Scenic Highway 61 along the North Shore of Lake Superior

U.S. Highway 61:  Your Road to Adventure

The North Shore in Minnesota is a unique place.  The area combines a beautiful natural setting fit for any outdoor enthusiast with enough shopping and tourist attractions to quell the desires of those looking to stay inside and partake of the area’s many local shops and amenities.  With that said, this post focuses on the outdoors.  First, the road that takes you there needs introduction.

An Introduction to the Highway

The trip from Duluth to the Canadian border is approximately 150 miles along U.S. Highway 61.  Overall, this road is curvy and trees near the road create many spots and stretches of limited visibility.  So, while the speed limit signs read 50 miles per hour, the safe traveling speed is lower than this.  Remember, the posted speed limit is the maximum allowed speed on dry roads.  Also, if you go too fast you may miss scenic turnouts and other desired stops.  For example, the entrance to Betty’s Pies can be easily missed because it is tucked into the trees.

In many spots U.S. Highway 61 along Lake Superior has been improved in the last 35 to 40 years.  Along with the expressway between Duluth and Two Harbors, passing lanes, bridges, and tunnels have improved safety and efficiency of the highway.  The Gooseberry River bridge is an example of improved safety along U.S. Highway 61.

Sign for Gooseberry Falls State Park, famous for the large waterfall and hiking trails

Gooseberry Falls is also officially a “Wayside Rest” meaning there is no state park pass requirement to park and visit the visitor’s center (including restrooms) or the falls.

If you need to take a break during your drive, this is the perfect spot so you can take a short walk on the accessible trails from the visitor’s center to the falls overlook.

Changes over Time

As recently as the late 1970s, the bridge crossing the Gooseberry River was a narrow, two-lane wrought-iron safety hazard and is a far cry from the modern bridge which spans the river today.  The bridge span was once a curved approach and exit in both directions.  The earlier version of the bridge was especially dangerous on the north side of the river.  During the period of the old bridge, much more pedestrian traffic crossed over the bridge to get to the visitor center located on the north side of the highway.  Today’s access to the park from the north is much safer.  Today, the visitor center is near the main parking lot on the south side of the river.  In summary and as an example, U.S. Highway 61 near Gooseberry Falls is much safer than 40 years ago with a new bridge and increased sight lines near the park entrance.

Silver Creek Cliff is the larger of two tunnels leading to Two Harbors Minnesota on the North Shore Drive

Tunnels Were Added to the Roadway

There are two main ways that safety has been enhanced along U.S. Highway 61.  These improvements include passing lanes and tunnels.  At several spots along the highway, passing lanes have been added.  While these are convenient, the main focus of this road is to enjoy not being in a hurry.  The route is intended to be a slow drive, and to consider it otherwise endangers both your family and other drivers.  Yet, sometimes it is nice to pass a vehicle that is exceptionally slow.  In addition to passing lanes, two tunnels have been added between Two Harbors and Split Rock State Park to enhance safety.  The longer of the two tunnels bores through Silver Creek Cliff.  Keen observers will notice the former road, now a grassy incline on the south side of the tunnel, and its treacherous route around the cliff.  Rockfalls and head-on collision risk have been reduced with this tunnel, constructed over many years in the 1980s and early 1990s.  The smaller tunnel further north also helps straighten the road.  Both of these tunnels help to increase highway safety.

You Can Go Faster, But Try Slowing Down a Bit

One thing to keep in mind is that even with all the improvements in U.S. Highway 61 over the decades, travelers must still think of the road as an access trail, not an expressway.  Come to this region of Minnesota to slow down not speed up.

When one does slow down, the natural world is beckoning.  Forests, rocks, and water all invite the curious and wonder-filled traveler to explore.  Accept the invitation and soak in pleasure and relaxation with the ones you love.

Trees:  The First Natural Wonder

Trees are a mainstay of much of what you will see along U.S. Highway 61.  Originally this area along with the rest of northern Minnesota was virgin pine forest.  Miles upon miles of red and white pine thrived in the shallow, acidic soils.  Then, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, this forest was logged to supply building materials for a growing state and nation.  Much of what grows now is second-growth or mixed forest.  Along with new pines, aspen is a common species.  A cousin to birch trees, aspen have subtle differences in leaves and bark.  The mixed forest of northeastern Minnesota forms part of the southern extension of the great boreal forest that extends into parts of central and northern Canada.  So, stop and smell the red pines, Minnesota’s state tree.  Park rangers and local residents can help identify the iconic tree.

Rocks:  The Second Natural Wonder

The rocks in the Minnesota Arrowhead link back millions of years to a mid-continent rift that extended from the central Great Plains (Kansas) northeastward to the Lake Superior area.  This molten rift oozed liquid rock which today shows up as hardened igneous outcrops like rhyolite in many locales.  Gently sloping rock or great monoliths adorn the Lake Superior shore and makes for a beautiful and rugged coastline.

Shovel Point in Tettegouche State Park is a great example of an ancient lava flow.  This peninsula of rhyolite extends well into Lake Superior and takes visitors up close to the lake.  Gazing out upon Lake Superior, it is awesome to consider that great glaciers carved out the huge basin and only melted about 12, 000 years ago, filling the immense void.

The outcrops of igneous rock mainly rhyolite that dot the landscape and form the rugged coastline of Lake Superior remind visitors of the record of geologic history present here.  As visitors to this fabulous region of Minnesota, we all benefit from the scenery that has a close link to the Earth below and how the land formed.  As an example, the local relief provides opportunities to marvel at our good fortune for those who particularly like waterfalls; the change in elevation from the highest point in Minnesota at Eagle Mountain (2301 feet; 701.5 meters) to the average elevation of Lake Superior’s water surface (600 feet; 182.9 meters) provides a steep gradient for North Woods waters to drain from lakes and rush downhill.  The spectacle is truly awe-inspiring.  So, remember the geology underfoot that makes your scenic adventure possible.

Water and Weather:  The Third Natural Wonder

Lastly, visitors need to appreciate the magnitude of Lake Superior as related to some of its physical characteristics and the weather it produces.  The lake is the largest of the five Great Lakes and is one of superlatives.  Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world measuring 350 miles (563 km) west to east and 160 miles (257 km) north to south.  The lake’s water column boasts many species of gamefish including Whitefish and Lake Trout.

The western basin of Lake Superior is much shallower overall than the eastern basin.  With an average depth approaching 500 feet (152 m) and a maximum depth of 1,333 feet (406 m), the water temperature only averages about 40° F (5° C) making swimming the most comfortable in late summer.

Along the North Shore, the weather can vary greatly even on summer days.  A year-round expectation of visiting Lake Superior is it will be cool along the shoreline.  This constant is a backdrop to all you do on and near the Lake.  Other weather conditions may be surprising.  Morning fog can transition to late-morning sun and gentle breezes.  On other summer days, full sun and brisk onshore wind can be interrupted by mid-afternoon rain.  These sea breeze-induced showers usually are brief and give way to a return to fair and sunny skies.  Lakeshore visitors will enjoy summer weather around Lake Superior and will be most comfortable with a sweatshirt or light jacket.

So, enjoy the setting sun and the close to a delightful day.  The best news is the North Shore is underfoot again tomorrow and gladly welcomes more adventurous enthusiasts basking in its delight. Will you be one of the adventurers out exploring this scenic roadway?

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