Pristine water, alpine skiing and a rich cultural history is all the daily norm when visiting the hidden gem that is Duluth, Mn and the gorgeous North Shore. For a winter wonderland that is as easy to explore as your own backyard, you’ll soon find out what Minnesota (n)ice is all about. Read on to find out where to get lost before winter ends.
Cook County & Lake Superior’s North Shore
The North Shore of Lake Superior is dotted with villages that boast everything from a fishing museum to fresh-baked pie to world-class art. Add to that waterfalls, endless woods and picture-perfect views of the lake, and you can almost hear the collective sigh of city dwellers yearning to be in the great outdoors.
Start Up Here
Head to Grand Marais, a quaint town about two hours north of Duluth. Located right on the lake you’ll find everything you need and quite a few surprises. Grand Marais is known for its artists so keep your eyes and ears open for art around every corner. Other highlights include a walk to the lighthouse, browsing in Drury Lane Books 12 E Wisconsin St. Winter hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Thurs. Fri. & Sat.), and pizza at Sven & Ole’s (9 West Wisconsin St.) and a visit to the Grand Marais Art Colony (120 West Third Ave.) for a look around. Click here to check out their workshops before you go. Nearby, the North House Folk School (500 MN-61, Grand Marais) serves up classes for the older kids including blacksmithing!
Insider tip: Check the KP index before you go to see if Northern Lights will be active during your visit!
There’s no shortage of lodging options right in Grand Marais but for a little casual luxury in the middle of winter play, we like the Lutsen Resort (5700 MN-61, Lutsen, Mn 55612). Just a little further south from Grand Marais, the 1885 built Scandinavian log lodge is big on charm and great for families of all size. They’ve got great perks for families including a pool that stays open extra late (11 p.m. on weekend evenings) a game room, movie rentals and suites that have full kitchens and are stocked with board games. A great option for larger families or groups are the master suites with additional bedrooms and sleeping lofts in the Poplar River Condos. The storybook main lodge has views of the lake and a private beach and the entire property offers a network of trails to and from the main lodge. Be sure and stop by the activity desk to get outfitted with snowshoes or cross country skis (limited number of kid sizes available) and a map of nearby hikes and groomed ski trails. (Rooms start at $155/night.)
Up, Up & Away
Lutsen Resort is right at the base of the downhill ski resort, Lutsen Mountains (467 Ski Hill Rd., Lutsen, Mn), and if you stay at Lutsen Resort there’s a free shuttle up the mountain. Thrill seekers who aren’t up for a day of downhill skiing or snowboarding should book tickets for a sightseeing excursion in the enclosed gondola to the top of the mountain, where you can hop off and hit the Summit Chalet for a pint and a hot cocoa while you take in the stunning view. Gondola rides are $20/adults; $12/children 6-12; children 5 and under are free.
Good to know: the gondola also runs in the warmer months offering the same stunning views. We can’t wait to head back in the fall!
Unless you plan to spend most of your day up on the mountain, head back down, grab your snowshoes and drive to one of the nearby parks: Cascade River State Park is nearby and a moderate hike for all ages to a partially frozen waterfall (some steep inclines). Sugarbush is popular for cross country skiing and offers an extensive network of trails of all levels.
Even if you aren’t staying as a guest at the Lutsen Resort, it’s a great spot to dine for breakfast, lunch or dinner in the Lakeside Dining Room or lunch and dinner at the Poplar River Pub (dinner only on weekdays). Don’t miss the Stuffed French Toast in the dining room, plus the full breakfast buffet where kids 4 and under eat for free. Bonus: Not only are kids welcome in the pub, the game room is right next door!
You can also head back up to Grand Marais for dinner where you’ll find the local’s favorite, The Crooked Spoon (17 Wisconsin St,, Grand Marais) Also in Grand Marais you’ll find the Cook County Whole Foods Co-Op (20 East First St., Grand Marais) where you can stock up on road snacks from the bulk section and small but delicious deli items. Ask for their famous made-fresh-daily granola your kids will love!
Good to know: In the winter, many of Grand Marais businesses are closed by 5 p.m. so if you want to do additional sightseeing/shopping arrive a little earlier.
Head On Down
Now that you are refreshed and decompressed, it’s time to hit the road and see the sights in Duluth. Make a quick pit stop at the Split Rock Lighthouse—one of the most photographed icons of Lake Superior—to snap your own postcard-perfect shot or stretch you limbs at one of the at Gooseberry Falls State Park (one of the state’s best waterfalls) before continuing your journey south. Both are right off Hwy.61 in Two Harbors.
This beautiful port town has a little bit of everything, including an awesome university campus, multiple museums and working docks.. While Duluth is a fair-sized city, for your first visit don’t miss Downtown or Canal Park. Canal Park’s crown jewel is the famous Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge and it’s also where (until the ice gets too thick) large ships come through to load at the docks. It’s home to the Lake Superior Maritime Museum (600 S Lake Ave., Duluth, open Sat. & Sun., 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m.), an excellent spot to check out the area’s shipping history (free admission!). Just across the grass from the museum you’ll find an archway indicating the Duluth Lakewalk, an 7.5 mile long walking, biking and strolling path that you can stomp along any time of the day.
When you get hungry head to Lake Avenue (394 S Lake Ave, Duluth), located inside the Dewitt-Seitz Marketplace. The sophisticated menu is full of exciting combinations (spicy-but-creamy pear soup; yuca torte; house-made hot sauce). The location is in the heart of Canal Park, and the Dewitt-Seitz Marketplace is also home to local’s favorite for sandwiches, Northern Waters Smokehaus. You’ll find several little shops to browse so you can grab your edition of Duluth-Opoly before you leave. The iconic Grandma’s Saloon (522 S Lake Ave., Duluth) is also nearby, a great bet for kids with plenty to look at, games to play and an extensive upscale-diner menu.
Tip: Adventure Zone (329 S Lake Ave.) is right across the street from Grandma’s Saloon and includes indoor mini-golf, batting cages and more. It’s a great way to warm up and get the wiggles out before your next adventure or after the sun goes down!
Downtown Duluth, with its surprising hills offering killer views of the lake, also features one of the city’s greatest treasures. The Duluth Depot (506 W Michigan St., Duluth) was saved from destruction in the 1970s and transformed from a center for train travel in the area, to a major hub for arts, culture and history. It’s home to a multitude of different cultural institutions, including: The Duluth Playhouse which puts on kid-driven and audience-inclusive children’s plays that are usually less than an hour and perfect for all ages; the St. Louis Historical Society’s exhibits, that focus on the immigrant experience and include a replica of an early Finnish farmstead designed for children to play, learn and explore; and The Lake Superior Railroad Museum, which features massive engines (many of which kids can climb in); train tables; a hobo-sign scavenger hunt; replica turn-of-the-century buildings and even a replica movie theater. Currently on exhibit is the reproduction of the Lincoln Funeral Car. The building also houses The Duluth Art Institute and Lake Superior Ojibwe Gallery. Since one ticket gets you admission to all the things ($12/adults; $6/kids ages 3-13; children 2 and under free) you can mix and match as you like!
Stay & Play
After a day of winter sporting and epic sightseeing, chillax in the Lazy River at The Edgewater Hotel & Waterpark (2400 London Rd. Duluth, prices average around $179 for a queen room with two beds). It’s a short drive from Canal Park but it is a world away. Two water slides, a whirlpool, aquatic basketball and a play structure built for the littles all combine to make this the place kiddos beg to stay. Reasonable prices, a hot tub and lots of cocktails keep parents agreeing to come back. This local’s secret (we met a lot of families who live near by or in Duluth) who treat the kiddos to a night in a hotel made just for them. Some rooms even overlook the water park (but a parent or guardian must be with kids in the park at all times). Be sure and pack water shoes or sandals for traction and any floaties your kids might need. And if all that isn’t enough, there’s a sweet arcade where everyone’s a winner. The hotel offers a breakfast buffet but we found a quick trip directly across the street to Dunn Brothers to be a great spot to fuel up before the next day. Insider tip: There’s an outdoor hot tub near the arcade.
Do Not Miss
Treat your entire family to a tour of historic Glensheen (3300 London Rd, Duluth), an epic mansion on 12-acres of gorgeous waterfront property. A walk toward the estate’s private beach worth the cost of admission alone, not to mention the stable and carriage house where the gift shop is housed, but once you head inside to this 1905 mansion, we promise you will be astounded by every detail, from the multitude of fireplace designs to the exquisite artwork. Unlike many other house mansions, this one is intact: every item in it is original to the estate and not a replica. (So you can totally go all Downton Abbey fan and embarrass your kids with a fake accent as you stroll.) Hardly a stodgy affair, Glensheen offers regular family-friendly events including snowshoe excursions on the property and summertime concerts, flashlight tours and more. They even have cocoa waiting for you at the end of your tour! (Tours range from $15-$26 and up, student and child discounts available as well as family passes).
One Last Stop
Hit up Spirit Mountain for some tubing on your way out of town (it’s just south of Duluth proper, and not far off 35 so it’s an easy on, easy off). Each ticket is good for two hours, so plan accordingly: they are open Fri., 4-8 p.m. and Sat. & Sun., 11 a.m.-7p.m. We love arriving a couple hours before sunset to get that view at the peak.The tubing hill is located right next to the ski hill, and it’s a great way to tire the kids out and give everyone a last hurrah before you hit the road to head home. Kids 5 and under need to ride with a parent in a two-person tube, and kids under 3 are not allowed to ride. .$25/person, 2 hours.
Unless you already live driving distance, flying into Minneapolis/St. Paul (MSP) is a great option as it is just two hours from Duluth. Or save yourself some drive time and get “Up North” a lot faster by flying directly into Duluth International Airport, where there is daily service to and from Chicago O’Hare (ORD).
Have you taken your kids “Up North” this winter? Tell us your favorite things to do in the comments below!
—story and photos by Amber Guetebier