The North Shore has been described as the state’s Amalfi Coast for its scenic beauty, and, of the 145-mile stretch spanning from Duluth to Grand Portage, the small town of Grand Marais was the shining gem.
The comparison would rightfully intrigue most outsiders as it’s a bit difficult to comprehend the likes of the Italian coastline — with its towering cliffs, alluring beaches and stunning seaside towns — belonging anywhere near the landlocked Northwoods.
But, alas, I traveled along Lake Superior’s coastline for the first time recently, landing in Grand Marais for a four-day spell — and what I experienced delighted me to no end, regardless of the season.
Just like most tourism-driven communities, Grand Marais bustles in the warmer months — its lively arts and culinary scenes enveloping guests in a spirited embrace — and during the magical display of color that is leaf-peeping season.
As the gateway to the Gunflint Trail and Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, its bulk of visitors come to take advantage of the area’s access to unparalleled and unspoiled nature and all the outdoor recreation it offers.
Yet when the Gales of November — or storm season — hits Lake Superior, Grand Marais reverts back to a sleepy small town for a much-needed rest. The town’s trees are stripped bare of fall color and some establishments shutter their doors or lessen their hours of operation in preparation for the cold winter ahead.
But the town doesn’t sleep, it only slows down.
The small town of Grand Marais is located on Minnesota’s North Shore, an 145-mile stretch along Lake Superior that spans from Duluth to Grand Portage. Artists’ Point is a popular sightseeing destination in the Grand Marais harbor. (Bria Barton / Bemidji Pioneer)
While Grand Marais is a year-round destination, these colder months are certainly its more off-season time. This means lodging is less expensive and the town isn’t overflowing with people — all pluses for me, as I was looking for a quiet and relatively inexpensive getaway.
A visit to Grand Marais during its peak season is sure to offer a quintessential vacation experience to travelers; but, in visiting during the slow season, I found sidewalks, pebble beaches and nature trails to be mostly empty, a refreshing change of pace from the typical trips I’ve taken.
Of course, there are some downfalls to visiting during this time because there are fewer activities and slimmer pickings for dining and shopping — that’s why I suggest calling ahead to avoid crushed hopes (I’m still sad I missed out on World’s Best Donuts).
Nevertheless, the pros far outweigh the cons in taking a sojourn to Grand Marais during its slower time. While I wasn’t able to do everything there, I’ve compiled some of my top recommendations to consider when visiting the town in the off-season.
Sightseeing and the outdoors
If there’s one thing you do in Grand Marais it’s — hands down — to go to Artists’ Point, a small rocky peninsula that forms the town’s harbor. A walkable narrow path of concrete runs along it, leading to a lighthouse and vantage point for the harbor. It’s a fantastic spot for artists to get inspired — hence the name — and to watch the sunset.
A walkable narrow path of concrete runs along Artists’ Point in Grand Marais, leading to a lighthouse and vantage point for the harbor. (Bria Barton / Bemidji Pioneer)
Hiking is the perfect recreational activity when visiting Grand Marais because of the town’s proximity to the Gunflint Trail. It is accessible year-round, and hikers can choose from easy day hikes to challenging multi-day ones for overnight camping.
If you’re into rock hunting, particularly of the agate variety, Paradise Beach is the perfect locale. While agates can be found on most beaches around Grand Marais, this public beach is a popular spot among rock hunters because of the spectacular agate yield it produces.
There are numerous state parks nearby that boast a variety of hikes and sightseeing opportunities, with Cascade River and Judge C.R. Magney both within a 10- to 20-minute drive of Grand Marais.
One spot I was anxious to see for myself was the Devil’s Kettle in Judge C.R. Magney State Park. The waterfall is a natural wonder that, until a few years ago, perplexed the scientific community. Here, the Brule River splits into two, with one branch flowing over a typical waterfall and the other branch disappearing into a hole at the bottom. For years, it was unclear where the water in the hole went, but the Minnesota DNR concluded the water reenters the river from underground.
Devil’s Kettle, a natural wonder that, until a few years ago, perplexed the scientific community, is located in Judge C.R. Magney State Park. (Bria Barton / Bemidji Pioneer)
The Angry Trout Cafe served my favorite meal of the trip, and I probably would’ve eaten there every night had it not been closed for winterizing (this is the first year it’s open year-round). The cafe’s menu is based on the bounty of Lake Superior and the surrounding region, including locally-grown produce, hand-harvested wild rice and fresh Lake Superior fish.
Angry Trout Cafe’s menu focuses on the bounty of Lake Superior and the surrounding region, including locally-grown produce, hand-harvested wild rice and fresh Lake Superior fish. (Bria Barton / Bemidji Pioneer)
The Fisherman’s Daughter at Dockside Fish Market is a tasty place to stop in for lunch or grab a snack to go. Not only does the market sell fresh and smoked Lake Superior fish, but there’s also a daily offering of chowders, soups and fish and chips.
If you’re a fan of fry bread tacos — or even if you’ve never tried one — Hungry Hippie Tacos is the place to go for the from-scratch-made delicacies. The shop smokes its own brisket and offers daily specials like barbecue shrimp tacos.
And if you’re looking to sample something different, but actually delicious, check out the goober burger at My Sister’s Place. It’s a beef burger with a big spoonful of peanut butter and a dollop of mayo.
The Lake Superior Trading Post is a fun place to explore as you can find everything your traveler’s heart desires, from survival and camping gear to North Shore souvenirs. It’s easy to spend an hour or two browsing through the store, so be sure to set aside a chunk of time and then dive right in.
On the other end of Artists’ Point lies a wooded “island,” which hikers can explore and take in the sights of Grand Marais from an alternative view. (Bria Barton / Bemidji Pioneer)
While Grand Marais is home to multiple art galleries, I eventually landed on the Sivertson Gallery to purchase some artwork. A lone simple magnet or T-shirt isn’t a satisfying enough souvenir when I thoroughly enjoy a place, so I always look for art that captures the destination thoroughly. So now, a piece of Grand Marais is hanging on my living room wall.
Readers can reach reporter Bria Barton at 218-333-9798 or [email protected]