Insiders' Guide to Lake Superior
Take a ride through Great Lakes country. Here's our insiders' guide to Lake Superior.
For much of the way around massive Lake Superior, the highway edges so closely-and so continuously-to the shoreline that I could almost imagine I was piloting a high-powered speedboat rather than my mundane little rental car. I dashed in and out of hidden coves, anchored (well, parked) at sunny beaches, splashed through a sudden, blinding rainsquall, and reveled hour after hour in the beauty of the seascapes in front of me. Could a sailor in a real boat have had it much better? If you love the sea, a five-day, 1,400-mile circle drive around Superior-the largest body of clean, fresh water in the world-is a terrific and inexpensive way to indulge that fancy. Good lodging and dining come at budget prices, especially along the Canadian side of the lake. I stayed in a small, beautifully maintained motel with a view in the village of Wawa, Ontario, for just CAD$62 (US$42, tax included). A savory dinner at the nearby Cedar Hof Dining Lounge, one of the province's most popular restaurants, set me back an easy CAD$15.95 (US$10.85).
Beyond this, much of what you will want to see or do is free, or almost so. I was surprised and, yes, dazzled by the abundance of spectacular waterfalls dotting the way. Most are located in state or provincial parks, where the entrance fees are nominal. Countless rivers cascade from high ridges just before they empty into the lake. I popped in and out of my car again and again to catch the never-ending show. In Minnesota, I paid $4 (per car) for an all-day pass to a half-dozen waterfall parks.
This is a drive into wilderness country, a winding route through the still mostly pristine land of the deep North Woods. The famed Voyageurs-the fur-trading canoe men who passed this way in the late eighteenth century-might feel quite at home, even today. If you circle the lake counterclockwise, as I did, the lake on your left seems as wide and forbidding as the ocean. On the right, thick evergreen forests, both awesome and intimidating, march in unbroken ranks to the distant horizon. For miles, nothing seems changed from the past except the highway ahead and all those big, yellow road signs warning you to be alert to moose in your path. I never did see one.
Not surprisingly, the lakeside towns cater year-round to outdoorsy folks. In summer, take gear to hike, fish, bicycle, canoe, and kayak. Some may be brave enough to plunge briefly into the frigid waters of Superior. (I made it in up to my knees.) But many smaller lakes just off the highway promise sandy beaches and warmer swimming. Winter brings the snowmobile crowd and cross-country skiers.
This is a land, too, of fascinating tales. Maritime museums and historic lighthouses tell the sometimes tragic story of Great Lakes shipping; hundreds of ships have gone down in these vast waters. Some wrecks have never been found.
At Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, watch freighters navigate the historic Soo Locks linking Lakes Superior and Huron. Tour the rebuilt fort of the early Voyageurs at Minnesota's Grand Portage National Monument. The Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth puts the spotlight on giant lake sturgeon and other Great Lakes species. None of these places will dent your budget.
And, oh, yes, once or twice a day a Las Vegas-style casino will tempt you inside. I'd like sudden wealth, too-but keeping to a tight budget, I set a limit of $20 total, which I lost, a few quarters at a time. It's my way of having a bit of gaming fun without regrets.
Since this is a circle drive, start almost anywhere and loop back again. I began in Sault Ste. Marie, because I got what I thought was a bargain airfare from my hometown. But I was socked with a heavy car-rental bill because, after paying for a nonrefundable ticket, I learned that both rental agencies at the airport limited me to 800 free miles, and I drove more than 1,100. Dumb planning on my part.
Subsequently, my Internet research suggested Minneapolis as a starting point, offering a combination of good airfares and car rentals. The drawback is that Minneapolis is 150 miles from Lake Superior in Duluth. You add 300 miles round trip to the distance I covered.
The Minneapolis-St. Paul airport is served by four discount airlines: AirTran Airways, America West Airlines, American Trans Air, and Frontier Airlines. When I checked, four car-rental agencies were offering a week's compact rental with unlimited miles for about $160. They were Budget (800/527-0700), $153; Enterprise (800/736-8222), $150; Alamo (800/327-9633), $159; and Payless (800/729-5377), $169. I paid $72 for gas.
I've routed this drive counterclockwise. From Duluth east to Sault Ste. Marie, lake views are somewhat limited because no road clings continuously to the shoreline. But from Sault Ste. Marie north and west back to Duluth-a distance of about 700 miles-you're rarely out of sight of the lake. The trip may start off slowly, but it ends with a bang. To some, the daily distances might seem somewhat long. But mostly the drive covers lightly traveled roads through little-populated areas.