Flat, endless corn fields and the Mall of America. If you live on either coast of the United States, this might be all that comes to mind when asked to picture Minnesota. Those outside the U.S. probably don’t even know that Minnesota exists – let alone that it holds one of our nation’s most spectacular getaways.
Before visiting, I definitely didn’t expect to dip my toes in crystal clear blue waves and relax on a pristine, undeveloped beach. And, having grown up in New England, I always thought we commanded the picturesque, Instagram-ready lighthouse. Too often, when planning a trip, we limit ourselves to the tried-and-true spots.
This includes the strip of the East Coast that stretches from Boston to South Carolina, Florida, Vegas and the Grand Canyon, and any place in California accessible by Route 1. If we travel to the Midwest, it’s probably going to be to Chicago. (Obviously, I’m referencing leisure, not business, travel. Nearly every single person on my plane to Minneapolis was a middle-aged white guy in a stiff suit.)
Honestly, I didn’t plan a trip to Minnesota to spontaneously explore an oft-overlooked part of the country. I tagged along with Kevin, who had to attend his great-aunt’s funeral in the suburbs of Minneapolis, and together we wound up taking an overnight excursion to Duluth. Duluth, a medium-sized city two and a half hours north of Minneapolis, sits minutes from the Wisconsin state border and also happens to be the place of Kevin’s mother’s birth.
Kevin’s mother, Mary, and one of his younger brothers, Tim, joined us for this adventure in the smallest rental car available stateside. Given that I’m barely over five feet, I rarely have to squeeze to fit into tight places, but in this rental car even I was a little snug. Everyone complained about the lack of space the entire way up to Duluth, but, of course, cramming proved to be worthwhile. Whatever stereotype you have about Minnesota, Duluth and Lake Superior will destroy it. Personally, I think that’s one of the best parts about traveling, so it’s no surprise that I loved arriving at a place so different than, I’m embarrassed to admit, I’d expected.
Minnesota Point and the Shores of Lake Superior
As a lover of all things aquatic, I’ve traveled to a number of ocean beaches in the continental United States. From Key West to Sausalito to Provincetown, I’ve seen my fair share of great beaches, and I have to say, Minnesota Point is one of them. This vast lake can easily be mistaken for an ocean, and if I wasn’t standing in the middle of landlocked Minnesota, I could’ve been looking out over the Atlantic. I’d never visited a Great Lake before, and Minnesota Point left me speechless.
(Thanks, Kevin, for the above photo! I can never resist dipping my toes into water.)
Taking in the View at Hawk Ridge Nature Center
I’m not birdwatcher or critter-lover – my younger sister certainly owns those titles – but I thoroughly enjoyed stopping by Hawk Ridge Nature Center to enjoy its expansive views of Lake Superior. Hawk Ridge quickly became my favorite spot in all of Minnesota, and in a moment, you’ll understand why.
Quick anecdote before I share some photographs: Kevin, his family, and I were the only ones soaking up the scenery at Hawk Ridge. There was some competitive bird-watching seminar taking place during our visit, and the participants were quite vocal and appeared to be rather into it. When I first saw their elaborate gear, I had thought they were astronomers preparing for nightfall. Then, I noticed the sign that read “bird observatory” and concluded that made much more sense. In all of my travels, I’ve never seen anything like it; this was one dedicated group of birdwatchers, and their equipment must have cost thousands of dollars.
The highlight of this plaque explains: “Lake Superior’s 32,485 square miles encompass an area as large as the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, and New Hampshire combined.” Oof. Upon reading this, I suddenly understood all of those jokes West Coast folks make about New England.
Even if you’re not a wildlife aficionado, a stop at the Hawk Ridge Nature Center will prove to be unforgettable – it’s truly a gorgeous spot to appreciate the sheer size of Lake Superior. From this vantage point, I started to understand how Lake Superior’s name came about, and I only regret that we didn’t have enough time to explore the center’s network of hiking trails.
The Lighthouse at Canal Park
For all of Duluth’s oceanfront – excuse me, lakefront, but I’m sure all of the above photos help explain my confusion – splendor, this northern Minnesota city still has a serious industrial edge, and tourists can taste this side of Duluth at Canal Park, located near the heart of downtown. Canal Park’s two trademarks, the Aerial Lift Bridge and lighthouse, offer fantastic photo opportunities. Understandably, visitors tend to flock to Canal Park, but it’s fun to see how active shipping is in the area and, let’s be frank, we’re all suckers for a charming lighthouse.
After exploring Duluth’s corner of Lake Superior, I added the remaining four Great Lakes to my United States travel bucket list. In 2015, I managed to cross off Lake Ontario; I’m thinking Erie, given its proximity to D.C., might be next.
Any Midwesterner who reads this piece might chuckle a bit, since for those in the region, Lake Superior is a top destination. But us East and West Coasters ought to start looking geographically inward and venture into a part of the country not widely associated with leisure or adventure travel. Hawk Ridge has a number of trails that I unfortunately didn’t have the time to explore, and Lake Superior’s beaches can rival those of Cape Cod or North Carolina. There’s more to Minnesota than the Mall of America, which, for what it’s worth, I found to be overrated. Duluth is where it’s at, folks – hiking and sandy beaches, what more could you ask for?
- To learn more about Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve, please visit their website.
- I recommend visiting northern Minnesota in May through September to avoid heavy snowfalls. This will mean crowds and higher hotel rates, but the weather is absolutely perfect. I visited in mid-September, and every day was sunny and in the mid-70s.
- When booking a hotel, don’t limit yourself to just Duluth, Minnesota – keep an eye out for deals in Superior, Wisconsin. This part of Lake Superior sits right on the state border, so either town makes for a convenient base.
- Lake Superior is definitely not a doable day-trip from Minneapolis, but it makes for an ideal weekend getaway. I’d recommend spending at least one night in the region.