It was our third and final day at the park, and somebody pointed out the otherwise unthinkable.
"We haven't even gone and looked at the falls yet."
Gooseberry Falls — they of North Shore stop-and-gawk family-photo fame — are far and away the main reason people visit the state park of the same name in northeastern Minnesota. Heck, many visitors who hit the brakes on Hwy. 61 to view them don't even know there is a state park there. You know, with tents and rangers and pit toilets and all that quaint camping stuff.
It's all there, as are many attributes that make Gooseberry a jewel of a park to spend two or three nights instead of two or three hours. There's even plenty incentive for serious campers who prefer more remote locations. You know, without giant gift shops selling recipe books and wind chimes.
We were so occupied away from the hustle and bustle of the plaza area during our two-night tent stay just before the Fourth of July, we almost forgot to take in the main attraction. And that's no dismissal of the falls' grandeur, especially apparent this summer given all the extra rain.
As with any North Shore state park, a campsite at Gooseberry in the summer requires a little planning. We reserved our sites a full year out. Even then, we didn't get the choicest spots.
One reason to love the park, though: Many of the 70 campsites are close enough to Lake Superior to hear waves steadily splashing up against the shore at night. The only other park along the North Shore with drive-in sites this close to the water is Temperance River, but those are also unfortunately close to the whir of traffic. Gooseberry's campers are tucked farther off the road.
Another of the park's great attributes is the fact that you don't even have to use a car to take in Split Rock Lighthouse, or 14.6 other miles of awesome lakefront scenery.
Hugging the shore
Mapped out as an 88-mile lakeside biking and walking path but dependent on state and federal funding (read: It's taking a while), the Gitchi-Gami State Trail currently exists only in sections. The longest and most scenic stretch begins right next to the Gooseberry campgrounds and angles up to the town of Silver Bay. It parallels Hwy. 61 but often veers closer to shore, nicely wrapped in wildflowers and birch trees at many points along the way.
We did the seven-mile trek up to the historic lighthouse, stopping halfway to walk out on the pier at the Twin Points Harbor. After a jaunt around Split Rock's grounds, we trekked another half-mile up the road to a marked turnoff with the goal of seeing an actual shipwreck.
I'd read online about the cargo ship Madeira, whose 1905 sinking helped bring about the lighthouse. Its wreckage sits just off shore from Gold Rock Point in relatively shallow water and has quite an extraordinary rescue story to it: One dude climbed the cliffs with a rope and saved most of his crewmates.
Alas, despite a calm lake and a hike to the perfect vantage point (not a marked trail), the angle of the sun didn't permit a view of the wreckage beyond a very vague glimpse. I'm told from a boat or kayak you can usually see it well.
We otherwise didn't have to go to great lengths to enjoy Gooseberry Falls park. There's a grade-A, two-mile hiking loop — also called the Gitchi-Gami — just across the Gooseberry River from the campground. More challenging hikes lie above the falls plaza area, connecting with the Superior Hiking Trail and less substantial but more isolated Fifth Falls.
But there's plenty to do even closer to camp. Just a short walk along the shoreline to Agate Beach and the mouth of the river is good for a couple of hours' entertainment. My 5-year-old daughter got a close-up fascination in tadpoles among the shoreline's tide pools — a great setup to "Fascinating Frogs," that night's ranger program at the Lady Slipper Lodge.
"Frogs have been in the news a lot lately," the ranger excitedly told us.
I must've missed those headlines, but you can't miss the charm of the historic two-room lodge and other rocky structures around the campground, including the main restroom and shower facility (no, it's not all pit toilets). They were built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which helped open the park in 1937 and had a permanent camp near the falls until the boys got called off to war.
In the end, the falls eventually recruited us away from the campground. Most of us Minnesotans have been seeing them all our lives, going back to the old Hwy. 61 bridge that was like a human game of Frogger trying to get across (the "new one" opened in 1996 is much safer). They're always worth at least a quick shimmy down the trail to admire. But a longer stay at the park can be a quintessentially Minnesotan experience, too.