Minnesota’s Northwoods and North Shore Splendor
The lakes of Minnesota’s famed Northwoods offer one of the best long-weekend RV getaways in the Midwest with incredible fishing and a host of fun outdoor adventures.
Tales of northern Minnesota’s rugged lake country instill visions of pristine waters, abundant wildlife, unparalleled fishing and millions of pine trees Paul Bunyan somehow missed with his mighty axe. It’s an incredible state to explore and there is no better way to experience the region first hand than by traveling in your own recreational vehicle (RV), setting your own course and pace.
Both first-time visitors and veteran RV travelers will no doubt appreciate the route we’ve planned to help pack the most adventure possible into a long weekend getaway that can easily be expanded into a week or more.
Our trek begins in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, by far the state’s largest conclave of humanity and industry, as well as a regional hub for Delta Airlines. It’s a great locale to rent an RV if you don’t have one of your own. And there are numerous types available to fit everyone’s needs. Shopping is convenient here, so you can stock up with provisions before beginning your Northwoods adventure.
Before you head north out of town, why not experience a taste of Minnesota at one of the local neighborhood eateries? Grab a world-famous and purposely misspelled Jucy Lucy burger at Matt’s Bar & Grill or flatbread-to-go at Broders’ Cucina Italiana. If time is not a concern, you can unwind for an hour or two at Psycho Suzi’s Motor Lounge, where the staff is as wild and crazy at their tiki bar atmosphere.
If you prefer bypassing the downtown metro area, you can pick up pretty much anything you want or need, from frills to necessities, at the famed Mall of America in Bloomington, just minutes from MSP International Airport. Billed as the world’s largest enclosed shopping mall, it is as much a destination as a pit stop.
As you depart the area, note how large the Mississippi River is where it divides Minnesota’s two largest cities. At its origin, just 200 miles to the north in Itasca State Park, you can practically jump across its headwaters. Minneapolis is the end of the line for barge traffic heading north from New Orleans, delivering the world’s goods to the Upper Midwest, where in turn oil and grain begin their journey southward to fuel and feed the nation and the world beyond.
Heading up Interstate 94 to Highway 10, our first stop occurs in Little Falls, where you can visit the historic home of Charles A. Lindbergh, the first person to cross the Atlantic as a solo aviator. Campsites are available at nearby Charles A. Lindbergh State Park.
Brainerd Lakes Area
Thirty miles north up Hwy 371, is the Brainerd Lakes Area, vacation mecca to Twin Cities weekenders, as well as visitors from Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and beyond. Brainerd also boasts its own angling heritage as a hub of angling innovation, manufacturing and education. And the town is also home to outdoor magazines and numerous television production companies.
The Mississippi River flows right through downtown Brainerd, a community of about 15,000 residents that swells to well over 100,000 people throughout the surrounding lake country during summer. Toss in a kayak or canoe, and fish the day away on the Mississippi in relative quiet compared to the frenetic energy spent on nearby waters like Gull, Round and North Long lakes, whose shorelines are rimmed with resident homes, vacation cabins and upscale mansions of the Twin Cities elite.
RV and camping opportunities are available at the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers Gull Lake Recreation Area and in Crow Wing State Park, just south of Brainerd along the Mississippi River. This makes it convenient to spend at least a day enjoying everything the area has to offer, from go carts to mini golf, swimming, watersports and more.
The sister communities of Brainerd and Baxter offer a wealth of shopping, entertainment and dining opportunities. Check out The Barn in Brainerd for a steamed ground beef Maid-Rite and a world-class slice of pie. The Black Bear Lodge & Saloon in Baxter offers a log cabin atmosphere, lip-smacking ribs and prime rib to die for. For fine dining, Prairie Bay, in Baxter, is the place to go.
Grab a beverage at Ye Old Pickle Factory in Nisswa. And do “the stroll” up and down Main Street, peeking into the myriad shops to see what treasures lurk within.
Crosby-Ironton Pit Stop
When you depart Brainerd, start the next leg of your journey by heading 15 miles east on Hwy 210 to the twin communities of Crosby-Ironton, former iron ore mining towns on the southern end of the Cuyuna Range. Visit the Croft Mine or the Cuyuna Range Historical Society Museum for an “in depth” look at the mining industry of yesteryear.
Heading east on Hwy 210 and then up Interstate 35 (totaling 90 miles on this leg), brings you to the twin ports of Duluth-Superior, spanning the St. Louis River harbor between Minnesota and Wisconsin. Here the river flows through Jay Cooke State Park into gigantic Lake Superior.
The first thing you’ll encounter when you begin dropping down into the river valley are steep-sided cliffs worthy of mountain goats. The second thing you’ll notice is the chill. Lake Superior seldom exceeds 55 degrees on the surface, and remains much colder below, even in summer. The temperature variation is so great that the lake actually creates its own weather patterns, which can cause fog banks to roll in where sunny skies shown only moments before.
Duluth is a college town, hosting the University of Minnesota Duluth. It’s also a shipping port, transferring grain, oil and commodities to and from destinations around the globe. Stop lakeside at Canal Park to watch freighters slide into the harbor beneath the lift bridge, or take in the annual Tall Ships Festival (mid-August) that brings sailing ships to town.
Visit Grandma’s Saloon and Grill, namesake for Grandma’s Marathon, which takes place each June. Visit Duluth Trading on Superior Street, makers of tough yet comfy clothing, with the quirky TV commercials to prove it. The Duluth Pack Store in Canal Park offers all things outdoorsy for camping and modern-day voyageurs. Just up the road, heading north out of town on Hwy 61, tour the historic Glensheen Congdon Estate. And if you’re hungry, check out the Black Woods Grill & Bar for some of the best eats of your trip.
The North Shore
Now it’s time to head north on Hwy 61, following the Lake Superior shoreline. Everything north of Duluth is regionally known as “The North Shore”, a steep, rocky cliff landscape plunging into the vast, 1,300-foot depths of Lake Superior, which is North America’s largest freshwater lake. Spaced at rare semi-flat spots along this route, you’ll find charming, nautically-themed communities and shops, each with its own Great Lakes flavor. This is tourist country, which draws thousands of visitors each weekend to take in the scenic beauty of the Lake Superior coastline. Many of the local restaurants, have an outdoor flair. Two of my favorites include The Angry Trout Cafe in Grand Marais, and The Splashing in Two Harbors.
Along the way, you’ll encounter Gooseberry Falls which, depending upon the extent of recent rainfall or snowmelt, can range from a mere trickle to a mighty torrent, cascading down into Lake Superior. You’ll also discover a network of short, steep, rugged streams that draw seasonal spawning migrations of trout and salmon from the big lake. (Look for big fish to cluster at the mouths of the streams during the summer season.)
As much as Lake Superior can throw angry seas and foul weather your way, it can, at times, also be eerily calm and serene. Many folks toss in kayaks at various ports or roadside stops, paddling their way up and down the shoreline to admire nature’s rugged landscape. Others trailer in boats, large and small, to troll lures near the cold surface for lake trout, splake, steelhead, and pink and king salmon. You can also cast spoons from shore at stream mouths during summer for anything that bites.
If you’re into pedaling, paddling, hiking, fishing, sightseeing or just plain being outdoors in a beautiful setting, this trip should be high on your bucket list. You can stay at municipal campgrounds in Two Harbors and Grand Marais, a private campground in Schroeder, and any of four state parks found that are inland. Just be sure to reserve campsites well in advance as sites fill up fast in summer. The beauty of doing this trip in an RV is that you can ease your way up and down the coastline at your own pace, discovering your own little slices of “Minnesota Nice” people and places along the way.
Things to Do
Take in a Minnesota Twins baseball game at breathtaking Target Field in downtown Minneapolis. There is no surface parking at the stadium, but a City ordinance has designated an area in the northeast part of downtown where tailgating from your RV before the big game is allowed. The area runs from the river on the north to 6th Street on the south, and from 4th Avenue on the west to 11th Avenue on the east. For the more culturally inclined, nearby theaters and museums reflect the area’s devotion to the arts.
Baseball and summer go hand in hand, and visitors to the Twin Cities can enjoy a great day or evening game at Target Field in downtown Minneapolis. Photo Courtesy thesportroadtrip.com
Anglers won’t want to miss the Minnesota Museum in Little Falls where thousands of angling artifacts are on display. Photo Courtesy Minnesota Fishing Museum Hall of Fame
Is auto racing your thing? Summer action heats up on the tarmac at Brainerd International Raceway where RV camping is allowed on the infield on race weekends. Photo Courtesy brainerdraceway.com
On Gull Lake, just outside of Brainerd, visitors can take a sunset cruise on this double-decker yacht. Photo Courtesy Greg K. Hull, Cooladventures.com
The lakes surrounding Brainerd offer a wide variety of angling opportunities for walleye, pike, bass, muskies and trout. Photo by Dave Csanda
Kids will love spending some time at the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth. Photo Courtesy Bob King, Duluth News Tribune
The Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota are a canoe-only area. Strike out on your own for a day or a week; just don’t forget to take your fishing rod. Photo Courtesy visit-minnesota.com
The Minnesota Fishing Museum in Little Falls is home to thousands of artifacts detailing the rich history and intense relationship that Minnesota anglers have with the sport. They call Minnesota “The Land of 10,000 Lakes.” Actually, it’s more like 11,842, most of which teem with fish.
Brainerd International Raceway hosts numerous auto races during the year, including the Lucas NHRA Nationals. RV camping is available in the infield on race weekends.
Book a dinner cruise aboard the double-decker Destiny Cruises yacht, moored adjacent to Ernie’s on Gull Lake.
The town of Nisswa, just north of Brainerd, claims to have “The world’s best shopping,” and hosts weekly turtle races on Wednesday summer afternoons. Bring your own turtle, or borrow one from the race organizers.
The communities of Brainerd, Baxter and Nisswa are home to dozens of outstanding fishing lakes. While the walleye is undoubtedly king in Minnesota, this area is also blessed with exceptional angling for largemouth and smallmouth bass, pike and muskies, and even trout.
Try mountain biking on one of the nation’s best networks of mountain biking trails in the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area. Trails wind their rugged way through a network of abandoned, steep-sided iron ore pits that, yes, also contain great fishing for bass, panfish, pike and trout.
In Duluth, check out the Great Lakes Aquarium to see native fish species swim in the flesh.
Split Rock Lighthouse
This historic lighthouse, located in Two Harbors, is a must-see on your trip, well worth climbing a few stairs to take in the stunning view.
Motors are allowed by permit on Saganaga Lake at the end of the Gunflint Trail. While you can tow in or cartop your own boat, this is a primary gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), a canoe-only area offering a variety of lakes and rivers for fishing and exploration. Make reservations and book permits early.
Extend your trip
While the North Shore is the perfect destination for a long weekend, it’s also the ideal starting point for those who may wish to extend their vacation for a few days or more. Travel up Hwy 12 to experience The Gunflint Trail that takes you west into Minnesota’s rugged northern wilderness. You can also take a ferry to Isle Royale for great sea kayaking. And then there are more adventures just across the border in Canada.Click to view the gallery
The Gunflint Trail (Hwy 12) extends westward from the town of Grand Marais on Lake Superior into Minnesota’s wilderness Arrowhead Region, providing a tempting diversion from North Shore activities. Lakes and campsites are available along the way. The highway eventually reaches Lake Saganaga and the Sea Gull River, where the state record 17 lb. 8 oz. walleye was caught, just a few miles from the Ontario border.
55 miles from Grand Marais (1 hour 30 minutes)
Head north on Hwy 61 from Grand Marais to Grand Portage, and you can book a 2-hour passenger ferry trip to Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. Sightsee and hike for a half-day, and be back in Minnesota in time for dinner.
35 miles from Grand Marais (41 minutes)
If you packed your passport, consider heading all the way up Hwy 61 to the border crossing at Pigeon River, your gateway to Ontario. From here, it’s just a short 50-minute drive up to Thunder Bay, a bustling community known for paper mills, hockey thrills and great fishing. Longline troll crankbaits or spoons along the bay’s shoreline for giant Coaster brook trout.
80 miles from Grand Marais (1 hour 34 minutes)
Quetico and Boundary Waters
If you like canoeing and camping, you’ll love Quetico Provincial Park, Ontario’s flip side of the border with Minnesota’s BWCAW, about 60 miles straight west from Thunder Bay. Fish and paddle to your heart’s content on the Park’s 2,000 lakes. If you’re into boating rather than paddling, try fishing nearby lakes Shebandowan or Lac des Mille Lacs for walleyes.
60 miles (1 hour 30 minutes)