Insiders' Guide to Lake Superior

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Konstantin Lobastov / Dreamstime.com

Pictured rocks arch on lake Superior shore of Michigan's upper peninsula

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.

Getting started

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.

Before you go, order a free copy of the 77-page Lake Superior Circle Tour Adventure Guide, which describes things to see and do. Contact any of the tourism offices mentioned below or pick up a copy at the first information center you come to.

On the road

Day one

Minneapolis to Duluth, 150 miles. Catch an early flight to Minneapolis to give you time in the afternoon to explore Duluth's exciting Lake Superior waterfront. Duluth is the leading Great Lakes port-about 1,000 lake and ocean vessels call here annually-and one of the busiest in the country.

Make your first stop the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center, a free U.S. Army Corps of Engineers facility at Canal Park in downtown Duluth. It provides an excellent introduction to shipping lore. You might catch a freighter sailing into port; the museum posts an updated schedule of expected arrivals and departures. Most ships enter empty and depart full.

I was particularly interested in a large, illuminated map that helped me identify the harbor's major terminals. The Midwest Energy Terminal loads coal brought by train from Montana onto carriers supplying electricity-generating plants in the lower Great Lakes. Iron and coal are the two most important cargoes. There are also six grain elevators capable of holding 55 million bushels.

Elsewhere in Canal Park, step aboard the William A. Irvin (adults, $6.75), a former iron ore and coal carrier turned museum ship, for a 60-minute escorted tour. Save an hour for another Canal Park attraction, the Great Lakes Aquarium & Freshwater Discovery Center ($8.95). Here I learned that Superior is about 350 miles long, 160 miles wide, and holds 3 quadrillion gallons of water. I suppose the huge, whiskered lake sturgeon-almost as big as sharks-feel a bit cramped, even in the aquarium's giant, 103,000-gallon tank.

And while at Canal Park, enjoy dinner at one of its busy restaurants. Little Angie's Cantina & Grill offers a nice roasted-chicken enchilada plate ($8.99), served outside on the lake-view deck. Or walk uphill to the Radisson Hotel, which features a revolving rooftop restaurant, called JJ Astor, with sweeping harbor views. With the early-bird special (4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday through Thursday), every entree is $7.95.

Details

From Minneapolis, take I-35 north, exiting at Canal Park. Stay just off I-35 at the 99-room Motel 6 (218/723-1123), $45 weekdays/$53 weekends; or the 59-room Super 8 (218/628-2241), $82 weekdays/$91 weekends. For dining, see above. Information: 800/4-DULUTH, www.visitduluth.com.

A mini-cruise

Day two

Duluth via Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Bayfield, Wisconsin, to Marquette, Michigan, 300 miles. Get an early start to catch a budget-priced mini-cruise at Apostle Islands. En route, the road scrambles alongside Superior; stretch your legs in the little port towns of Port Wing, Herbster, and Cornucopia. Outside Bayfield, the road passes acres of strawberry patches. Buy a pint for snacking.

Apostle Islands is a cluster of 21 mostly unpopulated islands just offshore from Bayfield, a pretty town draped gracefully across a forested hillside. One way to see the islands is by tour boat; the three-hour "grand tour" (10 a.m. to 1 p.m.) costs $39.95. Or save by taking the 20-minute ferry crossing ($8 round trip) to Madeline Island, the easiest of the Apostles to reach. The ferry docks at La Point, a tiny village of shops and caf,s. The ride is short, but it's your chance to get on the water cheaply.

After crossing into Michigan, look for Van Riper State Park ($4 per car), just east of the town of Michigamme. Break up the drive here with a swim at the park's fine sand beach. No, the lake's not Superior, but it's a lot warmer.

In Marquette, head for the Marquette Maritime Museum ($5) overlooking Superior to learn more about legendary shipwrecks, such as the freighter Henry B. Smith, which vanished in 1913. Then join the museum's escorted tour of the still-operating Marquette Harbor Lighthouse.

Details

From Duluth, take I-535 east into Wisconsin, linking to U.S. 53 and U.S. 2 east. After 15 miles, take State 13 north and east to Bayfield and Apostle Islands. Continue on Route 13 until it rejoins U.S. 2. Head east on U.S. 2 to Wakefield, Michigan, picking up State 28 into Marquette. Stay at the 41-room Brentwood Motor Inn Budget Host (800/999-7055), $48; the 52-room Value Host Motor Inn (800/929-5996), $55; or the 80-room Super 8 Motel (906/228-8100), $67. For seaport flavor, try the Portside Inn in downtown Marquette; the chicken quesadilla plate is $10.95. Information: 800/544-4321, www.marquettecountry.org.

On to Canada

Day three

Marquette via Sault Ste. Marie to Wawa, Ontario, 315 miles. About 40 miles down the road, the little port city of Munising is the departure point for a two-and-a-half-hour cruise off Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (10 a.m., $25). The park is named for a 15-mile-long wall of brightly hued shoreline rock, which centuries of harsh Great Lakes weather has carved into arches, spires, and other odd shapes. Or admire good land-based views of the cliffs from Miners Castle, a large rock formation reached by car. No entrance fee here.

If you missed touring the museum ship in Duluth, a second chance awaits aboard the Museum Ship Valley Camp ($8) in Sault Ste. Marie. An ore carrier built in 1917, it's now open for self-guided tours. Climb to the pilothouse to get a captain's view of the huge vessel. Five blocks east, visit the Soo Locks Visitor Center, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers facility, where you might see a freighter bound up-lake or down. The locks can average about 16 ships a day. A small museum describes how they work.

Cross the International Bridge into Canada for the return drive west along Superior's wild North Shore. For two days, the lake rarely will be out of view. Ahead is a ruggedly majestic realm of rocky coves, pebbled beaches, high cliffs, countless small lakes, endless miles of tall firs, and Superior's sparkling blue waters.

At Lake Superior Provincial Park, south of Wawa, stop at Agawa Rock ($4 per car). A short, rough trail descends steeply to the rock, a towering boulder at water's edge. A historic site, it bears many red-ocher paintings made by ancient Ojibwa Indians (as the Chippewas are known in Canada). But beware: The wave-washed viewing ledge can be slippery. Three long ropes have been installed so that those who tumble from the ledge into the lake can pull themselves back up the steep side.

In Wawa, I got a chuckle out of a trio of giant geese, emblematic sculptures standing as tall as a house. In the Ojibwa language, Wawa means "land of the goose." At day's end, relax with a swim in lovely Wawa Lake in the heart of town. No charge.

Details

From Marquette, continue east on State 28 to I-75 north into Sault Ste. Marie. Cross the International Bridge and follow the signs to Canada 17 west (the Trans-Canada Highway) to Wawa. Stay just south of Wawa at the 14-room Mystic Isle Motel (800/667-5895), CAD$62/US$42; or in Wawa at the 32-room Big Bird Inn (705/856-2342), CAD$54/US$37; or the 18-room Algoma Motel (705/856-7010), CAD$62/US$42. Dine at the renowned Cedar Hof Dining Lounge, specializing in German dishes. Enjoy the Wiener schnitzel plate with homemade spaetzle, CAD$15.95/US$10.85. Information: 800/367-9292, ext. 260, www.wawa.cc.

Into the North Woods

Day four

Wawa to Thunder Bay, 300 miles. A great day for sailing, even behind the wheel of a rented car. Skirt broad bays, crest lofty ridges, and plunge into the awesome North Woods. This leg ranks as one of the finest water-view drives in the world.

At Terrace Bay, stretch your legs on the short hike to Aguasabon Falls, where a slender stream cascades over a steep cliff into a sheer-walled canyon. At Rainbow Falls Provincial Park, hike through dense woods to a pair of waterfalls splashing down a narrow, rocky channel. Elsewhere in the park, swim in the warm (sort of) water of Whitesand Lake. At Ouimet Canyon Provincial Park (CAD$1/US66> per person), take the one-mile loop trail to a viewing platform overlooking the impressively deep chasm.

Details

From Wawa, stick to Canada 17 all the way. Stay in Thunder Bay at the 50-room Super 8 (807/344-2612), CAD$75/US$51; or the 60-room Best Western Crossroads Motor Inn (807/577-4241), CAD$95/US$65. Dine elegantly at the Timbers at the Valhalla Inn. The evening buffet is CAD$14.95/US$10.15. The maple-glazed pork chop entr,e, ... la carte, CAD$20/US$13.60. Information: 800/667-8386, www.visitthunderbay.com.

Waterfall way

Day five

Thunder Bay via Duluth to Minneapolis, 350 miles. For the first 200 miles, the road hugs the lake. But here it is overshadowed by the many roadside waterfalls. The first is just inside the U.S. border at Grand Portage State Park. An easy, ten-minute walk leads to the thundering High Falls of the Pigeon River. The one-day fee ($4 per car) is good for all Minnesota state parks.

At nearby Grand Portage National Monument ($3), pause briefly for a history lesson. In 1784, this protected bay became the site of a major fur-trading post. Each spring until 1803, Montreal fur buyers journeyed here in canoes paddled by a backwoods navy of Great Lakes Voyageurs. They rendezvoused with the traders, who bought furs from the Indians. To reach the fort, the traders had to portage the last eight miles. A stockade fence, the Great Hall, kitchen, and other structures have been rebuilt, and costumed interpreters re-create frontier life. I spent an interesting half hour with Erik Simula, a birch-bark-canoe maker in buckskin, who introduced me to the fine art of harvesting and thrashing Minnesota wild rice.

Afterward, stop at Judge C. R. Magney State Park, where a mighty waterfall disappears into the open mouth of Devil's Kettle, a pot-like rock formation. Turn in again at Cascade River and Temperance River State Parks for more waterfall hikes. At Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, climb the stairs of a restored lighthouse. At Gooseberry Falls State Park, scramble on the rocks at the foot of yet another grand tumble of water.

Back in Duluth, celebrate the end of the drive with a final Superior view. And then head for Minneapolis and home.

Details

From Thunder Bay, take Route 61 south, connecting at the U.S. border to Minnesota 61 south. In Duluth, pick up I-35 south to Minneapolis.

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