North Shore Lake Superior Circle Tour Travel Planner
Scenic Drive Grand Marais to Grand Portage, Minnesota
Minnesota North Shore Travel

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Grand Marais harbor on a fall evening
Grand Marais harbor on a fall evening

Grand Marais, MN

The natural beauty of Grand Marais’ harbor area, its more remote distance from urban areas, and being at the gateway to a major portion of the famous Boundary Waters Canoe Area have made it an attractive destination tourism area. It has developed the economic infrastructure to serve that role well. In simple terms, there is in the Grand Marais area a nice selection of quality motels, many quality places to dine and imbibe, nice places to shop, adequate community services, and a nice ambience to the life style in the town. While on some circle tour trips our focus has been on places either north or south of Grand Marais, we always try to find a good excuse to spend a few hours in town: stop to stretch our legs with a walk, get something to eat at a cafe or restaurant, or make our own meal while enjoying a harbor view, get gas, buy some new fishing lures, stock up on trail mix at the natural foods coop, etc. If we are lucky, we hit Grand Marais in the evening so it is our overnight stop – which gives us some time to enjoy it in the evening and then again in the morning before we hit the road again.

So we recommend that travelers whose itinerary does not allow spending at least a day in Grand Marais, find some excuse to spend at least two hours in town getting acquainted. If you are staying longer than an hour or two, check out the Grand Marais Visitor Center just down the street from the Beaver House.

Recommended places and things to do:

  • Browsing the Ben Franklin store: floor to ceiling shelves with more stuff per square foot than practically anyplace else you’ve ever been – and lots of it is pretty good quality too.
  • Grabbing a morning donut or danish and coffee at the Donut Shop
  • Dining lakeside at the Angry Trout Cafe and catching an early breakfast at the Blue Water Cafe.
  • Visiting the North House Folk School workshops and bookstore.
  • Hiking out to Artists Point (just keep walking past the Coast Guard Station) and the nearby Sweetheart Bluff Hiking trail (accessible from the Municipal Camp Ground).
  • Stocking up on trail mix and other munchies at Cook County Whole Foods Coop.
  • Hiking nearby hiking trails: Pincushion Mountain and Devil Track River gorge.
  • Boundary Waters (BWCA) Visitor Center.
  • Camping at the Municipal Campground on the lake.

Grand Marais, Minnesota (see pictures, more info here)

Grand Marais to Grand Portage (see pictures & more info here)

Upon leaving Grand Marais, it is 42 miles to the Minnesota-Ontario border at Grand Portage. But don’t be in a rush to get there so fast. Hikers have several fairly short 1 – 2 hours hikes to consider: Devil Track River Gorge, Kadunce River, and Devils Kettle in Judge Magney State Park. As you approach Grand Portage, look for the signage to Grand Portage National Monument, a reconstruction of the historic Grand Portage Trading Post and Stockade – complete with re-enactors to help educate you the fascinating enterprise that what was here over 200 years ago. Hikers will also enjoy the trek to the top of Mount Rose with a nice panoramic view of the Grand Portage Bay and the fort itself.

Only 5 miles down the road from the Grand Portage Monument is another North Shore “must see.” Minnesota’s highest waterfall (aptly named “High Falls”) can be seen via an easy 1/2 mile walk from the parking lot of Grand Portage State Park. If you haven’t a park sticker from the previous 24 hours you’ll have to pay 4 bucks to park in the lot. But unless it has been extremely dry, this falls is an impressive sight. It will be either your #1 or #2 most grand waterfall you will find around Lake Superior.

Once you cross the border, stop at the Ontario Visitor Center for maps, directions, and information. There is also a nice little walking trail to Lake Superior from the visitor center parking lot. BTW If you are reversing your travel and coming into Minnesota from Ontario, the Minnesota Visitor Center is 5 miles from the border. It is an important stop for information, plus it offers a nice scenic overlook and picnic area.

If you followed our advice and stopped in Grand Marais, Grand Portage Historic Site, and Grand Portage High Falls you’ve used up at least 5 hours . . . more if you took some additional hikes. Not much in the way or lodging or camping choices will be available to you until Thunder Bay, which is about 42 miles beyond the border. So this is why it’s a good idea to plan your trip so that you overnight in the Grand Marais area. It gives you time the next morning to get a good experience from Grand Marais to the border and leave you plenty of time to get into the Thunder Bay area and sample what it has to offer. Because of the attractions each area offers (and those in between) overnighting in the Grand Marais area and Thunder Bay area makes sense even though they are only about 85 miles apart.

On the other hand, if you had advance motel reservations in Thunder Bay and had similar reservations in Duluth where you arrived early enough in Duluth the previous day to sample it, I could see you rising early in the morning in Duluth, heading up the north shore, making several stops along the way, and arrive in Thunder Bay that evening. Driving time would be less than four hours, add in another six or seven hours of stops and excursions en route and you still get into Thunder Bay early enough for a good night’s sleep.

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