I parked my car, crossed through Grand Portage State Park’s spacious visitor center and stepped onto a paved path on the far side. Immediately, I sensed the urgent rush of Pigeon River’s High Falls. The cascades were half a mile away, but already the raging waters murmured like a busy freeway, a noise that grew with each step.
All along Minnesota’s North Shore each spring, snowmelt from the Sawtooth Mountains swells rivers and turns waterfalls into powerful spectacles. Grand Portage’s falls are among the best. The 120-foot drop makes them the tallest in the state. A wide paved trail eases the half-mile walk to the stunning sight, making it accessible to virtually everyone. Another distinction: These falls are the farthest north in the state. “Welcome to Canada,” a text message on my smartphone said, before it warned about international rates. I was still in Minnesota, but the border crossing was just up the road.
On the trail, I stopped to hunt for woodpeckers in towering birch trees that were pockmarked from the birds’ earlier insect hunts. I ambled down a dirt side trail to get a closer look at calm backwaters. I crouched down to observe what looked to be miniature pine trees but were really a form of moss. Then, I climbed a short set of stairs and laid eyes on the roaring falls. Water tumbles over rock in three distinct falls, which join at the bottom in fierce, roiling waves. The commotion created so much mist that I returned to the trail as wet as if I’d taken a shower.
The state park
The pristine landscape of Grand Portage State Park — where eagles, otters, deer and moose live in a forest of paper birch, quaking aspen, spruce and pine — belongs not to Minnesota, but to the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa. In a unique arrangement, the state established the park with the Chippewa in 1989 and now leases the land from the tribe.
A half-mile, wheelchair-accessible trail leads to the dramatic High Falls. Deeper in the woods along a dirt trail, the Middle Falls take a less dramatic drop. There are 5 miles of trails at the park. For more information: 1-218-475-2360; www.dnr.state.mn.us/grandportage.
Because it is designated a rest stop, the parking lot at Grand Portage State Park does not require a $5 daily or $25 yearly vehicle permit as do other state parks in Minnesota.
Grand Portage National Monument
For centuries before Europeans arrived, the Chippewa who traveled on the area’s waterways avoided the falls of Pigeon River by portaging along a 9-mile footpath. When European voyageurs arrived, the Indians showed them the way. In an arrangement that benefited both — the Indians caught beaver and traded the furs for wool blankets, kettles and other goods — the North West Co. established a trading post in what they called Grand Portage (French for “great carrying place”).
In a grand building overlooking Lake Superior, the Grand Portage National Monument offers exhibits on the history of the region and a well-produced 20-minute film. A walkway leads to the trading post (www.nps.gov/grpo).
August’s grand gathering
During the annual Grand Portage Rendezvous Days, re-enactors bring the reconstructed trading post to life with historic games, crafts and music. The Grand Portage Indians hold Rendezvous Day Powwow the same weekend. This year, events are scheduled for Aug. 7-9 (1-218-475-0123; www.nps.gov/grpo).
Did you know?
Many trips to Isle Royale National Park, a wild island in the northwest portion of Lake Superior, begin in Grand Portage. Grand Portage-Isle Royale Transportation Line runs two ships: Voyageur II circumnavigates the island clockwise, offering pickup and drop-off service at several of the island’s campgrounds. The Sea Hunter makes same-day round trips to the southwest side of the island at Windigo. Service began May 13 (1-218-475-0024 or 1-218-475-0074; www.isle royaleboats.com).
Where to eat and sleep
In Grand Portage, the Grand Portage Lodge and Casino offers rooms and a restaurant (1-218-475-2401; www.grandportage.com).
Twenty miles down the road, you’ll find Naniboujou Lodge (1-218-387-2688; naniboujou.com). The historic spot offers simple rooms and a dining room painted from floor to ceiling with colorful designs inspired by Cree Indians. Across the road, a trail in Judge C.R. Magney State Park leads to Devil’s Kettle Falls, another waterfall worth gushing over. For other places to stay and eat along the North Shore, go to www.visitcookcounty.com.
Don’t miss this crafty upstart
The craft brewing trend has a solid home on the North Shore at Voyageur Brewing Co. Smooth drafts are poured in an inviting taproom, with lots of wood, a stone fireplace and views of Grand Marais’ harbor. The taproom opens onto the brewery, where you can sip from their selections — including Devil’s Kettle IPA and Boundary Waters Brunette, made with a hint of wild rice — while challenging friends to a game of beanbag toss. The brewery has been open since March and on a recent Saturday night, the atmosphere was jovial and nearly every table occupied. Come summer, the patio will be in full swing. It’s on Hwy. 61, within walking distance of many Grand Marais hotels — good news for those who want to sample more than a half-pint. More information: 1-218-387-3163; www.voyageurbrewing.com.
Grand Portage lies about 35 miles northeast of Grand Marais, Minn., on Hwy. 61, at the tip of Minnesota’s Arrowhead region. A drive to Grand Portage from the Twin Cities takes about 5 hours; some of the trip is along the scenic shore of Lake Superior.