horn blares its throaty greeting as a 1,000-foot- long ore ship slides into the canal of Duluth, Minn., three hours north of Minneapolis-St. Paul on Lake Superior’s southwestern tip. The higher-pitched bells of the iconic Aerial Lift Bridge answer, and its deck rises as tourists snap photos and the towering boat glides underneath and into the harbor.
This up-close look at Duluth shipping should be on every visitor’s to-do list, but tour guides with The Duluth Experience also recommend a trip up the city’s famously steep hills to Skyline Parkway, according to co-owner and CEO Dave Grandmaison. Along this scenic byway and from the Enger Tower, expansive views put this city’s unique features into perspective.
To the south, the St. Louis River diffuses into North America’s largest freshwater estuary before it empties into Lake Superior. In the harbor, supersized “lakers,” which operate within the Great Lakes, mingle with smaller “salties,” vessels that journey fk more than 2,000 miles from the sea to Duluth, the world’s farthest-inland freshwater port city. Beyond the Lift Bridge, the world’s longest freshwater sandbar stretches 7 miles to Park Point and beckons with its public beach.
On the ridges above Duluth (population 86,000), mountain bikers enjoy the views while rolling along 80 miles of new world-class trails that clinch Duluth’s place among the country’s top outdoor destinations (it was voted Best Town in America by Outside magazine in 2014).
Hikers hop onto segments of the 300-plus-mile Superior Hiking Hail that threads across ravines where rivers — like visitors — inevitably find themselves drawn to Lake Superior’s shore.
In the sticky summer, breezes across Superior’s super-chilled surface cool off visitors in Canal Park. Whiffs of wood smoke and toasted marshmallows drift from a hotel across the Lakewalk as a family pedals by on a four-person surrey. Seagulls circle and dive noisily.
Many visitors simply find a shoreline spot and sit for hours, combing through tumbled rocks, tossing them into the water and waiting for the next big boat to glide in.
“There is nothing more mesmerizing than the beauty of the North Shore and Lake Superior,” said Sandy LeTendre of White Bear Lake, Minn. “It gets in your blood and keeps calling you back.”
Make A Trip of It
Va Bene Caffe: Tuck into pastas, seafood and gelato in outdoor seating alongside a sweeping lakeside view.
Vikre Distillery: Tap the region’s Scandinavian heritage while nibbling on locally smoked fish and pickled beets and enjoying fragrant gin flights with a side of soda and homemade tonic. Many of the spirits are distilled with water from Lake Superior.
Canal Park Lodge: Stay in the heart of Canal Park in this arts-and-crafts-style shoreline hotel.
Fitger’s: Rooms in this converted (and still working) brewery — listed on the National Register of Historic Places — feature lake views and connect to restaurants and shopping on the Lakewalk.
Historic Inns of Duluth: Mansions from Duluth’s lumber-boom years, converted to bed-and-breakfasts, offer elegant rooms and big breakfasts.
Canal Park: This historic district hums with hotels, dining, art galleries and boutiques filled with local products such as Duluth Pack waxed canvas bags for outdoor adventures.
Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center: Free exhibits feature shipwrecks (including a program on the wreck of the famed Edmund Fitzgerald), model ships and history, and also put guests in the pilothouse. Daily ship arrivals and departures are visible from the museum; get times on the door or at duluthboats.com.
The Duluth Experience: Guides offer narrated walking, kayaking, biking and brewery tours, plus multiday bike treks