The power of social media is where positive statements can be made – and resonate across it.
One such statement was made by a Facebook friend who declared that "Duluth is by far one of the best cities in the state!" By state, he means Minnesota.
He is right. Having been back-and-forth to the place where the largest freshwater lake in the world meets its western terminus, Duluth is a wonderful city. It offers many different places in one setting. From its bustling downtown up the hills over towards Skyline Drive and Miller Hill to its western neighborhoods. Somewhere in the mix are two universities and the lovely eastern neighborhoods. It is the gateway for large freighters carrying everything the north woods would yield.
It is the intersection of Nobel Prize winners and other seekers of the good life. Duluth people can be progressive, but they are hard-working folks. The mix makes for a great community as the rivers meet the lake and tourists meet for further experiences along the lake and away from it.
Yet, it has been a while in-between trips. In the past, I've driven my share between home and Duluth on Interstate 35. Some even coming home late at night after carousing at some bar in Superior or at hanging out for too long at a friend's home on the other side of the bay.
One time, I took a bus to Duluth. It was an interesting experience since it would drop off somewhere southwest of downtown for another bus to take you further afield. That has since changed, thanks to the opening of the new Duluth Transportation Center downtown. An acquaintance used to drive for the Duluth Transit Authority, so I got to see that area up close and personal on occasion.
Thinking about all of the times I visited Duluth, I often forget that there is more to that city. There are a couple of regions for which Duluth serves as a gateway to. To the northeast, there's the North Shore that runs along Lake Superior. To the north, there's the Iron Range, also known as Mesabi. Both regions are full of history and wonder.
In planning this day trip/drive up to the Duluth, the North Shore and the Mesabi, I asked myself whether I can do all of it in one day. Honestly, that would be impossible, especially if one could go further towards Grand Marais or to Ely. To do so in a day, I needed (a) a purpose and (b) an incentive.
The purpose was for work. In writing an article for a magazine on tips on how to do a road trip, I needed some contextual photography to go along with it. Considering how popular Duluth, the North Shore and the Mesabi are for tourists, I planned on photographing multiple locations – especially the more popular ones.
To make it tie-in with the travel issue I am writing for and the fact that I am that magazine's contributor for automotive content, one must have a vehicle to use in these shots. Luckily, I got one for the job – a 2017 Ford Fusion Sport. It's 325 horsepower, twin-turbocharged V6 and all-wheel drive should make handy work of traversing the well-trodden tracks of the Northland.
For this journey, I made the Split Rock Lighthouse my first stop. Along with the rest of the state, Interstate 35 had plenty of construction activity going on between the Twin Cities and downtown Duluth. The worse being a morning back-up due to a single lane coming down off of Spirit Mountain into Duluth's West Side. There was an occasion when a semi-truck decided to block both lanes to prevent anyone passing it. Smart move, pal…since people can squeeze by, using the shoulder – which is illegal in Minnesota – to get past said truck.
Off of Interstate 35, I began the long run across the lake side of Duluth, stretching from the West to the East. The city itself has not changed much since my last deep dive there a few years ago. It offers a mix of rough-and-tumble to well-manicured properties. It is a port town – the last one for Lake Superior. This mix of landscapes helps give Duluth its charm on many levels.
Downtown has not changed, except for the new Transportation Center. It is tucked away from Superior Street, the main drag through downtown connecting both West and East sides. Duluth bus traffic has decreased on Superior Street, making easy work for motorists along with a few new street parking spots. Still, I have a lighthouse to get to. I needed to hit London Road and Highway 61 northward.
After a short expressway stretch into Two Harbors, Highway 61 becomes the classic North Shore highway tourists know and love. In my 20-plus mile stretch from Two Harbors, it was an easy road to navigate with a couple of tunnels and some twists and turns. There are plenty of waysides and scenic outlooks to look out on Lake Superior and the nearby points of interest.
Gooseberry Falls State Park serves as the first official Rest Stop along Highway 61. From the visitors center, you can plan your way down the cliffs to the lake shore. It is all wonderful but offered the mix of weather that would mark the day – sunny coming from the Twin Cities lending to a hazy morning to complete cloud cover by 11:00 AM.
If there was a disappointment, it was reaching the Split Rock Lighthouse. I get that it is built off a cliff, but they certainly put some distance between it and the visitors center. I understand why, but not getting that view of the lighthouse once there was a bit surprising.
A few miles south provided a view of the lighthouse at a wayside. To get a "closer" look, you have to go on the stone perch to view it. Later, I was told of a northern viewing point where you drive down a single lane path towards the lake shore and can see it from below…sort of. I did not know it existed until I had lunch with a car enthusiast friend in Superior, Wisconsin.
Getting to that lunch spot was an adventure. Once I drove back into Duluth, it began to rain. The closer I got to downtown and our meeting spot at Bayfront Park, the rain got very heavy. We had a thunder storm the night before back in the Twin Cities, but I did not think it would rain the next day – in Duluth. Shows how much I put any trust on weather apps and websites.
The rain got so heavy that there were intersections that were flooded by several inches and roads that made traction a challenge. I followed my friend Peter – a new father – through this crazy storm to a gem of a place for lunch. The Anchor Bar and Grill on Tower Avenue is a local hangout that serves superb hamburgers with great fries. It is an old school atmosphere befitting of a port city – like Superior.
When we left the Anchor, the rain let up a bit. A few moments of chat before we split. My quest was to do a tourist photo op in Canal Park. It was drizzling by then, but I still had an idea.
Needless to say that photo ops I had in mind had not materialized fully. I was not disappointed, however. So, I called a friend in Hibbing, up in the Iron Range. We decided to connect up there, but he warned me of one thing – the entire town is under construction.
If one thing was to thwart some progress in opportunities, it was the big dreaded orange cone. Welcome to Minnesota, indeed…
There was one thing I wanted to do…drive on downtown's hilly streets. When you ascend from Superior Street from downtown, you are treated to hills that remind one of most San Francisco neighborhoods. They might be as steep as some streets I used to drive and take MUNI on (that's Municipal Railways, SF's transit service…moving on…), but that sensation returned at every intersection. It all ends when you reach the road that takes you towards Miller Mill. A short thrill, but not enough to want to do a “Bullitt” redux.
Alas, my drive on US Highway 53 turned into a blessing. The clouds from downtown Duluth gave way to a hazy sky and sunshine. What was 64 degrees in the morning, turned to 79 degrees in the afternoon. It is also true what they say about Midwestern weather – wait a few minutes and it will change.
Steven and I met at the Range Regional Airport, outside of Hibbing and Chisholm. Delta only flies twice in and out of this airport to Minneapolis-St. Paul. Parking is free, as with most small town commercial airports. Don't look for a SuperShuttle or a shared ride service when you arrive. From there, he wanted to see how the Fusion drove. I was happy to oblige.
The Iron Range/Mesabi region remains home to the taconite that feeds the twin ports of Duluth and Superior, This activity began in 1885 with the mining of the Vermilion Range, followed by Mesabi Range in 1890. Paper and timber also run through this region, with Grand Rapids to the southwest of the Iron Range's core and its paper-making activity.
One export the Iron Range/Mesabi region sent to the world is a Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Bob Dylan. It has not been an easy relationship between the musician and the region, but it appears to be a slight thaw for the city he grew up in – Hibbing – to honor the Nobel laureate, as his birthplace, Duluth, as done.
Frankly, I'm not a huge fan of Dylan. He was not the focal point of this trip. Sorry, folks.
Speaking of travel, did you know that Greyhound has its start in Hibbing? On my first trip to the Range, I visited the Greyhound Bus Museum and their collection of classic intercity buses. It has been years since Greyhound actually operated intercity bus service to Hibbing or the Range. Today, a regional bus service, Jefferson Lines, operates intercity bus service to Hibbing, Grand Rapids, and Virginia from Duluth with one bus a day each way.
After rolling around the Range area for a few hours, it was time to head back home. It was a lovely drive with the sun going down on the west and the eventual fog that rolled through Interstate 35 north of Forest Lake. Another random reminder of San Francisco and of Northern California, perhaps.
I would have loved to gone deeper in my exploration of all three areas, but in a combination of years of traveling to Duluth and the vicinity, I may have uncovered everything good about the region.
Maybe a few places I have yet to experience that I should sometime. For example, Fitgers in Duluth and the Glensheen estate. Not that I forget these things, but one tries not to be too touristy when visiting the area.
However, for anyone who has not been to Duluth, the North Shore and the Mesabi region, go ahead and do everything you can. Duluth is a pretty compact city to accomplish it all. Driving may be tough during the Grandma's Marathon and on most summer days, but you can do so much in a day or two.
Even the North Shore can get packed in summer. If you make your reservations at campsites and cabins in advance, then you can make the best out of a Lake Superior holiday.
I will also admit that I have yet to explore further up the shore from Silver Bay. I keep hearing from friends how they took in a week up in Grand Marais, Grand Portage or even Thunder Bay. The distance is doable and you do get some amazing scenery along the way.
As for the Iron Range/Mesabi, it has its own attractions, such as the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and the Minnesota Discovery Center. It is a gateway for the Northwoods. That is why you do see a lot of cars with canoes and kayaks on the roof and trucks pulling lake-bound boats.
Come early fall, the entire northeastern part of Minnesota becomes one of the first places in the USA to see its leaves turn brown. That's the time when you really need to do an epic drive there! The air will be cooler, the snow will be a few months away – so get that North Shore or Northwoods drive in while you can!
The experience of being up north and away from the usual traffic and stresses begins in a port city at the end of Lake Superior. Its praises and positive feedback were indeed warranted and confirmed. All of it awaits your visit and your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat reports. Just do so before the temperatures drop.
DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by the Ford Motor Company
All photos by Randy Stern