two sewer connections allowing RVers to optimize those views. There’s one connection at the rear of the site for those needing to back in like trailers and 5th wheels and another connection closer to the front of the site for motorhomes that choose to pull straight in to enjoy the view out of the front windshield.

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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58 thoughts on “Northshore – Revisiting our Past

  1. Ingrid,
    Superior looks spectacular…I can totally understand why you two wanted to retrace footsteps from your past. What a great place to really disconnect and recharge.
    Saving this for later.

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  2. Hi Ingrid, You know it is a great place to camp when you want to stay longer. It is also fun to camp in an area with lots to explore. Interesting about being able to stay overnight at the lighthouse. We visited a lighthouse near Port Angeles where families put their names in a lottery to be able to stay and maintain the lighthouse for a week at a time. Impressive on the portaging. A real challenge! I realize it was a few years ago:) I love being around the energy of waterfalls. I made a note of your suggestion of driving from Duluth to Thunder Bay. Spectacular photos! Great, informative post:)

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    1. Thank you Erica. I received a few suggestions about visiting Thunder Bay and continuing a little further into Ontario that I’m keeping on my list for next summer. We’re talking about an RV trip around Lake Superior. We thought we might’ve done it this year, but we got caught up in remodeling sister-in-laws kitchen … a different kind of fun for us.
      Driving from Vancouver to Thunder Bay would make for a fantastic road trip especially in a small RV.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We have considered a cross country driving trip, although, we have not done it…….yet:) We have family out East and we find we will fly and rent a vehicle instead to maximize our time. Something to think about in the future. Yes, a small RV. We have rented various sizes over the years and it can be challenge to maneuver through some of the mountain passes in a larger RV. Decisions, decisions……on how to spend our precious time:) I look forward to reading more about your adventures:)

        Liked by 2 people

  3. What a great trip down memory lane, thanks for taking us along. We haven’t gotten the chance to explore that area. I know we like open sites and after the tornado warning last night we’re glad we don’t have tree cover.

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    1. Yes, we heard all about the tornados in central IL. Always scary, but even more when living in an RV. Ah, the lakes up here are perfect for paddling and fishing. You guys would love it! Glad y’all are safe.

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  4. Beautiful photos and lots of information, Ingrid! I agree with your statement that you could fly anywhere but wanted to travel differently! That one image of your RV camped with the gray, foreboding sky was quite beautiful as well, hopefully, that sky didn’t open up!

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  5. You sure don’t want to be roaming around the backyard drunk at that first house or the light house. Great shots of such a pretty area and always nice to revisit the past.

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  6. Hi, Ingrid,
    We did go to Gooseberry Falls SP on our way to Bayfield and I was somewhat underwhelmed. The mosquitoes were big and the crowds were bigger. Nevertheless, there are many photo ops there and I would love to see what you could do with them. Thanks for sharing your trip with us.

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    1. My daughter is flying in for a week at the end of the month and I’m hoping to take her up to the north shore. If we have time, I intend on stopping at Gooseberry Falls SP. So should be interesting to see what I think of the place. Fortunately, the bugs aren’t bad this time of year. In June and into July, they were insane!

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  7. How nice that you are revisiting your spots when Newlyweds! And what a beautiful area to visit!

    Loved seeing Al carrying the canoe! Is that a bear in the water? In your after picture… you should be carrying the canoe now! 😉

    Just so happy for you guys! I know you are having fun! Keep enjoying!

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    1. No, that is NOT a bear, merely a boulder that looks like one. Besides, all the bear in this part of the country are black bears and clearly black.
      Nope, you won’t find either one of us carrying a canoe 😆 This really is beautiful country around here and we are enjoying every minute!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. As you know, you barely scratched the surface of what there is to see on the North Shore. My favorite place on earth, and I have seen some wonderful sights. Sorry you didn’t go a bit further north to visit Naniboujou with its incredible Cree painted dining room and delicious food. Has a most interesting history too. I hope you can visit again soon.

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    1. You are so right about barely scratching the surface. I’ll make a note of Naniboujou considering we’re already planning a return trip next summer. I’m still bummed about not having the time to make it all the way to Portage and Thunder Bay. It’s understandable why the North Shore is your favorite place. It’s hard not to fall in love with it!

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  9. We were just up in the same area last week. We love the North shore and we like to stay at Temperance or Tettegouche state park which have some big rig friendly sites although they are becoming harder and harder to get reservations. We wondered about Burlington Bay. Glad to hear it could be another option for us. And FYI, we just sold our Laredo which looks identical to yours. We lived ours, but we wanted to upgrade to a king size bed! Great photos!

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    1. I did a bunch of research on places to stay along the North Shore and we were really happy with our choice. We absolutely needed a sewer connection to deal with an issue so the state parks weren’t going to work … nor did they have openings considering it was peak season.
      We continue looking at other rigs because I’d love a bigger kitchen, but everytime we do, I walk away still happy with my Laredo. What did you end up getting?

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  10. Your trip to the Northshore sounds marvelous. Having grown up in MN and WI, I never have been that far north. Drove our van to Maine with the girls when they were upper elementary age through Sioux Ste Marie, Sudbury, Toronto, and Niagara Falls. I remember how remote most of that trip, and especially northern WI, felt. Huge trees for miles. John had to work so he met us in Boston 2 weeks into the trip. My sister lived in Cloquet for several years. She loves the Northshore too. Enjoy the rest of your summer!

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    1. Yes, there definitely is a remoteness around here and I’ve learned to keep an eye on my gas gauge just like I do when we’re in the remote west. It’s definitely beautiful country around Lake Superior … during the summer. Winters are way too harsh for me!

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      1. Yeah, winter in northern WI is not for the faint of heart! I’ll stick to CO where a bomb cyclone is a rare event and the snow melts in a couple days. We’ll have to make it to Lake Havasu one of these years and check out the lighthouses. Very cool! Thanks for all the great tips.

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        1. Agree … Colorado winters are much milder and easier to handle than Wisconsin’s. But shhh, we’ll keep that our secret. 😁 I think you’d enjoy an RV trip to Lake Havasu. We loved staying at the Lake Havasu SP, but reservations are a must. You can actually do a lighthouse boat tour. Since our friends who live there have a boat, we were able to get out on the lake several times.

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    1. Ah, the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Minnesota has so many beautiful places to play in and around the water. We’ve camped at Lake Bemidji and Bear Head Lake, but never made it to Grand Marais – the area looks gorgeous. And I love your view from the Burlington Bay Campground!

      It’s always with trepidation that we return to a place we loved. Sometimes the passing of time actually improves an area but, sadly, that’s not always the case. Happy to hear that your return visit was a delightful one. I’ll bet Al was happy he didn’t have to carry any canoes this time around!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are so right about never knowing what to expect when you return to a one time favorite place. I loved that their didn’t appear to be any major development leaving the area in its quaint and pristine state.
        Yeah, I don’t think Al nor I would be up to the tenting, backpacking, and carrying a canoe type of camping that we once loved. Bring on those storms and we are grateful to be in the RV.

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    2. Oh, how funny! I had to look twice at the photo. That boulder does indeed resemble a bear. During our camping days in the area, we saw our fair share of black bear and they never presented a problem .,, as long as we weren’t stealing their blueberries, which of course we did 😆

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    1. You should consider a camping trip around Lake Superior. The abundance of wonderful campgrounds would work great for your new little trailer. You’ll encounter some stunning landscapes.

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        1. Ya know, if you take I-40 to Albuquerque, there’s not much of an elevation pull other than up to Flagstaff? That’s why we usually take 40 when heading east of the Rockies. If it weren’t for the sign stating “Continental Divide” we wouldn’t even notice. But a BnB anniversary trip sounds equally fun 😊

          Liked by 1 person

    1. The North Shore is beautiful and one of my favorite areas. There are all kinds of quaint resorts and campgrounds along Lake Superior not to mention all the picturesque lighthouses. Such a different feel than Colorado yet each offers their own unique and diverse beauty.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Love the north shores and hope to get there this fall again. Thanks for sharing some of your favourite and nostalgic spots. I feel this way about Algonquin Park, where we used to go camping every year with our kids. It seems like a one constant that first change much in our fast changing world. Loved this post!

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    1. Thank you! We were hoping to stay in the area for fall colors but will have to leave mid September to take care of business in Colorado. I’ve missed autumn in the Midwest with its kaleidoscope of colors. Enjoy!

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  12. So much fun revisiting favorite places from your past. I love the old photo of Al with the canoe! Very interesting to learn about the iron ore being shipped from there. We spent two nights at Temperance River SP one year. No hookups but it was worth it for the location. Loved exploring around there and looking for the best place to get a photo of Split Rock lighthouse. Thanks for letting me revisit the area through your post.

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    1. Isn’t the Northshore beautiful? I’m still trying to figure out a time to get back to Split Rock to photograph the lighthouse, but that may have to wait till next summer. As summer storms come and go, Al and I reminisce about our tent camping years. These days, I can’t imaging tenting it let alone padding in those storms. Ah, to be young again 😊

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      1. Yes, it is a beautiful place. I’m so glad we were able to spend a little time there. If I remember correctly we had to go on a trail and climb around on some rocks to get a good photo of the Split Rock Lighthouse.

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        1. Yeah, there’s a lot of climbing around to find an angle. I wanted to climb the 98 steps down to the shoreline (and back up 🙄) to photograph the lighthouse but the morning light wouldn’t work well for images. I vowed to return later for sunset, but both nights brought severe storms. Guess I have a reason to return next summer 😀 (not that I need one)

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