The so-called pancake ice in Grand Marais’ harbor undulated like curly edged Arctic lily pads, wavering in the wind and waves. Orange tones of sunset glinted across the frozen discs and Lake Superior’s steely blues.
Despite hand-numbing January temperatures, this could be one of Minnesota’s most mesmerizing sights. The play of light and the movement of the ice made the lake seem more alive than usual. It inhaled and exhaled waves that struck the harbor’s breakwater, ringing it with icicles.
Winter admirers picked their way across slippery rocks and snowy drops for the best views, and to check out glassy shrubs and rocks piled with ice.
Lake Superior’s shoreline show can continue after dark with the moonrise, a crisp view of constellations and the possibility of Northern Lights.
Aurora forecast apps and the Space Weather Prediction Center website (swpc.noaa.gov) can help you pinpoint celestial activity, and weather reports make guesses on wind, snow and temperatures that constantly repaint the lake like a blank canvas.
Changing conditions can cause a placid surface to eerily give off steam at sunrise, or encase the harbor in ice, or whip up waves and pile jagged pieces of ice onto the shore. The “pancake ice” patties form when floating chunks collide, rounding their edges and building up ridges of slush.
By morning, the almost perfectly rounded pieces were gone, whisked away by a lake that changes its mind as often as the weather.
Why to go in winter
Learn a skill: North House Folk School hosts its annual Northern Fibers Retreat Feb. 11-16, with how-to classes on making knitted Sami mittens, beaded deerskin Anishinaabe mitts, Norwegian embroidery and wool felting. Additional winter classes range from sausage-making and slow-food cooking to building a casket or crafting birch skis (1-888-387-9762; northhouse.org).
Find a trail: Cross-country skiers can glide toward Lake Superior views with several overlooks from the 25-kilometer Pincushion Mountain Trail System, just off the Gunflint Trail as it winds uphill from Grand Marais. Novices can choose gentle rolling loops, while intermediate and advanced skiers will find more challenging treks through birch, aspen and pine forest. Lights illuminate some of the trail after dark (pincushiontrails.org). More than 300 kilometers of additional trails can be found along the Gunflint and in the Lutsen-Tofte area southwest of Grand Marais.
Watch the race: Cheer on competitors in Minnesota’s famed John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, which kicks off Jan. 31 near Two Harbors, Minn., and reaches its midpoint at the historic Trail Center Lodge at Poplar Lake on Feb. 1 (beargrease.com). The historic log restaurant 30 miles north of Grand Marais serves bread-pudding French toast, walleye and eggs, a goober burger (peanut butter and mayo), chili and other hearty fare (1-218-388-2214; trailcenterlodge.com). Keep an eye out for moose along the highway.
Go dogsledding: Several places offer North Shore visitors a chance to experience dogsledding through the woods for a few hours, a half-day or a full day, including Arleigh Jorgenson Sled Dog Adventures (1-218-387-1107; dogmushing.com/rides.html) and Points Unknown (1-218-370-0283; points-unknown.com).
Gear up: Find everything from detailed trail maps and adventure books to snowshoes and cold-weather clothing at local shops. Top picks include Joyne’s Ben Franklin (well-stocked with flannel, fleece and footwear), the two-story Lake Superior Trading Post overlooking the harbor, and Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply. Stone Harbor also offers guided tours and workshops such as introduction to ice climbing, and rents winter attire and equipment such as skis, fat-tire bikes, skijoring kits and winter camping gear (1-218-387-3136; stoneharborws.com).
Where to eat
Gunflint Tavern makes burritos loaded with stout beans and rice; chicken mole, spicy Asian seafood bowls, fisherman’s stew and wild mushroom potstickers, paired with its own craft brews. Live music from folk to blues can be heard on weekends (1-218-387-1563; gunflinttavern.com).
Cook County Whole Foods Co-Op sells healthy chili and soups, sandwiches and sides for taking on the trail or the road (1-218-387-2503; cookcounty.coop).
Crooked Spoon Cafe serves its own twists on contemporary cuisine with chargrilled octopus, a BLT with cucumber curry mayonnaise, a wild rice/squash/walnut burger, braised pork shank and mussels (Thu.-Sun. during the winter; 1-218-387-2779; crookedspooncafe.com).
Where to sleep
East Bay Suites, built in 2006, has 31 units, from a two-person studio to a three-bedroom condo that sleeps eight. Most include balconies and patios with stellar views of Lake Superior, plus a fireplace and kitchen or kitchenette. There are some pet-friendly units. The relaxing common area has nightly popcorn, movies to borrow and s’mores on the patio (from $99; 1-800-414-2807; eastbaysuites.com).
Cobblestone Cove Villas sleep up to six and face the harbor in the heart of downtown shopping and dining (from $209; 1-218-663-7971; cobblestonecove.com). Grand Marais Hotel Co. handles reservations for several properties include Terrace Point, Spruceglen Inn, Aspen Lodge, the Shoreline Inn and Aspen Inn (from $75; 1-800-247-6020; gmhotel.net).
Grand Marais is about 110 miles (at least two hours) northeast of Duluth, a straight shot along Lake Superior on Hwy. 61.
Download the Visit Cook County Minnesota app on iTunes or Google Play; go to visitcookcounty.com; or contact the visitor center for Grand Marais and the Gunflint Trail at 1-218-387-2524.
Lisa Meyers McClintick (lisamcclintick.com) wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”