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Road Trip—Great Lakes Circle Tour Series: Experience North America’s Fresh Coast of Lake Superior

By: Tierney Brannigan November 16, 2017
Lake Superior—the world's largest freshwater lake—opens grandly to visitors of Ontario's Sleeping Giant Bay.

All lifeforms are drawn to water. Across the animal kingdom, it’s largely out of survival, but sometimes it’s a simple reminder of where we come from. Whether it’s a crowded Southern California beach, quiet sub-Saharan watering hole, or, in this case, the largest freshwater body on the planet, the waters are always calling.

We’re kicking off a series of road trips following the Great Lakes Circle Tour—6,500 miles taking you around the circumference of each lake, passing through multiple states (and another country, so bring your passport!).

To start, we’ll circle the biggest lake of them all—the aptly named Lake Superior.

The Circle Tour of Lake Superior spans 1,287 miles—that’s about the distance from California to Oklahoma. This behemoth body of water is the largest freshwater lake in the world and borders real estate in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ontario, Canada—talk about superiority!

Michigan

PicturedRocks
Seen from a boat or kayak, Michigan's Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is a stunning study in weathered limestone.

What better place to start your road trip than in the Great Lake State itself? If you’re starting in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, you’ll take Interstate 75 to cross into the Upper Peninsula via the stunning Mackinac Bridge, following M-28 and US-41 west along Lake Superior’s southern shoreline. 

A short detour up M-77 brings you to the northern edge of the Seney National Wildlife Refuge, which is a bird lover’s paradise. The refuge is home to hundreds of different varieties, including bald eagles, trumpeter swans, warblers, and woodpeckers, just to name a few.

After Seney, continue to Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore. The sandstone cliffs that give this national park unit its name stretch for miles and are a colorful sedimentary display of the beautiful growing pains that shaped Lake Superior’s southern shore. Swim, boat, hike, kayak, or take a guided tour to get the most out of the natural scenery and impressive rock formations at Pictured Rocks.

Continuing west, you’ll eventually arrive in Hiawatha National Forest. Lush groves of pines, birches, spruces, and cedars blanket Lake Superior’s coastline; in autumn, the changing leaves make for an unforgettable sight, coloring Lake Superior’s waters with reflected fiery warmth. Grand Island, just a ferry ride away, is perfect for a hike or bike ride to old lighthouses, overlooks, and even a smaller lake located in the center of the isle.

Farther west is Copper Country and the Keweenaw Peninsula. Here, the sister cities of Hancock and Houghton face each other across a narrow passage of Portage Lake and are connected by the Portage Canal lift bridge. Both cities offer a historical glimpse into the copper mining boom of the mid-1800s. A few original buildings still stand, with older natural rock and water formations dotting these historic towns.

Northbound on US-41, you’ll reach Copper Harbor, a small inlet located on the lakeshore. You don’t even have to leave the car to experience one of its most scenic attractions: Brockway Mountain Drive. This 10-mile route offers sweeping views of Lake Superior hundreds of feet above the harbor. After making your way back down, hop on the ferry to Isle Royale National Park, a largely untouched natural island home to a unique mixture of wolf and moose populations. The island is only open from April to November, and ferries do fill up, so it’s smart to book a reservation ahead of time.

Wisconsin

ApostleIslands
The forest creeps up to the very edge of Lake Superior on Wisconsin's Apostle Islands.

Making your way back down the Keweenaw Peninsula, you’ll eventually return to M-28, which converges with US-2 just a few miles from the Wisconsin border.

When you first arrive in the Badger State, you’ll pass through the Bad River Reservation, home to the Chippewa tribe, eventually hitting Ashland, WI. Nestled along the eastern shore of Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay, Ashland is noted for its rich fishing in all seasons, boasting a variety of fish to catch, including salmon, trout, and trophy-worthy smallmouth bass.

What trip through America’s Dairyland would be complete without a little—or a lot of—cheese? Continue west and you’ll come to Benoit Cheese Haus, located in Benoit, WI. Sample more than 150 different cheeses—from apple cinnamon Monterey jack to rosemary garlic gouda, and everything in between.

Continuing north, you’ll come to Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, perhaps the most beautiful scenery on the state’s northern coast, home to sandstone caves, historic lighthouses, and more. From the lakeshore, one can boat over to one of the 21 islands for a day of hiking or a weekend of camping in the summer months.

After circling around, head north to Superior. Snuggled right up against the Minnesota state border, the town known for the Superior Entry Lighthouse, aged over 100 years. Take a moment to visit the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center, which displays exhibits on our nation’s most involved war efforts, and Pattison State Park, home to Wisconsin’s tallest waterfall.

Minnesota

DuluthShoreline
One of the biggest cities on Lake Superior, Duluth is a hub for recreation in every season.

From US-53, you’ll take I-535 to I-35, crossing into Minnesota and landing in Duluth. This lakefront city is chock-full of activities for people of all ages and interests.

Looking for an outdoors excursion? Take a kayak out onto the lake, enjoy a hike or bike ride on one of the city’s many trails, or sign up for a dog sled tour in the winter. Arts and culture more your thing? Head to the Bayfront Festival Park for eclectic events held year-round, and take a stroll through the neighboring Waterfront Sculpture Walk. A number of performing arts and music venues make the perfect spot for a relaxing date night. For one-of-a-kind educational experiences, Duluth provides a variety of museums, such as the Karpeles Manuscript Museum, which has exhibited original writings from the likes of Orville Wright, Charles Darwin, and Samuel Morse, and Fitgers Museum, where you can learn about Duluth’s first beer makers and enjoy a pint in the adjacent Brewhouse.

Once you’ve had your fill, hop back on I-35 and connect to scenic M-61, which hugs Lake Superior’s coastline all the way up to the Canadian border. On this stretch, you’ll traverse Minnesota’s North Shore through a number of unique cities and towns, each with its own personality and offerings. You may even have the chance to catch the Northern Lights.

Gooseberry Falls State Park, located about 40 miles north of Duluth, offers an idyllic reprieve from miles of road-tripping. Swathes of waterfalls cascade through thickets of aspens, evergreens, and birch trees, and certain trails will lead you right to the shores of Lake Superior. Continuing north, you’ll come to Grand Marais, MN. This small lakefront city is home to a plethora of hiking trails and fishing spots, and also offers a unique glimpse into local art and culture; notably, the Grand Marais Art Colony is a must-see—it’s an artist workspace, gallery, store, and event venue all in one. North of Grand Marais is Grand Portage State Park, boasting Minnesota’s biggest waterfall. Following trails through a dense conifer forest, and catching occasional glimpses of Lake Superior along the way, you’ll be rewarded with (and humbled by) 120 feet of water, gravity, and pure power—High Falls

Ontario

OldWomanBay
Rising dramatically from Lake Superior's eastern shore, Old Woman Bay is a fantastic place to paddle and hike.

Now follow MN-61 north as it turns into Ontario Highway 61. Make sure you have your passport before crossing into Canada!

You’re now in the home stretch of your Lake Superior Circle Tour. First, you’ll come to the city of Thunder Bay. This bustling locality has all kinds of outdoor activities, from skiing winter to kayaking in summer. From the city’s shoreline, you can see the Sleeping Giant, a massive conglomerate of sheer cliffs and mesas on Sibley Peninsula that resembles a (huge) slumbering man. Like Grand Marais, MN, Thunder Bay touts an enthusiastic art scene, with everything from public art displays and Aboriginal art and culture centers to galleries, museums, and live performances venues. 

Continuing north along Lake Superior, Ontario Highway 61 turns into King’s Highway 17. Major cities are few and far between; one town worth a stop is Red Rock Township, home to the Live from the Rock Folk Festival held every August, where you’ll enjoy days of folk music performances and workshops open to attendees. 

Another is the township of Wawa, ON, most famous for its giant roadside statue of a Canadian goose—but also worth a stop for its beaches, hiking trails, and comfort food dining options.

Just south of Wawa is Lake Superior Provincial Park, sprawling over 600 square miles along Lake Superior’s eastern coastline. During your drive through, you’ll come across Old Woman Bay, the perfect place for a quiet picnic and a view of the rock formation that gives the bay its name. If you have the time (and energy), you can hike along the park’s coastal trail that takes you up onto cliffs and down to rocky beaches, providing some of the most picture-perfect vantages of your entire trip.

Harmony Beach, about 40 miles south of Lake Superior Provincial Park, provides a welcome respite of seclusion and clear views of the water. You can find a hot meal, a cold drink, and a place to rest your head at Harmony Beach Resort under a mile away, a good place to recharge before embarking on the final leg of your Lake Superior Circle Tour. 

To conclude this road trip, continue south and take Ontario Highway 550 westward until you can turn south down Carmen’s Way. You’ll pass through Sault Ste. Marie, ON where you can take the Agawa Canyon Train Tour and get one final look at the Canadian wilderness. The entire 114-mile, 10-hour tour treats you to views of towering cliffs and canyons exploding with leafy greens, yellows, and oranges of the turning season, the serenity of untouched tree-lined lakes and rivers, and a chance to spend some off-train time in Agawa Canyon Wilderness Park.

Break out your passport again, because it’s time to re-enter the United States. You’ll follow Carmen’s Way to the Sault Ste. Marie International Bridge, which connects to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan over the monumental Soo Locks. The locks transport ships from Superior to the lower lakes by dropping them 21 feet to Lake Huron below.

Now, we’ve literally come full circle and your trip around Lake Superior is complete—next in this series, we’ll cover your road trip around the diverse and bustling border of Lake Michigan.

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