The North Country, 2012–Arrowhead Country

And so, early Monday morning we began the North Shore Drive out of Duluth.  We were headed for the far northeastern corner of the state, commonly known as Minnesota’s Arrowhead.  Along this route are 8 state parks and 5 state wayside parks.  The highway passes numerous streams and rivers that empty into the lake.  Flowing down from the higher elevations of the Sawtooth Mountains, they create cascades and waterfalls before emptying into Lake Superior.  The day was blue-sky bright, crisp with temperature due to rise into the high 60s and the traffic was light


Highway 61 draws a paved line between the world’s largest freshwater lake and dramatic bedrock formations covered with boreal forest.  Going along the crest of headland cliffs, with the Sawtooth Mountains as a backdrop and beaches of rocks and smooth stones lying out-of-sight far below, the road provides only scattered tantalizing views of the blue waters beyond.


The North Shore Drive is only a fractional part of the much longer Lake Superior Circle Drive that continues on through Canada, down to Sault St. Marie and then across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  This might be a much shorter trip, but what it lacked in length we hoped would be made up for in substance.

Highway 61

In 2000, the North Shore Scenic Drive was chosen as an All-American Roadway.  All-American is the top designation in the National Scenic Byway System, which includes such roadways as the Pacific Coast Highway in California, the Natchez Trace Parkway, the Beartooth Highway, Trail Ridge Road and the Blue Ridge Parkway, to name a few.  In all, there are presently about 31 All-American Roads.

Few roads are awarded this status.  According to the National Scenic Byways website: “To receive an All-American Road designation, a road must possess multiple intrinsic qualities that are nationally significant and contain one-of-a-kind features that do not exist elsewhere.  The road must also be considered a ‘destination unto itself’.”  And so, began our trip. Image We didn’t get far before the first stop.  Split Rock Lighthouse is perhaps the single most noted man-made feature of the entire North Shore Drive.  It is often pictured on calendars and postcards, and is symbolic of the outstanding landmarks of the North Shore. We passed it at mile marker 26.  Perhaps foolishly, I turned and asked Melinda if she would like for me to pull over at the scenic viewpoint.  One thing led to another, things that had to do with capturing different angles of shots, hiking down a bike path to reach the shoreline for a better view, taking another path along the rocky beach, and then the photographing began in earnest.  We ended up having our lunch there, and then exploring some other roads that led to even better viewpoints.  By midafternoon we finally got back on the road, determined to drive the remaining 100 miles or so non-stop.



Even without stopping (that is, disembarking) we passed by some rather interesting sights.  Things that gave us clues that we were in a different place.  No, this wasn’t Indiana.

Lake Superior was a constant companion to our right. It is huge. Like an ocean. It holds 10% of the world’s surface fresh water. It could hold all the water of the other four Great Lakes, plus three more Lake Eries.  It is the cleanest and clearest of the Great Lakes with an average underwater visibility of 27 feet; in some places, nearly 100 feet—to scuba divers’ delight.  Almost 1,350 feet deep, with an average of 489 feet.  Wow.


We’re camping in Judge C R Magney State Park, originally called the Brule River State Park. The lake shore lies just opposite its entrance. No services; just a campground, picnic area and trails. Very much like one of the forest service campgrounds we frequent out west.  We set up, and then took a hike up the Brule River to a series of waterfalls culminating in the Devil’s Kettle Falls. The river splits in two, with one part of the waterfall dropping into a deep pool and the second falls disappearing into a big hole. Despite testing, no one knows where this part of the river emerges, but suspect it empties somewhere out in the Lake.

The Upper Falls
The Devil’s Kettle

Tuesday, we headed further north passing through Hovland. It used to be a thriving fishing village with a series of warehouses and a big pier jutting out into the lake where huge freighters used to pull in. Parts of the pier are still there, but little else. A ramshackle shed or former cabin was seen near the shore. No sign of the church, town hall or the two hotels.

Next, we headed to the Grand Portage Ojibwa Reservation which takes up a significant part of the northern tip of the Arrrowhead. The name comes from both the Ojibway (we learned how to say that word) and the French translation of Le Grande Portage. This is a 9-mile trek the French voyageurs made through the woods, cutting off miles of the Pigeon River which has numerous cascades and waterfalls. It was a gateway to the Northwest, including Hudson Bay. Every year there was a rendezvous where the North West Company had a post. Furs where exchanged for more refined goods. We read that one year they exported 182,000 beaver pelts. That’s a number that is hard to believe. Image Right on the international border is Grand Portage State Park with a series of hiking trails that lead to more (you guessed it) waterfalls. The thing is, the northwoods upcountry from Lake Superior is chockfull of streams and rivers which flow into the lake.  But along their way, the land drops precipitously down from the escarpments and cliffs lining the shore.  Hence, all the waters are full of cascades, small waterfalls and occasionally major falls.  The Upper Falls at Grand Portage are, in fact, Minnesota’s largest.


Across the river is Canada. We saw the border crossing, but didn’t bring our passports, so we stayed in the USA. Plenty to do on this side anyway.

Since the area is an Indian reservation, there is a casino and resort. Nearby is the Grand Portage National Monument (the only national park/monument jointly owned with a native Indian tribe), which commemorates the history of the region and the rendezvous.


There is a re-creation of the Northwest Company trading post with tours being given on the hour and half hour by costumed volunteers. The present buildings are all reproductions, as the originals were disbanded (lock, stock and utensils), loaded onto boats to be reconstructed and utilized at the new Canadian outpost.  Apparently, once the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1803, the Northwest Company (British held) moved 30 miles up the coast into Canada. Since it wasn’t anywhere near the portage, operation costs rose dramatically, business dried up, and it was eventually bought out by the Hudson Bay Company, which is still around today.  (Google it and read more about its history, if I’ve whetted your interest.)


The docks had to be large enough to accommodate many canoes, some of immense size, as well as schooners that brought in the goods to be traded and took away all the tons of fur pelts.


ImageBack at camp, we enjoyed a big fire to keep the northern chill at bay. The wood was birch and it didn’t put off much heat, but if we piled on enough we were warm. We have a good site at the edge of the forest.  Fall-colored trees in all directions.  Other campsites are scattered randomly behind us, a good distance apart.  We are getting a good taste of the northwoods.  When things get too quiet, we look to the wildlife for our entertainment.  Fortunately, I found a bag of leftover sunflower seeds from our Colorado trip.  The frequent visitors scurrying through our site reminded me to dig it out.

Wednesday morning we headed in to the back country, driving some backroads to see some of the fall color.


Two waves of brilliant fall color hit the North Shore region.  Inland trees change first, where red and sugar maples, red oaks, different species of ash and two species of aspen are predominant.  Inland fall colors are diverse, ranging from brilliant yellows and golds, to shades of orange and reds.  Pines and firs mingle in, adding the deep shades of green for a strong contrast.



The trees along the shore, changing a week or so later, are mainly birches and ash, interspersed with pines.  Their colors are mostly shades of yellow.

old growth pine forest

The Arrowhead Trail runs through the heart of this region, with side roads leading to small lakes.  A very remote and unpopulated area, it is mostly state forest land.  A posted sign announced that we were driving through an area of 185 year old white and red pines.

We returned to the shore for a late breakfast at the Naniboujou Resort, located directly across the highway from Magney State Park. Originally it was the Naniboujou Club, built in 1929.  A private club, with an exclusive membership, it was extravagant with a 150-room lodge, cabins, bathhouse, golf course and swimming pool. Image

In October of that same year though, tragedy struck in the form of the infamous Stock Market crash. The Great Depression reared its ugly head and the luxurious resort quickly closed, after going through a series of owners. Fortunately, it is now owned by a husband and wife team who have brought it back to its former state.  It is really unique, with its interior décor reflecting the art of the local native tribes.  The elaborate painted designs covering walls and ceilings have never been retouched, we learned from our waiter.  The huge stone fireplace at one end of the great dining hall is supposedly the largest one in the entire state. Everyone was taking photos of it.  Quite impressive.



Magney State Park was once the site of a camp for victims of the Great Depression. The camp was to provide work opportunities for homeless men in exchange for wages, shelter, food, water and medical care. Barracks were constructed to lodge the men, along with bathhouses, a bakery, a dining hall, three workshops, a warehouse and recreation halls. We noticed numerous concrete foundations in the campground and picnic areas, which are the remains of the work camp. The camp was ultimately named the Grover Conzet Camp and was managed by the Works Progress Administration, or WPA. The residents of this camp worked at planting trees and other forestry services, such as constructing the trail and staircases leading to Devil’s Kettle Falls itself. The camp was rendered obsolete in 1938 after the residents of the camp staged a coup of sorts, rebelling against the WPA administrators.

After a series of years serving as a camp for Obijwa youth, the Minnesota State Legislature officially deemed the area as the Brule River State Park in 1957, thereby setting aside the area for future generations to enjoy. The park was thereafter renamed in 1962 after the recently deceased Clarence Magney, a famous Minnesota judge who had spent much of his life passionately advocating for the establishment of state parks along the North Shore of Lake Superior.  His philosophy is best summed up by his statement: “Our state parks are everyone’s country estate.”


From “our country estate,”

Chris and Melinda


About AirstreamTravelers

A 2016 Pendleton Airstream suits our lifestyle perfectly. It's a commemorative edition celebrating the 100th anniversary of our national parks. In our efforts to see as many of those parks as we can, the two of us are now spending several months each year on the road. We hope our posts and accompanying photos give a vivid description of where we travel, illustrating to our followers what's out there, just over the next horizon.
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