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Northern Minnesota has always been a magnet for dreamers, from its 18th-century fur trappers to the mineral prospectors who arrived on the Iron Range in 1860. Museums Up North honor the travelers and titans who settled a region long known for its wildness.
1 Lake Superior Railroad Museum. “Here you can see the trains and ride the trains,” says museum director Ken Buehler. Start by ogling the collection of locomotives dating to the Civil War, including an imposing World War II-era Mallet, the most powerful steam locomotive ever built. End with a vintage train ride on the North Shore Scenic Railroad. (506 W. Michigan St., Duluth; 1-218-727-8025; lsrm.org)
2 Split Rock Lighthouse. Learn about the life of a lighthouse keeper and the Lake Superior shipping industry. Linger in the visitor center for an eyeful of artifacts and underwater footage exploring the Madeira shipwreck of 1905. Tip: Plan your trip for July 13, when the beacon will shine for an hour at sunset in honor of the lighthouse’s 103rd anniversary. (3713 Split Rock Lighthouse Road, Two Harbors; 1-218-226-6372; mnhs.org, “historic sites”)
3 Johnson Heritage Post. Housed in a charming log-cabin-like lodge, this small museum is dedicated to Anna C. Johnson, a Swedish immigrant, art teacher and all-around Renaissance woman who showered Grand Marais with painting, pottery and ceramics during the early 20th century. Look for her painting of the Gunflint Trail’s virgin pines, a work beloved by locals. (115 Wisconsin St., Grand Marais; 1-218-387-2314; johnsonheritagepost.org)
4 Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center. Everything you ever wanted to know about the Gunflint Trail. Are you as strong as a voyageur? One hands-on exhibit replicates a typical 90-pound pack used in the fur trade two centuries ago. Learn about trees, wildflowers and wildlife, or hunt the nearby footpaths for blueberries. (28 Moose Pond Dr., Grand Marais; 1-218-388-9915; chikwauk.com)
5 Dorothy Molter Cabins and Museum. Molter, a k a the Root Beer Lady, was a North Woods icon, the last remaining non-indigenous resident of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. See artifacts from her life (she passed away in 1986), including the equipment she used to make root beer for thirsty canoeists, and 27 years of condemnation notices from the federal government. (2002 E. Sheridan St., Ely; 1-218-365-4451; rootbeerlady.com)
6 Soudan Underground Mine State Park. Descend via elevator into the state’s oldest iron mine (1882), traveling a half-mile underground into total darkness. Science buffs can tour the University of Minnesota’s Soudan Underground Laboratory — like Minnesota’s own CERN. (1302 McKinley Park Road, Soudan; 1-218-753-2245; dnr.state.mn.us, under “state parks”)
Culture and art in the Northwest
From the Brainerd lakes to Fargo-Moorhead, the state’s Northwest corridor courses with a surprising amount of culture and art. Here you can sample traditional Ojibwe beadwork, visit two of the state’s most obsessively detailed tributes to Scandinavian ancestry or even study a set of 17th-century Dutch paintings.
1 Bemidji Community Art Center. One of the artiest cities Up North, Bemidji has a vibrant cultural clique. This summer, view museum-quality solo shows featuring midcareer oil painters and watercolorists, or wait until fall for the national ceramics competition “It’s Only Clay.” (426 Bemidji Av., Bemidji; 1-218-444-7570; bcac.wordpress.com)
2 Nemeth Art Center. Sixteenth-century Italian Renaissance paintings in Park Rapids — how’s that for juxtaposition? Located in the city’s 1911 courthouse, above the Hubbard County Historical Museum, this teensy museum features a world-class “study collection” of European paintings from the workshops of such masters as Rubens, Rembrandt and Bosch. (301 Court Av., Park Rapids; 1-218-237-5900; nemethartcenter.org)
3 Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County. This Moorhead museum has two impressive permanent displays: a full-scale replica of a Viking ship, built by a local guidance counselor who dreamed of sailing the world, and an exact copy of Hopperstad, Norway’s 12th-century stave church, created by a local woodcarver. This summer, catch “Prairie Daughters,” an exhibit dedicated to women artists from the area. (202 1st Av. N., Moorhead; 1-218-299-5511; hcscconline.org)
4 Rourke Art Gallery Museum. Another Moorhead gem, founded by a local collector, this has a strong collection from artists with connections to Fargo-Moorhead, including Fritz Scholder, plus prints by 20th-century masters (Rauschenberg, Rosenquist, Warhol), Japanese woodcuts, African masks and other global works. (521 Main Av., Moorhead; 1-218-236-8861; therourke.org)
5 Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post. More than 2,000 American Indian artifacts are on display, including a rich collection of birchbark basketry and beadwork. The “Four Seasons Room” has a life-size diorama depicting Ojibwe life in the 1700s. Shop for fine crafts by local band members at the 1930s-style trading post. (43411 Oodena Dr., Onamia; 1-320-532-3632; mnhs.org, under “historic sites”)
6 New York Mills Regional Cultural Center. Best known for the Great American Think Off, an annual philosophy contest for the masses, it just opened its own farm-to-table restaurant. Also: Take a spin through two intimate storefront galleries, featuring folk and fine art from regional artists. 24 Main Av. N., New York Mills; 1-218-385-3339; kulchur.org)