Timothy & I ended up having a couple extra days over our anniversary weekend so we decided to take a road trip north. What a better way to celebrate five years of marriage & his new position as a travel editor for Midwest Living? We set our eyes north of Duluth, Minnesota along the rocky shores of Lake Superior. I figured the leaves would be in full glory the first week of October and as luck would have it there was no moon in sight & a meteor shower (maybe the beginning of Orionids?) was definitely happening because the sky was raining them down on us.
We rolled in around 8pm and our first stop was Split Rock Lighthouse. We parked in the first parking lot we could find, bundled up and hiked down to the water. My camera was picking up a lot of green along the horizon, and later some locals told me it was the aurora acting up. I've never seen the Northern Lights, and I couldn't with my naked eye but with a 25 second exposure it's definitely possible. It turns out skipping stones with a headlamp makes for a pretty fun long exposure, FYI.
I was pretty set on camping along the shore. I wanted something primitive & private, so I did some googling & ended up finding Crystal Beach, an unmarked hike in cove that is right next to Tettegouche State Park. From what I can gather, the beach was originally developed around 1903 for mining purposes, but when the rock turned out to be worthless the efforts were abandoned & the beach became public land. There are no signs and I don't know if it's technically legal to camp there, but we definitely saw fire rings so we figured we weren't the first offenders. The beach is located around mile marker 60 on highway 61. If you're heading toward Grand Marais, you'll want to park right after you pass Crystal Creek.
We set up camp around 2am and fell asleep to the soft lull of Lake Superior knowing we would wake up for sunrise. It was definitely worth the sleep deprivation.
We woke in the morning to some pretty glorious light. I'm absolutely not a morning person even by the most generous of standards, but knowing that I basically could roll from my tent to the shoreline made it easier to crawl out of my sloth cave. Timothy has a super power where he can summon the energy of a seven year old boy at recess at any given hour, so he was immediately skipping stones and running naked into Lake Superior. He tried to convince me it felt refreshing, but I think we have different ideas of what that word means.
The North Shore (as the locals call the Superior coastline in Northern Minnesota) is made up of gorgeous pebbles and smooth rocks. One billion years ago the earth started splitting here, and had that faultline been successful, we would've had another ocean. Instead we get the lava rock lined shores. Because there is no sand, the water has nothing to murk it up and possesses a sort of tranquil clarity that's hard to explain. Anyone who knows me knows I'm obsessed with the ocean, but Lake Superior has a dream-like quality that stirs up a lot of nostalgia for me - a sort of pleasant melancholy.
Made some breakfast and mosied our way up the coast. Around noon hour our exhaustion hit us hard. We pulled over at Cut Face Creek Rest Area fully expecting to lazily sling up a hammock and crash. Turns out rest areas along the North Shore are nicer than public beaches basically anywhere in Iowa. We spent a couple hours reading & relaxing & jumping in.
Next stop was Grand Marais where we splurged on a nice meal at the raved about Angry Trout Cafe. Truthfully I was only medium impressed for the price. Great location with a lake front dock, but the food was just fine and the decor was pretty much rich midwestern grandma. I'm more of an eat soup on a rock kinda gal anyhow. Grand Marais is a magic little town about an hour from the Canadian border. It's definitely the most cultured stop on the 61 route with a heavy artist presence, fresh market co-ops, and plenty of local boutiques to mosey through. There's also Artists Point which is a city park with gorgeous rocks leading into the Lake. Makes for a great place to write a few postcards or sip a coffee.
I saw the most darling older couple laying by the water's edge there. I couldn't help but take a polaroid of them from afar & bring it to them. The lady was overjoyed. "Oh my! We hardly have any photos together anymore. This is perfect." So I offered to take another one closer as well. I don't have either, but hopefully they are stuck on a fridge somewhere in the midwest.
The last thing we wanted to do was hike to Two Falls in Tettegouche State Park to take some more star photos. I've never really messed with headlamp long exposures, and I need a lot more practice. This was my first go. We got there with about 20 minutes of light left, so we booked it on the trail. It wasn't a long hike - maybe 2 miles in from the trailhead. I would've loved to get there about an hour earlier for that golden hour light because the trees overhead were glowing gold, orange and red. Ya win some, ya lose some. We had the trail to ourselves once night fell. I think the trail closes at ten pm if you're wanting to get a night hike in!
The campground we were staying at was a couple miles inland off of Highway 1 called Ekbeck Campground. It was a good bit cheaper than staying in the proper Tettegouche camp sites, and we were rolling out early for sunrise again. We happened to drive right past it which turned out to be our best wrong turn on the trip. We ended up driving past Four Seasons Supper Club which looked like a typical back country watering hole, and being the extroverts we are and riding a high from a perfect day, we decided to dip in for some local flair. We sat at the bar and struck up conversation with a couple locals. Everyone was incredibly kind and told us about what it was like to grow up in the area. The lumber and welding industries that keep so many afloat. Agate hunting along the coast of Lake Superior, and how their buddy has one worth $40k. The wolves growing in pack size which has caused the deer and moose population to take a big hit. They told us if we howl at night in the woods, they'll howl right back. Not sure if they were just trying to get us to act a fool, but I wasn't tempted to try it anyhow. I love learning what life is like when I travel through a land, so this was honestly a highlight for me.
We arrived at camp, set up quick, and woke several hours later to head to Palisade Head for sunrise. Palisade Head is a magical looking rock cliff made up of rhyolitic lava - a lighter colored rock against the darker shoreline. The gate isn't open for sunrise, but you can park by the highway and hike up. It's an easy hike - maybe a mile or so. We had the place to ourselves. From there you have a beautiful view of Shovels Point [the farthest point that juts out in the photos below]. A local diver told us it gets around 300 feet deep around that point, but I haven't been able to find any info to confirm that.
We started our journey home after that. Stopped at a lot of thrift shops in the small coastal towns as well as Duluth. The thrifting is SO GOOD up there. Timothy & I both made out like bandits. I'd like to head up and properly explore Duluth more. It's always a town I'm driving through to get somewhere else, but never stopping for more than a meal. We also stopped briefly at Jay Cooke State Park to stretch our legs and write some postcards. Super rocky and pretty trail along the river & a gorgeous truss bridge turned into bike trail. Listened to a few episodes of My Dad Wrote a Porno on the ride home and was in stitches the whole time. If you've got a stomach for off-color British humor you've got to give it a try. It's brilliant.