The near North Shore
From Gooseberry Falls, a single stretch of highway is packed with Nature's spectacles.
In one 19-mile stretch of Minnesota's North Shore, Nature presents a one-two-three punch of incomparable beauty.
Just half an hour north of Duluth, Gooseberry Falls State Park presents an eye-popping spectacle of waterfalls, lumpy beds of ancient lava and twisted cedar clinging to rock outcroppings.
Six miles farther, Split Rock Lighthouse sits picturesquely on its cliff, a tourist attraction since 1924, when people could get to it on the newly completed Minnesota 61.
Few tourists on the North Shore fail to traipse the park's lakeside trails, at least far enough to get a good photo of the pale-yellow lighthouse.
And 12 miles past that, the trails of Tettegouche Park showcase rugged headlands and a series of wild waterfalls, coursing creamy-gold down the faces of black basalt heaved from the center of the Earth a billion years ago.
It's an embarrassment of natural riches.
Many visitors to the North Shore whiz right by this stretch on their way to Lutsen or Grand Marais.
But those who don't have much time or don't want to spend it driving would be smart to stay right here, near some of the North Shore's best trails and best accommodations.
Gooseberry is the most-visited outstate park in Minnesota, no doubt because its falls are only yards from the highway and because day visitors pay no fee to park and walk to the river, along a trail accessible to wheelchairs. There's a handsome visitor center of wood and rock, with a gift shop and exhibits.
In the winter, the falls seethe rather than roar, but they are even more beautiful under translucent curtains of icicles. A 20-kilometer web of cross-country ski trails covers the park; often, skiers will spot the tracks of the wolves who also use the trails.
Along the highway, bicyclists can ride from Gooseberry Falls to Beaver Bay and beyond on the paved Gitchi-Gami State Trail.
Four miles up the road, the five-mile Split Rock River Loop is one of the most popular stretches of the Superior Hiking Trail, following and then crossing the red-rock river gorge.
The 1909 lighthouse is 2½ miles farther, perched atop its 130-foot cliff. Built in response to the epic 1905 storm that wrecked six ships within a dozen miles of the Split Rock River, it was decommissioned in 1969.
The beacon always is lighted on Nov. 10, the anniversary of the Edmund Fitzgerald sinking, when the names of the 29 crewmen are read and an interpreter discusses the Fitzgerald, which went down off the coast of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, not far from the Soo Locks.
From May 15 to Oct. 15, the lighthouse, fog-signal building and keeper's quarters are open for tours. The visitors center, which includes displays on commercial fishing and tourism and a 22-minute film on the lighthouse, is open all year.
Across the cove from the lighthouse, the state park includes Gold Rock, scene of a dramatic shipwreck during the 1905 storm. At its base, the Madeira is a favorite of scuba divers.
Beaver Bay, the oldest continuously occupied white settlement along the shore, appears four miles up the highway. This was the home of the legendary John Beargrease, who carried mail along the shore from 1879 to 1900, via dog sled in winter.
He's buried in the little Ojibwe cemetery on a hill just off County Road 4; during the annual John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, the teams stop to pay tribute.
Beaver Bay has cafes and some interesting shops, the best of which is the Beaver Bay Agate Shop and Museum, a good place to pick up tips on agate-picking spots and to see odd rocks.
At the edge of town, rock-pickers gather at the mouth of the Beaver River, one of the best places to find agates.
Silver Bay is three miles away, home of a giant taconite-processing plant and the roly-poly mascot Rocky Taconite. Two miles beyond that, a narrow road winds up to Palisade Head, a sheer clifftop that provides picnickers with sweeping views of Lake Superior shoreline.
Tettegouche State Park is just 2½ miles farther. Its 70-foot High Falls on the Baptism River is the highest in Minnesota if you don't count the 120-foot High Falls of the Pigeon River, whose cascade along the Minnesota border is shared with Ontario.
The 17 miles of hiking and cross-country ski trails wind through the park to four lakes, including Mic Mac, where the park rents four restored 1910 cabins. The most popular trails lead to Shovel Point, a dramatically rocky palisade on the lake, and upstream to Two Step Falls and, across a suspension bridge, High Falls.
And just up Minnesota 1 from Tettegouche, near Finland, the campus of Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center includes a river, two gentle mountains and two lakes, on which guests can paddle voyageur canoes.
The center also has a treetops ropes course and a rock-climbing wall, and provides outdoors sports according to season — skiing, mushing, snowshoeing, hiking.
On the near North Shore, there's a trail for everyone.
Trip Tips: The near North Shore
Getting there : Gooseberry Falls is 39½ miles from Duluth's Canal Park. From Gooseberry, it's 19 miles to Tettegouche State Park.
For more, see North Shore by the mile.
Accommodations: Castle Haven Cabins, 12 miles east of Two Harbors, has 12 two-bedroom cabins right on the lake, and seven have wood-burning fireplaces.
Nearby, Grand Superior Lodge includes newer log-style cabins and townhomes next to the lake. There's also a restaurant and pool area.
Gooseberry Trailside Suites, in the woods on the east side of Gooseberry Falls State Park, has four attractive two-bedroom suites, each with wood-burning fireplace and full kitchen. There's a sauna and a ski-waxing room outside.
Split Rock Cabins has 10 nice housekeeping cabins on flat, grassy Lake Superior shoreline. It's a half-mile west of the Split Rock River, 218-226-4735.
On the west edge of Beaver Bay, Cove Point Lodge sits next to the lake on a pretty cove. It has a restaurant and pool area and also rents cottages.
The Americinn in Silver Bay may be a good place to take kids; it has a 110-foot spiral water slide and rates include breakfast with waffle bar. 218-226-4300.
Tettegouche State Park has two highly prized places to stay. The luxurious Illgen Falls Cabin is atop 45-foot Illgen Falls on the Baptism River, off Minnesota 1.
For more, see Cabin on a waterfall.
On the other side of the park, accessible only by a 1¾-mile gravel road over which guests must tote all their supplies, are the four rustic cabins on Mic Mac Lake.
For more, see Heirs to a hideaway.
Camping : Split Rock, which doesn't have very many sites, is the hardest-to-get reservation in the state. Sites are cart-in or backpack only.
Dining : In Castle Danger, the Rustic Inn is a pleasant place to eat, especially for breakfast or pie.
Split Rock Lighthouse : The lighthouse is operated by the Minnesota Historical Society. It's open for tours May 15 through Oct. 16 and the following weekend for the Minnesota school break.
On Nov. 10, it holds a commemoration of the Edmund Fitzgerald (see Gales of November ). In winter, the visitors center is open Thursdays through Mondays; no fee is charged, but you need a state-park vehicle permit.
Admission is $8. It's free during the annual state-parks open house in early June and free for children on Children's Day.
Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center : This beautiful campus in the hills above the North Shore, up Minnesota 1 near the village of Finland, has nearly 2,000 wooded acres that include two lakes, two rivers and 18 miles of trails.
It has two indoor climbing walls, two high-ropes courses, three orienteering courses, a ski chalet and a swimming beach.
It offers a weeklong family vacation in summer, family canoe trips, Split Rock kayak tours, a fall hiking weekend and a Presidents Day skiing, snowshoeing and dog-sledding weekend.
It also offers two-hour kayak tours around Split Rock Lighthouse, $75.
Hiking : The Split Rock River loop starts four miles north of Gooseberry Falls, at the mouth of the Split Rock River; there's a parking area. It's five miles up the west side of the red-rock gorge and back down the other side.
In Tettegouche State Park, a trail follows the Baptism River upriver and merges with the Superior Hiking Trail. At High Falls, the tallest waterfall completely within the state, it crosses a suspension bridge, heads back and crosses again at Two Steps Falls.
And don't miss the half-mile trail to Shovel Point, where basalt headlands form a coastline that looks more like northern California than Minnesota. The view, which includes Palisade Head to the south, is incomparable.
For more, see Hiking the North Shore.
Bicycling : The Gitchi-Gami State Trail follows the highway on a 13-mile segment from Gooseberry Falls State Park to Beaver Bay.
For tips on combining the Gitchi-Gami with hikes on the Superior Hiking Trail, see Walk 'n' roll.
Snow sports : Gooseberry Falls State Park holds a candlelight ski in February and offers several snowshoe events.