The Best North Shore MN Itinerary (3 Days)
December 13, 2023
If you’re wondering how to spend 3 days on the Minnesota North Shore, you’re in the right place! The Minnesota North Shore is an incredible place for an adventurous road trip. From quintessential small towns to epic hiking trails to rocky beaches, this region of Minnesota is perfect for anyone who enjoys the outdoors.
The North Shore is located along the coast of Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake by surface area. This giant Great Lake was named gichi-gami by the Ojibwe, meaning “great sea.” It indeed feels like a sea in many ways. It’s not uncommon for Lake Superior to have towering waves and intense winds. Not to mention that countless shipwrecks have occurred there throughout history.
The North Shore Scenic Drive itself is 150 miles and designated as an “All-American Road” for its one-of-a-kind features. It was also immortalized in the famous Bob Dylan album Highway 61 Revisited.
After several packed day trips exploring the North Shore, I’m sharing all of the best hiking trails, restaurants and sights that you should see on a weekend getaway to the MN North Shore.
Where is the Minnesota North Shore?
The Minnesota North Shore refers to the stretch of shoreline along Lake Superior between Duluth and the border of Canada. The shore extends 150 miles.
How to Get To the Minnesota North Shore
If you’re flying, the easiest way to get to the North Shore is to fly into Duluth. The city has a small airport but it’s serviced by commercial airlines. Duluth is the perfect place to start your North Shore adventures.
However, you may find it more affordable to fly into the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul), where the airport is much larger. The MSP airport is located a little over 2 hours from Duluth.
Either way, you’ll want a car to properly explore the North Shore.
When To Visit the Minnesota North Shore
The North Shore is wonderful year-round, but your experience will be much different depending on when you visit. The area has stunning fall foliage, making it a world class destination in the autumn months. If you want to swim, camp and enjoy the warmest weather, summer is a great time.
Spring would be a nice time for warmer weather with less crowds, but you also may still have snow from time to time.
Winters are intense on the North Shore, but it’s a nice time to visit if you’re interested in winter activities. You can partake in skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, ice fishing and more.
This itinerary is based upon visiting during the summer.
Be Prepared for the Mosquitoes
If you visit during the summer, the mosquitoes in Minnesota are BAD. For summer hikes, I highly recommend wearing an insect net and treating your clothing ahead of time with Permethrin. Plus, carry a strong insect repellent with DEET or Picaridin. They tend to be the worst around rivers and creeks and in the morning when the sun is not fully out.
MN North Shore Itinerary
Keep reading to discover exactly what I recommend for 3 adventurous days on the Minnesota North Shore.
Minnesota North Shore Road Trip Map
Spend your first day of this Minnesota North Shore road trip on the northern tip near Canada. You’ll also visit Grand Marais, and explore some beautiful beaches in the evening.
Hike to High Falls in Grand Portage
Start your explorations on the North Shore right on the border of Canada. High Falls is the largest waterfall in Minnesota and it’s an easy trek to see it.
The waterfall is 120 feet tall and rushes into a rocky gorge. It’s a part of the Pigeon River, which marks the border between the US and Canada.
Grand Portage State Park is the last place you can stop before approaching the Canadian Border. The parking lot doubles as a rest area, so you’ll find nice restrooms there as well. The trail to reach the waterfall is paved with just a bit of elevation. When you reach the viewing area, there are some steps and a couple of different viewpoints to enjoy the falls from different angles.
When I visited, there was a stunning double rainbow framing the waterfall, which made it extra special. This is one of the best waterfalls on the Minnesota North Shore and a can’t miss stop. It’s an amazing sight to start your North Shore road trip!
Hike to the Top of Mt. Josephine
The Mt. Josephine trail provides an incredible view of Lake Superior and the surrounding area. The trail is considered moderate, is 2.5 miles and gets a bit steep at times.
The trail is located on land that belongs to the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and is free to visit. Make sure to respect the area by leaving no trace. Keep in mind that the parking area is small, there is no restroom and we did not have cellular service at the trailhead. Make sure you have the offline map saved ahead of time!
One aspect I loved about this trail were the views of tiny islands. There is also a decent amount of space to spread out at the top and enjoy a snack. I think it’s a great choice for anyone looking for a moderate hike with great views.
Nearby, you may also want to stop at Grand Portage National Monument and learn some of the history of the fur trade between the Grand Portage Anishinaabe and the North West Company.
Hike to Devil’s Kettle
Explore another unique waterfall by embarking on the Devil’s Kettle Trail in Judge C.R. Magney State Park. The Brule River splits in two right above the waterfall, creating two streams. One plummets down like a normal waterfall. However, the stream on the left seemingly disappears into a hole carved away by rock. The water apparently resurfaces at some point downstream, but you can’t tell by looking at it.
Ideally, pay online ahead of time for your visit to this park. From the trailhead, you need to pay for your entry online, but we did not have reliable data service. The hike itself is 2 miles and includes elevation up and down. You will walk down 177 steps to the Upper Falls, then take more steps up to see Devil’s Kettle. Then you will return the same way and need to climb up the 177 steps.
When I visited, the high water level made it harder to see the disappearing stream, but it was still a beautiful waterfall. There was also some damage to the trail near Upper Falls, making it harder to get close enough for a great view.
Explore Grand Marias
After a few trails, stop for lunch or snacks in the charming town of Grand Marias. This small town is right on the water and full of great restaurants and other activities. It was even named America’s Coolest Small Town by Budget Travel Magazine and the Next Great Adventure Town by National Geographic Adventure Magazine.
If you like donuts, make sure to stop at World's Best Donuts! They are known for their classic cinnamon sugar cake donuts, along with a variety of other options. While I didn’t necessarily think they were the world’s best, this is a classic treat to enjoy during a stop in town. Keep in mind that they may sell out many of their donuts if you visit in the afternoon.
I loved the food, drinks and vibes at Java Moose. This coffee shop and cafe has a warm and welcoming atmosphere and is full of moose decor. They have a variety of coffee specialties and are known for their maple lattes. They also serve breakfast and lunch sandwiches, smoothies, baked goods and more.
Voyageur Brewing Company is another great place to visit if you have time. I enjoyed the Peace Sour Ale and cheese curds served with raspberry sauce. It’s a fun atmosphere, but I was a tad disappointed in the small portions and crowds.
One more place you may want to eat is the Fisherman’s Daughter at Dockside Fish Market. They serve fresh fish & chips made with fish freshly caught in Lake Superior. While the fish is supposed to be good, I’m a vegetarian and was so excited that they had a plant based chicken option. Along with their baskets of fried food, they also have a market area with fixings for charcuterie boards, fresh deli items and more. Plus, they have outdoor seating with views overlooking the harbor. This is a fun stop for families, groups and anyone who loves fish.
If you have time, you can enjoy a walk along the Grand Marais Breakwater Trail and take in the views of Lake Superior and the Grand Marais Lighthouse. Whether you’re making a quick stop for a snack or spending multiple days here, make sure to include Grand Marais in your North Shore itinerary.
Hike to Caribou Falls
Continue south on the North Shore Scenic Drive to visit a few quick and easy stops before you run out of daylight hours. First up, Caribou Falls is an easy and gorgeous waterfall trail that follows along the Caribou River.
The trail is 1.2 miles and is relatively flat until you take some steps down to see the waterfall. Depending on the water level, you may want to bring some water shoes or expect to get your feet wet to get the best view of the waterfall at the end. However, it’s optional and you can also enjoy it from the steps.
It may just be because it was less crowded late in the day, but I especially enjoyed this waterfall. It’s surrounded by a pinkish rock face and the trail to reach it is pleasant and peaceful. This is a great one if you’re looking for a quick and family-friendly waterfall to chase.
Visit Black Beach
Black Beach is a really unique place on Lake Superior. While it’s now a beautiful place, the story of how this beach came to be is less than ideal. The beach is black due to taconite tailings that came from refining companies during the peak period of iron mining between the 1950’s and 80’s. Tiny bits of the iron have mixed with the sand to create this unique phenomenon. This is the only black sand beach in Minnesota.
Today, there is no further pollution occuring from iron tailings and the beach is safe to visit. The black sand contrasts nicely with huge red rocks and the beach is framed with jagged rocky outcroppings. It’s a beautiful place.
The beach was quite crowded when I visited, so don’t expect solitude in the afternoon or evening. Many visitors were enjoying picnics or climbing up the giant rock at the edge of the sand.
Visit Iona’s Beach Scientific & Natural Area
Pink Beach provides quite the contrast from Black Beach. This area is made up of small pink rhyolite rocks that are broken off from the surrounding cliffs. This beach is designated a Scientific & Natural Area, meaning that it contains unique geological features and is highly protected. This means that there is no swimming or pets allowed. Make sure to tread lightly and take extra care to leave no trace when visiting.
In contrast to Black Beach, this beach had very few people. It’s the perfect peaceful spot to end a day full of adventure on the Minnesota North Shore.
Spend most of day 2 doing a longer hike, then enjoy some other iconic spots on the North Shore.
Hike to Bean and Bear Lake
Start your second day of North Shore adventures with an epic hike to Bean and Bear Lake. This trail is 6.9 miles with over a 1,000 feet of elevation gain, so it will take you a few hours. Along the way, you’ll get to enjoy several viewpoints overlooking both Bean and Bear Lake. Bean Lake is actually shaped like a bean!
The trail is a partial loop. I hiked along the two lakes on the way out and took the loop through the woods on the way back. The portion of the trail near the two lakes was definitely the highlight.
The path has a lot of ups and downs, but there weren’t any areas that were particularly steep or difficult. It makes a great workout!
Make sure you bring your insect repellent (the mosquitoes were bad in some areas) and I recommend starting early to beat the crowds. Overall, this is one of my favorite trails on the North Shore and is worth the hike as long as you have the time!
Visit Fika Coffee
Reward yourself after the trail with a visit to Fika Coffee. This adorable coffee shop has a commitment to high quality coffee, community and adventure.
I enjoyed an Affogato here. It made for an incredible post-hike summer treat. Fika also serves donuts from World’s Best Donuts if you’re craving a dessert. It’s a great spot to refuel.
Ride an Alpine Slide or Hike to Oberg Mountain
Not far from Fika Coffee, a popular activity is to ride the alpine slide at the Lutsen Mountains Ski Resort. To ride the slide, you’ll take a chairlift to the summit of Eagle Mountain. You will then be able to control your speed the entire way and decide whether you prefer to take it slow or go as fast as you can.
Keep in mind that you will not be attached to a track on the alpine slide, so it can be quite dangerous.
Or, if you’re up for another hike, Oberg Mountain is a fantastic option nearby. This trail is 2.3 miles and offers an amazing view of the very round Oberg Lake. Plus, it’s a loop trail, so you’ll get to take in the beauty of Lake Superior on the other part of the loop.
Another fun aspect of this hike was that there were signs all about the area’s cryptids (creatures from legends, such as BigFoot). I’m not sure if this was temporary or not, but it was a fun way to learn about the area along the way.
The Oberg Mountain trail offers a lot of reward for little effort, and it wasn’t too crowded during my visit. It’s certainly worth a stop.
Indulge in Pie and Comfort Food
There are two places on the Southern half of the Minnesota North Shore known for their pie and comfort food: Rustic Inn Cafe in Castle Danger and Betty’s Pies in Two Harbors.
Betty’s Pies is the more famous of the two. These pies are said to be the best in Minnesota. Betty Lassard got her start serving donuts and coffee to local fishermen in 1957. The concept soon became Betty’s Cafe and pies were added to the menu. Fast forward to 2020, and they were making 700 pies a day and shipping nationwide. Betty passed away in 2015 but her legacy lives on.
On any given day, there are 20+ pies to choose from. There is also a breakfast and lunch menu. The fruit pies seem to be the most popular and I loved the Great Lakes Pie. It’s made with 5 fruits (apple, blueberry, rhubarb, strawberry and raspberry).
Due to its popularity, you can expect a wait during peak times. We had to wait about 45 minutes to be seated for lunch on a Saturday.
A great alternative to Betty’s Pies is Rustic Inn Cafe. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner and also have a great selection of pies. I didn’t try their pie but thought the food was good, and it was much less crowded than Betty’s Pies. Rustic Inn Cafe has been open since 1986 and has a commitment to scratch-made food and delicious pies. Perhaps try a slice of pie from both places to decide for yourself which is the best!
Spend day 3 enjoying hikes on the southern part of the North Shore Scenic Drive.
Hike the Split Rock Ridge Loop Trail
Another fun hike along the North Shore is the Split Rock Ridge Loop in Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. The trail follows along the Split Rock River and there are multiple waterfalls along the way. You will even pass two giant rock pillars that look as if they were split in half.
The trail is 5.6 miles if you complete the entire loop. During my visit in 2023, the bridge for the river crossing was unusable. However, there are some spots where a river crossing is possible using rocks, making the loop possible.
The trail on the opposite side of the river will take you away from the river and up on a hill, where you’ll be able to see Lake Superior. At the end of the loop, you’ll cross the North Shore Scenic Drive and walk on a paved trail to be able to access a beach.
Overall, this trail had a lot of mosquitoes and many of the waterfall views were obscured. However, it’s still enjoyable if you are looking for a less crowded hike and have the time. If you’re short on time, I would skip it.
Hike Day Hill Loop
The Day Hill hike is one I wouldn’t miss on a visit to Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. This trail involves starting from Pebble Beach and hiking up a relatively small hill. The viewpoint provides a stunning look at the lighthouse in one direction, and a peninsula in the opposite direction.
While the beach area is also a nice place to view the lighthouse, I thought that Day Hill easily provided the best view.
Another unique aspect of this hike is the ruin at the top. There is a giant stone fireplace on top of the hill. Legend has it that Frank Day, a Duluth businessman, purchased the land on the hill to visit a home for his soon-to-be wife. However, she called off the wedding before he could finish. He then abandoned the project, but the fireplace remains.
The Day Hill hike is 3.5 miles and rated easy (although be prepared for steps and elevation). You can also add onto the trail and hike out to Corundum Point and Mine.
If you’d like to go inside of the lighthouse, there is a museum and a tour that require an extra fee. I enjoyed the view from afar.
Visit Gooseberry Falls State Park
Gooseberry Falls State Park is one more place you shouldn’t miss on a weekend trip to the Minnesota North Shore. This is one of the best waterfalls on the MN North Shore. There are three levels of waterfalls a short walk from the parking area: Lower Falls, Middle Falls and Upper Falls. You can climb up and down stairs to see them at various levels, wade in the water in front of them and climb around the rocks surrounding them.
I was most impressed by Middle Falls. Middle Falls and Lower Falls are 60 feet combined. You’ll find Upper Falls a short walk away, upstream of the bridge.
While the waterfalls are beautiful, this area was extremely crowded during my visit. If you would rather escape the masses, hike the 3-mile loop trail to see Fifth Falls. The trail is relatively flat and follows along the river. It’s hard to get a great look at Fifth Falls, but the trail is a nice escape from the crowds in the main area.
Have a Treat at 5th Street Malt Shoppe
Stop for a treat as you conclude your adventures on the North Shore. The 5th Street Malt Shoppe in Two Harbors is a small roadside stand that serves malts, shakes, floats and more in a variety of flavors. Their items are great quality and the portions are large. I combined pineapple and chocolate in my shake and thought it was delicious.
Where to Stay on the Minnesota North Shore
Deciding where to stay on the Minnesota North Shore can be a tough choice. To maximize your time the most, you may want to stay somewhere central, such as the Mountain Inn close to Lutsen.
Or if you’d like to stay in a smaller town and have access to great food and drinks, Grand Marais is a great option. One place to stay in town is the East Bay Suites.
Personally, I stayed in Duluth and drove up from there each day. Duluth marks the bottom of the North Shore, so it was a long drive from the Grand Marais area. However, it was worth it, as Duluth is a really interesting city in itself. A few places to stay in Duluth include Enger Lofts, the South Pier Inn and the Canal Park Lodge.
The Minnesota North Shore is a destination that should be on everyone’s midwest bucket list. From the waterfalls to the lake views to the small towns, there is something for everyone here. I had the best time exploring this area and cannot say enough great things about a Minnesota North Shore road trip. I hope this guide helps you plan a fun trip to this beautiful part of Minnesota.
For more Midwest travel guides, check out these blogs:
- The Perfect Michigan U.P. Itinerary
- The Best MN North Shore Hiking Trails
- How to Take a Perfect Day Trip to Mackinac Island
- How to Spend 3 Days in Madison, Wisconsin
- The Best Outdoor Adventures in St Cloud
- The Best Hikes in Indiana
- The Best Things To Do in Hocking Hills, OH
- The Best Things To Do in Cuyahoga Valley, OH
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