Minnesota's North Shore of Lake Superior

Beaver Bay | Grand Marais | Silver Bay | Two Harbors

An Overview

Minnesota's North Shore represents 150 miles (240 kilometers) of shoreline belonging to the world's largest (by surface area) freshwater lake - Lake Superior. To the Ojibwa (Chippewa), it was called Gitche Gumi: Great Lake or Great Water. Three states (Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota) and one Canadian province (Ontario) share the lake's shoreline.

Lake Superior covers about 31,700 square miles (82,100 square kilometers), about the same size as Maine or the combined provinces of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. It is the greatest Great Lake--the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area, and the third largest by volume. Only Lake Baikal in Siberia and Lake Tanganyika in East Africa contain a greater volume of fresh water. Superior is the deepest of the Great Lakes and along much of the North Shore is as much as 700 feet deep (213 meters) only 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) out from shore. The deepest spot, 1,332 feet (406 meters), is 40 miles (64 kilometers) off Munising, Michigan. One of the world's tallest buildings, Chicago's Sears Tower, could fit in that hole with only a few floors sticking above the water. See how it compares to the world's largest buildings and lakes.

Lake Superior view If you drive the 350 miles (563 kilometers) from Ottawa to Niagara Falls, you have traveled the length of Lake Superior. To appreciate its width, drive the 160 miles (257 kilometers) from Duluth to Minneapolis. If Superior's shoreline were unraveled into a highway, it would extend 1,826 miles (2,938 kilometers), the distance from Duluth to Miami. Lake Superior's watershed covers 49,300 square miles (127,700 square kilometers) but is a small basin for the size of the lake it contains. The lake is 380 miles long (east to west) and as much as 160 miles wide, with a surface area of 31,700 square miles (82,100 square kilometers), 2900 miles of shoreline. These statistics speak to the magnificence of this lake. A personal view of the lake also helps put perspective to this giant body of water that stretches glimmering to the horizon. Storms can produce huge waves that pound against imposing cliffs with spray plumes that reach hundreds of feet in the air, indeed waves as large as 31 feet have been recorded on Lake Superior. During winter dramatic ice structures can be seen piled high along the shore.

Lake Superior could hold the water from all of the other Great Lakes, along with three more Lake Eries. Because of its great size, Superior has a retention time of about 191 years. This is a measure of how long water stays in the lake, based on volume and the mean rate of outflow and provides a general sense of how long it can take to flush pollutants out of the system.

Here in Minnesota, Lake Superior's shoreline offers up rugged rocky cliffs, pebbly beaches, mini mountains forested by pines, birch and poplars along with plunging streams and numerous sensational waterfalls heading down to Lake Superior. All meld together to form a spectacular wilderness rich in wildlife, fish and other natural resources. Indeed one of nature's greatest resources found along the North Shore is its numerous streams. Between the eastern edge of Duluth and the Minnesota/Canadian border there are 27 major streams draining 2184 square miles of the North Shore into Lake Superior. These seasonally flashy streams are short in length, steep and swift, cutting through bedrock, over rapids and careening down spectacular waterfalls.

Dotted along the shoreline are a number of small communities that share in the wilderness legacy. Most owe their origins to the harvest of the areas abundant natural resources. First (1650-1850) there were voyagers and the fur trade. Then in the last third of the 1800s natural resources based industries began to flourish such as commercial fishing for Lake Superior Whitefish and Lake Trout, lumbering and shipping of Minnesota's Northern Superior Upland Forests and the shipping of iron ore from Minnesota's nearby Iron Range to more southern industrial areas.

Since the late 1800s tourism has played an ever increasing role of importance in lakeshore community development. Since 1945 the tourism industry has intensified and evolved from short term visits with rustic accommodations to the building of resorts and up-scale summer cottages that potentially will be retirement homes for those besotted by the area's beauty. Today's harvest of the wilderness is mostly a visual experience for the countless tourists and part-time residents. However, while physical extraction of natural resources has diminished, burgeoning lakeshore communities now struggle with managing a variety of environmental impacts, a consequence of development pressures. The resulting impacts are neither entirely defined nor fully understood.

To better understand Minnesota's North Shore communities and their surrounding environment, links are provided to a selection of web sites that cover natural history, environmental concerns and recreation within the area.

Minnesota North Shore Natural History and Environment

  1. Lake Superior Coastal Program Final Environmental Impact Statement (Part III) - 1999
    A slightly dated but very good and complete review of the environment associated with Minnesota's North Shore. Document addresses climate, geology, soils, physical structure of coastline, watersheds, wetlands, water and habitat quality, other natural resources, pollutants, demographics, commerce and industry, recreational and other developmental issues. Also has a good pre-1999 reference section.
  2. History of Minnesota's Lake Superior
    Provides maritime historical details for recognized periods of development along Minnesota's North Shore and includes periods for the voyagers and their fur trade, European settlement and fishing, establishment of the iron ore industry, the development and collapse of the big tree lumber industry, railroads and agricultural development (a transportation story) and the more recent development of a North Shore tourism and recreation industry. The document is long but interesting.
  3. The Impacts of Tourism (3.7 MB pdf)
    Delineates the good and bad impacts of tourism. Environmental (including cultural, social and crowding impacts) and economic impacts are examined from a cost- benefit approach. A useful and informational document for community leaders and planners developing North Shore communities into the future.
  4. History Of Lake Superior: A Timeline
    Provides a comprehensive outline of historical happenings around the shores of Lake Superior from the 1600s through the 1900s including historic photographs, climate data and land use maps.
  5. The Nationwide Rivers Survey of the National Parks Service
    Provides information on notable rivers and streams in Minnesota, many of these flowing into Lake Superior along the North Shore. Includes a brief description of each stream, its length, its location of origin and mouth. To discover and explore the information provided on North Shore streams, scroll down the County column and investigate entries listed under St. Louis, Cook and Lake Counties. To decipher the shorthand script notations, the following is offered:

    ORV-Outstanding Recreational Value   S-Scenery   R-Recreation  G-Geology
    F-Fish   W-Wildlife   P-Prehistory   H-History  C- Cultural  O- Other Classifications: S-Scenic  R- Recreation  W- Wild River

  6. Real Time River Heights and Discharge Rates from the USGS are available at:
  7. Minnesota Landview
    An easy to use interactive mapping tool provided by MNDNR. Users can view Minnesota geographical features in a variety of mapping formats. Use of the zooming tool allows user to pinpoint selected areas.
  8. Lake Superior Basin Plan (2004) (warning: 11.9 MB pdf)
    The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) report documents and summarizes the water management activities for the Lake Superior Basin for a five year period to protect NE Minnesota's valuable natural resources, and resulting quality of life. Recognition of the interrelationship of lakes, streams, and rivers as an important factor in quality of life issues is discussed in terms of natural limits. These waters are already besieged by an unprecedented number of pressures and pollution sources. The Basin Plan is long -342 pages- but contains a wealth of information.
  9. Minnesota Lake Superior Beach Monitoring Program
    Provides water quality information based on indicator bacteria (fecal coliform and E. coli) concentrations for Minnesota's public Lake Superior beaches. Tabs at top of home page provide additional information on the monitoring program, the science behind the program, and advice on how to help prevent beach contamination. Includes a novel mapping utility to "see" the sites and their current data and a unique data animation tool for viewing the data over time or comparing it to other sites and other measurements.
  10. Lake Superior Weather Forecasts
  11. Minnesota's Coastal Program
  12. List of Impaired Waters in Minnesota (328 KB pdf)
    MN Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) list reported to the US EPA of surface water resources found to be "Impaired" and the pollutants causing the impairment. Listed water resources require Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) reporting. The listing is by geographic area e.g. Lake Superior Basin and includes data as recent as 2004.
  13. Historic (1998) MPCA data on river impairment for rivers located in the Lake Superior Basin is presented in an easy-to-use chart. Provides individual river lengths, river uses, indicators of impairments and suspected pollution sources. (215 KB pdf, pages 8 - 10)
  14. An Assessment of Representative Lake Superior Basin Tributaries 2002 (1.4 MB pdf)
    A study by MPCA assessing a number of North Shore streams between Duluth and Canadian border. Technical information on Amity Creek, Talmadge River, French River, Sucker River, Poplar River and Brule River is provided.
  15. North Shore Scenic Drive All American Road- Corridor Management Plan 2003 (860 KB pdf)
    A development and long term management plan for the North Shore scenic road (Highway 61). The report provides a vision, goals, and management recommendations for protecting and enhancing the 154 mile drive. Identified are many of the features, qualities and attractions that encourage both tourists and long-time residents to travel this route.
  16. History and Development of Great Lakes Water Craft
    An interesting article on early ships found on the Great Lakes. Of particular interest is the section entitled Small Craft which describes the development of the smaller 'Mackinaw' boats that were popular at Minnesota's North Shore.
  17. Swimming in the Great Lakes-2008 (168 KB pdf)
    Prepared by the NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL (NRDC), this is a guide to water quality at vacation beaches. Provides a list of all Great Lakes Beaches and water quality status in 2007, also an evaluation and recommendations for improvement of each of the Great Lake's states sewage overflow Right-to-Know programs. Summary documents from the previous season are available for each state in the program. Here is Minnesota's 2007 summary (97 KB pdf). For up-to-date information on Lake Superior Beaches, visit MNBeaches.org.
  18. Sugarloaf - The North Shore Stewardship Association
    Founded in 1993 to protect and restore Sugarloaf Cove. The North Shore Stewardship Association promotes the restoration and preservation of the entire North Shore.

Outdoor Guides for Exploring Minnesota's North Shore

  1. General Information Guides
    • Lake Superior Drive
      Provides nicely summarized information on attractions, lodging, dining and shopping. Each entry is accompanied by mile marker information from Duluth and from Sault Ste Marie. A nice feature is the map found on the home page which can be enlarged by clicking to reveal a very clear and simple map that locates the features described in the narrative, this includes all the North Shore streams.
    • Minnesota North Shore Visitor Guide
      Provides an easily navigable page for finding information on State Parks, Lake Superior shipwrecks, outdoor activities, fall color tours, weather and all the usual lodging-dining-attractions information. This site also includes a page that highlights outdoor recreational opportunities along the North Shore.
    • Explore Minnesota
      Includes brief notes on Lake Superior facts, geology and attraction's information; links to State Park web sites, but also to numerous other Lake Superior related sites like Duluth Shipping News.
    • Highway 61 North
      An outdoor adventurer's guide to activities found along Minnesota's North Shore. Covers hiking, bicycling, snowmobiling horseback riding dog sledding, golf and more. Many links provided to service suppliers and outfitters.
    • North Shore Nature
      A resource for nature questions and every non-commercial recreational pursuit you want to enjoy on Minnesota’s Lake Superior North Shore. You’ll find everything you’ll need here from bird and mammal information, to park camping information and current trail conditions on the Superior Hiking Trail.
  3. Driving
    • America's Byways
      Driving guide to scenic drive sites along Lake Superiors Minnesota's shoreline
    • Superior Byways
      Summarizes the driving experience along the North Shore. An interactive panel and map allows users to explore communities and locate information centers, historic and natural attractions, recreational opportunities and scenic views. Includes a Communities link, although some are non-operational at this time.
  1. Parks
    BWCA scenery NewRanger Paul's Favorite campsites in Minnesota
  2. View a video and see photos highlighting some of the beautiful camping locations in Minnesota -- including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Split Rock Lighthouse State Park.
    The State Park system along Minnesota's North Shore is the highlight that memorializes Lake Superior's rugged shoreline landscape. The MNDNR website includes park highlights, natural history, maps with trails, seasonal updates, camping and lodging availability, reservation instructions, trail conditions and recreational facilities for each park.
  3. Fall Colors
    Lists a number of Fall Color tour opportunities along the Lake Superior shoreline and venturing inland to the geological feature known as the Sawtooths and deep into the Superior National Forest. Each suggested trail is categorized as an early or late season, driving or walking tour and a downloadable map is available for each suggested trail.
  4. Geology and Rock Hounding
    • Superior Trails
      A two part guide to identifying rocks and minerals found along the Lake Superior shoreline of Minnesota. Each rock or mineral is described with an adjoining image. Part one features igneous and metamorphic rocks. Part two focuses on minerals, agates and mystery rocks.
    • DNR Geology
      A story on Lake Superior agates that covers their history, their formation and clues to finding them.
    • Lake Superior agate information
    • Iron Mining
      A simple description of the mining and production of Taconite pellets, much of which is shipped out of North Shore communities.
    • Basic geology
      Summary of past geological events that shaped Minnesota's North Shore landscape.
  5. Snowmobiling
  6. Bicycling
  7. Hiking SHTA
    • The Superior Hiking Trail is one of the nation's premier trails. Explorers of this trail system are routed along the highlands and down to the shoreline of Lake Superior and up to the highlands again for over 200 miles. There are a number of access points along the trail that allow for shorter loops and 1 - 3 mile scenic hikes. Some of you may be interested in this user group: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/hiker/. It is a casual conversation about trail conditions, backpacking trips, day hiking, hooking up for new hiking partners, slide show announcements and so on -- anything related to the Superior Hiking Trail.
    • North Shore and State Park hikes
      Clicking on a trail pulls-up information on location, permits needed, length of trail, level of difficulty, trail highlights, amenities and maps.
    • North Shore waterfalls guide Includes descriptions, locations and good imagery. Further navigation through this web site will lead to interesting features to be found around Lake Superior.
    • The North Country Trail
      "Minnesota may not have the longest mileage of trail of the NCNST states, but it will have some of the finest and most memorable, especially if and when the Arrowhead reroute takes place."
  8. Paddling and more
  9. Birding
    • North Shore Birds
      Summary of seasonal distribution of common and conspicuous bird types found in State Parks adjoining Lake Superior Shoreline.
    • North Shore Birds check list
    • Birding events
      Grand Marais hosts two birding events, one in the spring and another in the fall.
  10. Fishing
    • LakeSuperiorStreams
      Links to organizations that provide educational information on fishing Lake Superior and its rivers and streams.
    • MN DNR Fishing Reports
      Provides up- to- date fishing reports for North Shore streams. Fishing pressure, types of fish being caught and what lures/ baits are being successful comprise the bulk of these almost daily reports.
    • State Fishing Regulations
      Also available as downloadable PDF file
    • A guide to identifying Lake Superior Fish
      Leads to a variety of pages on natural history and shipwreck information on Lake Superior and other Great Lakes.
    • MNDNR Area Fisheries Offices and contact information for area managers
    • Fisheries Management
      MN DNR site that supplies numerous North Shore recreational fishing related reports downloadable as PDF files. Includes Lake Superior's Fisheries Management Plan, Rainbow Trout Management summaries, creel survey reports, trap reports from French River and Knife River.
    • Economic impacts
      An interesting but dated report on the economic impact of recreational fishing along Minnesota's North Shore.
    • North Shore Fishing Guide (2005) (590 KB pdf)
      Locating streams along Minnesota's North Shore, information and diagrams of the various species of trout species found in North Shore streams and access and streamside ownership.