Autumn Leaf Peeping on Minnesota’s North Shore

It’s fall, and the leaves are turning fiery colors of red and gold. Take a trip up to Minnesota’s North Shore to see the colorful show. And why not stop for a craft beer or tasty pizza while you are at it? We’ll tell you our favorite cafes, coolest places to sleep and best waterfalls too.

Autumn Leaf Peeping on Minnesota’s North Shore

The north shore of Lake Superior is gorgeous any time of year, but my favorite time to visit is in the autumn. The colorful leaves, the cool but not cold temperatures and the lack of summer crowds are all big pluses in my book.

Besides the beautiful trees, the North Shore has a lot to offer. Too many lakes and waterfalls to count, for one. Fantastic scenery to go for a drive or a hike. Quirky and cool places to stay. And awesome places to stop for a microbrewed beer or a snack.

Here are some of our favorite spots.

Best Autumn Drives on Minnesota’s North Shore

Simply drive up Highway 61 and you will be treated to beautiful views of Lake Superior and surrounding forests. Stop along the way at some of the Minnesota State Parks and viewpoints for more stunning scenery.

The historic Gunflint Trail is an amazing road with beautiful views. Bring your kayak or canoe or rent one from an outfitter for a break from the driving. There are several lodges where you can stay or stop for a bite to eat along the road. This road leads to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. From Grand Marais the Gunflint Trail drive is 55 miles one way, it will take you about 3 hours round trip or obviously more if you stop often. We recommend that you consider staying at one of the many lodges along the road. A few are mentioned below.  

Another awesome drive is heading inland from the lake up Highway 3 connecting with Highway 11 for a loop. There are lots of little lakes and National Forest campgrounds on the way.

Cook County has several great drives where you can see the fall colors. Check out the Visit Cook County website for list and description of these routes.

Use the Fall Color Report to plan where you will drive. It has a daily updated report on the best times and places to check out autumn leaves.

Great Hikes on Minnesota’s North Shore

Waterfalls abound in this part of the state. Basically you can find one about every 10 minutes when driving up Highway 61. Some of my favorite hikes in the area are in and around these falls.

A few of my favorite waterfalls include Gooseberry Falls State Park, Tettegouche State Park, Cross River Falls and Temperance River State Park. Check out our list of 10 waterfalls you shouldn’t miss along Minnesota’s Highway 61.

Some hikes are just short strolls while others are over 100 miles. The Superior Hiking Trail is more than 300 miles along Lake Superior, you can hike the whole thing or just short section. Read more about it here. You can also walk or bike the Gitchi Gami trail, currently 28 miles of segments but when completed will be 86 miles of paved path along Highway 61.

For a great guide to the fall colors in Minnesota’s State Parks check this link, it is updated regularly with the current info on the colorful autumn show along the trails. This will help you plan your perfect route.

If you plan to visit more than one Minnesota State Park you can get a state parks permit. A one-day pass costs $7 and a full year permit is $35. You can get more information here.

Escape into peace and quiet with a trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. You can explore for day or a week and the fall colors inside the park are sure to be special. Bring a kayak or canoe or rent one from one of the many outfitters in the area. You can download a guide to the hiking trails. Don’t forget you need a permit to enter the BWCAW.

Lastly, if you are planning to hike in the fall you should check the local hunting season info and put on a piece of blaze orange clothing! 😀 You’ll match the beautiful fiery leaves!


Awesome Places to Sleep on Minnesota’s North Shore

In addition to typical hotels and B&Bs, there are many interesting and unique places to stay along Minnesota’s North Shore. Check out these awesome options:

The Cliff Dweller: perch above the crashing waves of Lake Superior at this awesome little hotel with great views.

Northern Rail Traincar Inn: spend the night in vintage train boxcars at this kitschy cool hotel located three miles north of Two Harbors.

Caribou Highlands offers lodge rooms, condos and houses for rent next to the Poplar River. The Lodge also organizes activities like canoeing, bicycling and snowshoeing.

Naniboujou: unplug at this colorful 1920’s lodge that is on the National Register of Historic Places. There is no phone, TV or WIFI so you can completely unwind.

Poplar Haus: have cozy lakeside cabin all to yourself at this hip lodge on the Gunflint Trail. They have a well-stocked liquor store on the property too for your microbrew and whisky needs while out enjoying the woods.

Heston’s Lodge: stay in a log cabin on Gunflint Lake at this charming rustic lodge where you can hike, canoe, fish, or forage for blueberries all day long.

Illgen Falls Cabin: there is nice cabin available for rent in Tettegouche State Park with a full kitchen, two bedrooms and a bathroom plus a fireplace and outdoor grill.

Cabins at Jay Cooke State Park: these cabins have electricity and heat and sleep 5+ people.

East Bearskin Lake Cabins: there are three cabins available at this campground on lake near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area WildernessThe rustic cabins have bunk beds but no heat or running water.

And of course there are many beautiful campgrounds in the State Parks and National Forest lands in the area. Check out these websites to find amazing campgrounds you may never have heard of!

Good Food, Local Beer, Coffee & Crafts on Minnesota’s North Shore

Craving a craft beer after a day spent canoeing? Stop by Voyageur Brewing Company or Castle Danger Brewing. You could also pop into some of the local breweries in Duluth or Superior at the start of your adventure and stock up on some growlers. My favorites in the Twin Ports include Thirsty Pagan and Bent Paddle Brewing. Thirsty Pagan is popular for their pizza as well as beer, and indeed it is tasty. For more info on breweries around the state check out the map of Land of 10,000 Drinks.

Good morning. Time for coffee? Drop into Java Moose in Grand Marais. I love their cozy northwoods decor with vintage thermoses. Another popular coffee spot is the charming Fika in Lutsen, they often feature local artists on their walls. And don’t miss World’s Best Donuts!

Are you a fan of smoked fish? Then be sure to stock up at Russ Kendall’s Smokehouse at the start of the road in Knife River. We’d recommend stopping in to Northern Waters Smokehaus in Duluth too. They are famous for their sandwiches, especially the Cajun Finn with salmon. Grab some of their smoked sausage to take on the trail.

If fish takes your fancy consider a meal at the Angry Trout Cafe in Grand Marais if you pass through there. You’ll find grilled fresh fish with a view.

My Sister’s Place has an interesting logo with a gun toting cutie, and serves up tasty burgers and sandwiches of all kinds to hungry hikers, cyclists and paddlers.

Sign up to learn a traditional northern craft like blacksmithing, woodcarving, cheesemaking and sailing at North House Folk School in Grand Marais. Or take an art class at Grand Marais Art Colony, they offer drawing, photography, painting, printmaking and more.

Shopping for local crafts? Check out the Cook County Farm & Craft Market in Grand Marais on Saturday mornings from Memorial Day weekend through mid-October and the Local Food Market on Thursdays. Also check out the Two Harbors Farmers Market on Saturdays.


Did you like this guide to leaf peeping along Lake Superior’s Minnesota shoreline? Then be sure to check out our guide to Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, just around the corner in Wisconsin! You can also make the drive to Starved Rock State Park in Illinois for a full road trip adventure.

Wanna rent an RV or campervan to enjoy the ride? Check out Outdoorsy and these other rental options.

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