The Spirit of Solitude Draws Winter Adventurers to Minnesota's North Shore

Along Minnesota's Lake Superior shoreline, winter's beauty tempts outdoor explorers. And with summer crowds reduced to a murmur, calm and serenity reigns.

Icy shore along Lake Superior at Minnesota's North Shore
Photo: Ojas Gokhale

There's an oddly comforting feeling along Minnesota's North Shore in winter—one of being wholly alone yet never quite so. I find myself considering this fact as I slog through calf-deep powder on a half-mile trek to Palisade Head near Silver Bay. Late afternoon light filters through the trees, shattering into a spray of diamonds as it hits cottony mounds of snow. Large moose tracks crisscross the path, a shadow of a nearby presence. Just an hour prior, I'd shared the viewing platform at an iced-over Gooseberry Falls with a curious deer, a much quieter companion than summer's hordes.

Though winter recreation does attract travelers to Lake Superior's west coast, the relative solitude is part of the draw. As temperatures bottom out and ice fringes the shore, a certain peace takes over.

"In the summer, the town is buzzing and people are skipping rocks and it's always busy," says Katie Slanga, co-owner of The Fisherman's Daughter cafe in Grand Marais. "Then you shift to winter, and people are starting to focus on the silent sports, like cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. It's a change, but there are still people around—and I really love that about winter. It's quieter in the woods."

I experience that quiet sunrise to sundown. In the early morning glow, my husband and I tiptoe out of a sleepy Lutsen Resort down to the lake's edge. As the sun emerges from vapors of sea smoke, golden light illuminates ice-encased rocks, sparkling like glass marbles. Gentle waves tickle the shore, receding with a snap, crackle, pop. A man walking his dog joins us. He's from New Hampshire and planning to ski every state. "Plus, I like this," he says, gesturing to the empty beach.

Our days are spent cross-country and downhill skiing, dogsledding, snowshoeing, and gazing at waterfalls frozen mid-tumble. In between all of that, we sip hot chocolate fireside, eat fresh-from-Superior herring and sweat in a lakeside sauna. Our activities are mainly focused along the 27-mile stretch of MN-61 from Tofte to Grand Marais (roughly four hours from the Twin Cities). Through it all, we're largely alone—but fresh ski tracks or tiny paw prints give a glimmer of company.

One evening, while nursing a steaming mug of mulled wine at Angry Trout Cafe in Grand Marais, my phone pings with a weather app's notification: "There's a chance you could see the northern lights at your location within an hour." I jump up. We had a plan in place for this, of course; Cook County is one of the best regions in the Lower 48 to see the aurora.

Northern Lights on Minnesota's North Shore
Ojas Gokhale

We drive up the Gunflint Trail to Mink Lake, a secluded spot looking directly north. As we park along a snow-caked side road, we see a shimmer of green over the expanse of ice—and then a flash of purple shoots into the air. Our gasps echo through the woods. Over the next 30 minutes, the colors grow brighter and brighter: neon green, soft lavender, vibrant fuchsia. Pulsating waves illuminate the sky; columns of light appear and disappear like a composer pounding the keys ofa piano. We feel alive, enveloped, invigorated, a celestial presence surrounding us—then suddenly it ends. The sky goes black and the stillness returns. It feels like a show performed just for us, but the following morning the town chatters about the majesty of it. Alone, yet not quite so.

As we head home on MN-61 later that day, we pass movement on the side of the road. "Was that a wolf?" my husband asks. I turn the car around—no other traffic in sight—just in time to see a shaggy gray figure slink into the woods, one last whisper of a spirit.

People entering sauna at the edge of Lake Superior in Minnesota
Sisu and Löyly. Ackerman + Griber

What to Do

Choose your pace, and you'll find a winter activity to match. Lutsen Mountains is one of only a few ski resorts in the Midwest on an actual mountain range. More than 90 downhill runs, with plans to eventually add more, connect four peaks. Even nonskiers can enjoy the views—buy a ticket to ride the red gondola to Summit Chalet, where you can have lunch or a beer with sweeping views of Lake Superior. Cross-country skiers can access hundreds of kilometers of trails throughout the North Shore. The Oberg Mountain Loop trail near Tofte is great for both beginners and pros. Just make sure you get a Minnesota Ski Pass before hitting the trails (available at most gas stations for $10/day).

Guests enjoying wine at North Shore Winery
North Shore Winery. Ackerman + Gruber

After a day on the slopes, après-ski at North Shore Winery, at the base of Lutsen Mountains, and choose between a red, white or cider tasting. Warm up at Sisu and Löyly, a Nordic sauna on the edge of Lake Superior. (The brave can cold plunge in the lake.)

Woman with husky team on the North Shore of Minnesota in winter
Points Unknown. Ackerman + Gruber

Book a dogsledding adventure at Points Unknown in Hovland. Owner Linda Newman lives off the grid with her 21 Hedlund huskies, descended from a line of traditional Alaskan working dogs. You'll be bundled up in a sled and pulled through the serene North Woods.

For slower days, cute shops await in Grand Marais; pop into Upstate MN for artist-made goods, Sivertson Gallery for regional art and Dappled Fern Fibers for yarn project needs. Drury Lane Books, in a white house with purple shutters, spotlights titles by local and Native American authors, and even has a "Mush Love Dogs" section.

Be sure to spend some time driving Scenic Highway 61. You can find mile marker guides that denote scenic overlooks, easy and challenging hikes, and waterfalls frozen in time. Several falls are accessible right off the highway, including Gooseberry Falls (Mile Marker 39), Cross River Falls (MM 79), Temperance River Falls (MM 80)and Grand Portage Falls (MM 150). Strap on your snowshoes to venture to others.

Seeing the northern lights in Cook County is quite common but does require some luck—timing, clear skies and a strong geomagnetic storm. Several tracking apps are available; if they report a KP index of 4 or higher, head for a dark place looking north. (We found our Mink Lake viewing spot on a northern lights driving map downloadable from Just keep in mind that side roads may not be cleared or plowed as regularly as main highways.

Lockport Marketplace. Ackerman + Gruber

Where to Eat

Begin the morning with sourdough pancakes—made from a 100-year-old starter—at Lockport Marketplace in Lutsen. Much of the 1928 building is original, and old family photos decorate the tables. Coffee drinkers can get their fix with a maple latte at nearby Fika Coffee, or in Grand Marais at Java Moose.

Sign that says Know Your Fisherman at Fisherman's Daughter restaurant
Ackerman + Gruber

Lunch at The Fisherman's Daughter is a must for creamy salmon chowder or fried herring. You can also pick up smoked fish and pickled items for future fuel. The restaurant traces its heritage to 1998, when commercial fishermen Shele and Harley Toftey opened Dockside Fish Market in 1998 to sell and cook their catch. It eventually evolved into The Fisherman's Daughter, now run by Katie Slanga and her husband, Parker, who still use the Tofteys' original fish-fry batter recipe.

For foamy flights, head to Voyageur Brewing Company in Grand Marais for a Palisade Porter and a side of Gouda fondue. Nothing warms the belly more than a hot bowl of smoked goose and wild rice chowder from The Strand restaurant at Lutsen Resort. After dinner, plop onto one of the leather couches in the lobby for the resort's seasonal Fireside Cocktail series, which starts December 1. The famed hot chocolate (optionally spiked) is poured over a chocolate lattice into a gigantic, two-hands-required mug. If you need a nosh, the duck-fat roasted hazelnuts are just the right vibe.

Lutsen Resort in snow at Minnesota's North Shore
Lutsen Resort. Ojas Gokhale

Where to Stay

Lutsen Resort has welcomed guests since 1885; thankfully there have been a few updates since then. Cozy wood-paneled rooms include real birch bark on the walls, leather headboards, and luscious faux furs on the beds.

Two skiers at Lutsen Mountains
Lutsen Mountains. Ackerman + Guber

In the winter, an ice rink pops up outside, and an indoor hot tub relieves worn ski legs. The resort also offers free cross-country ski and snowshoe rentals to guests, as well as a shuttle to Lutsen Mountains.

In Grand Marais, The Mayhew Inn boasts modern accommodations in a downtown building with rooftop lake views. Each room is uniquely designed; the two-story Thunderbird accommodates nine and has a spiral staircase to a private deck; the cute Plaid Cabin and Fur Trader rooms sleep three in bunk beds.

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