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Exploring the North Shore of Minnesota in Autumn

Sal Santiago writes about travel, minimalism, philosophy, and living an alternative lifestyle.

Visitor Center at Jay Cooke State Park in northern Minnesota.

Visitor Center at Jay Cooke State Park in northern Minnesota.

Hunting Red Leaves in Northern Minnesota

If you are itching to get a break from city life, and in need of some healing time in nature, you cannot go wrong with a visit to northern Minnesota. See it at one of the most amazing times of the year—autumn—and then again in the heart of winter, when natural beauty is of a different kind, and you’ll wonder why you didn’t get there sooner.

The Swinging Bridge over the Saint Louis River.

The Swinging Bridge over the Saint Louis River.

It is truly an autumnal wonderland along the north shore of Lake Superior. This is an area off the beaten path for many people. Since there are not too many visitors, and it is not too touristy, you have a great deal of space to yourself. And with that space, you earn the peace and tranquility of some wonderful natural places.

Hiking paths in Jay Cooke State Park, northern Minnesota.

Hiking paths in Jay Cooke State Park, northern Minnesota.

With plenty of spots to look around and explore, here are a few suggestions for day hikes in the area.

Jay Cooke State Park

Jay Cooke State Park

Jay Cooke State Park

At Jay Cooke State Park, a short trail takes you to the swinging bridge over the Saint Louis River. The scene here is so picturesque in the fall. The river murmurs and rolls over rocks, as it meanders eastward toward Duluth and Lake Superior. The rush of the water over several small falls engulfs you and sounds like a much larger waterfall. Few sounds are as peaceful and relaxing as this, especially when you are enveloped by a sea of fall colors. The colors and the sounds of nature here will soothe and calm you.

Hiking path in Jay Cooke State Park

Hiking path in Jay Cooke State Park

I explored the dirt trail footpaths more. Smaller trails branch off and take to you to lookout spots, and places where you can bask in the beauty and enjoy the solitude along the river. Then you can link up with the main trail again for a hike in the forest.

Tilted rocks in the Saint Louis River

Tilted rocks in the Saint Louis River

There is a deep woods here with many evergreens, and deciduous trees exploding with all shades of fall color. Maples and birch trees are common here. One interesting and unique feature of the rocks in the river: many of them are long, layered rocks that are tilted. It is called the Thomson Formation, and it is made up of slate and a type of rock called graywacke.

Autumn colors along the riverbanks

Autumn colors along the riverbanks

Long ago underground movements caused the earth to bulge and left many of the rock slabs tilted at 45 degree angles. The unusual rock formations add something uniquely striking to the beauty of the park's foliage.

This is the perfect place to slow down and escape the city noise and the fast pace of life. The park is open in the winter as well, with more than 80 kilometers (50 miles) of trails for hiking, cross-country skiing, and snow-shoeing.

The Historic Lift Bridge in the Duluth Harbor

The Historic Lift Bridge in the Duluth Harbor

Duluth and Its Sights

From here, it is just a short drive to Duluth. A visit to Duluth would not be complete without taking a stroll along the Lakewalk Trail. Here you can look out over the lake, and take in views of the North Pier Lighthouse and the Aerial Lift Bridge.

If you would like to continue walking along the lakefront, the Park Point sandbar trail continues for seven miles. It is the longest freshwater sandbar in the world. From here you can also take in the views of Duluth and get a sense of the layout of the city and harbor. The city rises into the hills, where the main residential neighborhoods are.

The North Pier Lighthouse in Duluth

The North Pier Lighthouse in Duluth

The Minnesota Point Lighthouse marks the end of the sandbar and the state. When you see the Superior Entry Lighthouse, you are entering Wisconsin.

Duluth-Superior is one of the busiest ports in the country in terms of cargo. About a dozen ships pass through loaded with grain, iron ore, coal, limestone, cement, and salt on a daily basis.

The Lift Bridge was built in 1905. Unlike most bridges, it raises straight up to let ships pass through. It only takes about one minute for it to be raised to its full height. In the evening, join the crowds that gather here to watch the sailboats and ships pass through and to see the Lift Bridge in action.

The North Pier in Duluth, part of the Lakewalk

The North Pier in Duluth, part of the Lakewalk

Gooseberry Falls State Park

My next stop was Gooseberry Falls State Park, about 22.5 kilometers (14 miles) north along highway 61, past the town of Two Harbors, Minnesota. The drive is relaxing and very scenic. Not many cars are on the road, and fall colors blaze from the trees on both sides of you. Gooseberry Falls is another place that is perfect for fall hiking.

The park lies just off the Lake Superior coast. Ancient lava flows formed the land here over a billion years ago and left a landscape of basalt rock. The park consists of 1,700 acres of land, with many trails that wind through forests of birch, aspen, and evergreen.

A view of the Lakewalk path and downtown Duluth.

A view of the Lakewalk path and downtown Duluth.

I hiked the trail from the visitor center to the waterfalls (2 km/1.25 miles), and part of the Gitchi Gummi Trail, with vistas of the Gooseberry River Valley and Lake Superior.

I found myself relaxing and deeply breathing in the fresh air, all the while surrounded by thick forests and the soothing sounds of the waterfalls.

Gooseberry Falls is along the shores of Lake Superior in northern Minnesota.

Gooseberry Falls is along the shores of Lake Superior in northern Minnesota.

Again, autumn is an amazing time to be in this part of the world, as it offers a chance to see the colors and the changing of the seasons. We are lucky in the upper midwest to experience this season so profoundly. Many people will plan trips and hikes when the colors are at their peak, usually around late September to early October, on the North Shore of Minnesota. Further south in the state, the leaves also change colors beautifully, though it begins a few weeks later.

Hiking trail in Gooseberry Falls State Park

Hiking trail in Gooseberry Falls State Park

The Concept of "Momijigari"

I recently read there is a similar custom in Japan known as momijigari. Momiji means “red leaves,” and Gari means “hunting.” It's nice to have a word to be able to describe this experience during this time of year. That’s what I felt I was doing throughout my trip; I was constantly searching for red leaves and other brilliant colors.

Gooseberry Falls

Gooseberry Falls

You could easily spend a few days hiking and exploring Gooseberry Falls State Park. There is a campground situated right along the shores of Lake Superior you can enjoy as well.

Split Rock Lighthouse State Park

Heading about six miles further north brings us to the last stop on this trip, Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. The iconic lighthouse was built here in 1905 after a storm wrecked six ships in this area. It sits atop a 130-foot anorthosite cliff, pushed up from the earth by magma, over a billion years ago.

Hiking path near Gooseberry Falls

Hiking path near Gooseberry Falls

The Conundrum Point Overlook Trail, which is slightly hilly and rocky, follows the shore from Pebble Beach and features incredible vistas of the lake and shoreline. There are plenty of large rocks along the shore to sit down and spend some time on. Ponder the view of the lighthouse, and listen to the waves lap along the shore.

Hiking path

Hiking path

Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake by area, and it is deeper and colder than the other great lakes. The maximum depth is about 406 meters (1332 feet). It is also the cleanest and clearest of the lakes. People say you if you are out on Lake Superior on a boat, you can dip a cup in the water and drink straight from the lake as you could in the old times before excessive pollution.

It seems to likely be the quietest of the great lakes as well, generally due to its far north location. In general, there are not many boats on the lake (other than what comes through Duluth-Superior).

Pebble Beach, near Split Rock Lighthouse

Pebble Beach, near Split Rock Lighthouse

The lake is known for its rock formations, solitude, and tales of shipwrecks and adventures. For these reasons many consider it to be the best of the great lakes. There is a vast area of natural beauty here, and a feeling of space and solitude.

It is great to visit the North Shore any time of year. Each season offers something unique, yet, without a doubt, there is something magical about autumn in the far north.

Split Rock Lighthouse on Lake Superior

Split Rock Lighthouse on Lake Superior