Looking for things to do in Northern Minnesota? No matter where you are in the land of 10,000 lakes there’s always something exciting to do. When you’re heading up north, however, the term adventure takes on a whole new meaning.
There’s less traffic, less stress, and a bevy of some of the state’s most beautiful natural landscapes including thousands and thousands of lakes, but even life here is different.
When surrounded by the wonders of nature, everything moves much slower.
This isn’t to say that Northern Minnesota doesn’t have its share of action-packed activities – between all the laid-back canoeing and sightseeing, you can hit the trails on a mountain bike or white water canoe on rapid waters.
For the outdoorsy type, Northern Minnesota and its slew of state parks are close to heaven to earth.
If you’re going up north for the long weekend or just seeking respite from the south’s bustling crowds, here are some of the best things to do in Northern Minnesota.
This list includes some of the most popular activities in the region, as well as some hidden gems!
Table of Contents
- Best & Fun Things to do in Northern Minnesota
- 1. Immerse yourself in nature at Tettegouche State Park
- 2. Hike through Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
- 3. Gawk at aquatic wildlife at the Great Lakes Aquarium
- 4. Observe Bald Eagles in Chippewa National Forest
- 5. Uncover the dark history of Glensheen Mansion
- 6. Stargaze at Voyageurs National Park
- 7. Go on a relaxed hike at Gooseberry Falls State Park
- 8. Spy on wolves at the International Wolf Center
- 9. Set off on the highly popular North Shore Scenic Drive
- 10. Marvel at Minnesota’s tallest waterfall at Grand Portage State Park
- 11. Mull over the mind-bending mystery behind the Devil Kettle’s Waterfall
- 12. See Duluth’s major attractions atop a helicopter
- 13. Uncover the history behind the Soudan Underground Mine
- 14. Try the best smoked fish on the North Shore in Russ Kendall’s Smokehouse
- 15. Explore Minnesota’s oldest state park
Best & Fun Things to do in Northern Minnesota
1. Immerse yourself in nature at Tettegouche State Park
Tettegouche State Park, like most of the North Shore’s parks, provides fishing, camping, canoeing, and hiking paths to waterfalls and small lakes, as well as skiing and snowshoeing routes during the winter.
Historic Tettegouche Camp, located on the shores of Mic Mac Lake, is a terrific place to visit for a day trek or an overnight stay.
Tettegouche State Park has two popular attractions, both of which are accessible from the park entrance. Leave your automobile in the visitor center’s parking area and follow the trail to Shovel Point.
This hike is a 1.5-mile round-trip trek that includes several steps and boardwalks. Going’s worth it for the breathtaking vistas of the rough environment from the point’s apex. As waves slam against the shore, take time to marvel at the lake’s immense force.
The lovely swimming hole at the entrance of the Baptism River is another amazing aspect of Tettegouche. You’ll find it if you go down to the picnic area near the tourist center.
2. Hike through Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
If you’re searching for the most popular spot on North Shore, the Split Rock Lighthouse State Park is the place to go.
The lighthouse itself is a state historic property that requires a special entry charge. It’s a fascinating site, but it’s the nature surrounding it that is the real attraction.
You can take a guided tour of the area that departs every hour or go exploring without help. The trip down the cliff heading to the beach may be a challenge for some, but you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of the lighthouse and the surrounding beaches.
The hiking trails of Split Rock Lighthouse link to the spectacular Superior Hiking Trail. This route follows the shore of Lake Superior for much of its length and runs by a beautiful waterfall.
Gorgeous groves of birch, spruce, fir, and ash trees line the trails. Come winter, the landscape of Split Rock Lighthouse turns into a snowy wonderland which adds to the appeal of the cross-country ski trails.
This beautifully handcrafted log cabin is located just a five-minute drive away from the state park and offers great access to hiking trails and Lake Superior beaches.
See Related: 5 Best Things To Do in Hibbing, Minnesota
3. Gawk at aquatic wildlife at the Great Lakes Aquarium
Looking for indoor activities in Minnesota?
The beautiful Great Lakes Aquarium, located adjacent to Bayfront Festival Park and alongside Duluth’s port, offers an intriguing look into the ecosystems, animals, and marine creatures from the neighboring Great Lakes Basin and beyond.
Visitors can learn all about the geological processes that sculpted the mystery of this region over eons.
Mammals, reptiles, invertebrates, and amphibians are the stars of this show. Kids can even get up close and personal with some of these creatures in touch pools.
The two-story aquarium is especially busy during feeding times, so keep an eye on the schedule to see porcupine fish, bullheads, and black crappies in settings that are similar to their natural habitat.
Children will also enjoy a trip to the nearby Lake Superior Zoo, where they may participate in several interesting animal activities. The zoo, which opened in 1923, features a selection of adorable foreign and North American animals, as well as playgrounds and a miniature railway.
Get spectacular bridge views of the Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge at the South Pier Inn, a charming waterfront hotel located half a kilometer away from the Great Lakes Aquarium.
Watching the enormous Aerial Lift Bridge rise more than 20 times a day is one of the most popular free things to do in Northern Minnesota and is especially thrilling if you’re right next to it!
See Related: 15 Best Museums in Duluth, Minnesota
4. Observe Bald Eagles in Chippewa National Forest
Situated at the center of northern Minnesota, you’ll find the Chippewa National Forest. To the north and east, the northern hardwood forest is sandwiched between the western prairies and the northern boreal forest.
With almost 400,000 acres of wetlands and open water, many of which are wild rice habitats, the Chippewa National Forest is regarded as one of the most aquatic National Forests in the country.
In all of the lower 48 United States, the Chippewa National Forest has the biggest actively breeding colony of Bald Eagles. The Forest’s pines and lakes are home to about 150 pairs of these majestic birds.
Take a scenic drive through the forest, or cycle along one of the paved or unpaved pathways. Trundling along these paths, you’ll find that there is no better way to observe the Chippewa National Forest. There are about 298 miles of non-motorized trails throughout this breathtaking forest.
Relax while listening to the sounds of the water or warm up in elegant comfort at Leech Lake Bed & Breakfast, which is only 16 minutes away.
5. Uncover the dark history of Glensheen Mansion
This 39-room mansion, situated on a 12-acre estate, is said to be the most visited property in the Midwest, according to the directors.
A visit here is one of the most fun things to do in North Minnesota, as it offers a peek into the mansion’s magnificent early twentieth-century decor, lavish furnishings, and painstaking craftsmanship.
True crime fans will get a high out of visiting this place. The estate was the scene of a gruesome real-life murder mystery in 1977, when Elizabeth Congdon, the only living heiress to the property and family fortune, and her caregiver were murdered here.
The 83-year-old Elizabeth Congdon was suffocated with a pillowcase while sleeping.
Roger Caldwell, Congdon’s son-in-law, finally confessed to the killings, which were carried out for monetary gain, but was only sentenced to five years in jail. While it may have been a short sentence for murder, Roger took his own life not long after.
There are various Glensheen Mansion tour choices available, each with different pricing. Planning to stay the night? Get unobstructed views of Lake Superior when you book a night at Beacon Pointe, an upscale luxury resort just 1.8 km away from the Glensheen Mansion.
See Related: 16 Best Things to Do in Fargo, North Dakota
6. Stargaze at Voyageurs National Park
Voyageurs National Park, easily one of the best places to visit in all Minnesota, is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts with over 218,000 acres of water that may be explored by kayak, canoe, or small boat in the summer and by snowshoe and snowmobile in the winter. It is located in the Rainy Lake region in north-central Minnesota, near the Canadian border.
As a water park, some form of watercraft is necessary to access the Kabetogama Peninsula, the islands, and practically all of the park’s gorgeous shoreline. At the park’s visitor centers and the Kabetogama State Forest Campgrounds, there are free public boat ramps and parking.
Still, over 27 miles of hiking trails are up for exploration. The dark skies of Voyageurs are perfect for observing countless stars and the dazzling and colorful Aurora Borealis for which it is famous.
Exploring with your family? This homey luxury loft sits at the heart of the national park is just steps away from Kabetogama Lake.
7. Go on a relaxed hike at Gooseberry Falls State Park
Gooseberry Falls State Park attracts throngs of people with its five waterfalls, picturesque gorge, and beginner-friendly hikes. Several beautiful stone and wood structures are scattered around the grounds and house exhibitions and concessions, erected by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
The Lower and Middle Falls are the easiest to reach, and typically busy with paddlers in the summer. The Gooseberry River Loop, which is part of the Superior Hiking Trail, is a 2-mile hike for the more adventurous. To begin, park your automobile at the visitor center parking area.
Continue upwards on the Fifth Falls Trail after reaching the Upper Falls. Traverse the bridge at Fifth Falls, then return to your starting point on the other side of the river. It’s one of the most straightforward Superior trail excursions you’ll encounter, and one of the most stunning.
While the park’s brilliant hues are seen in the spring and fall, the park’s greatest grandeur is shown along the snow-covered cross-country ski trails during winter.
See Related: 30 Best Small Towns in Minnesota to Visit
8. Spy on wolves at the International Wolf Center
Satisfy your canine curiosity when you visit the International Wolf Center in Ely, one of the cool things to do in Northern Minnesota. Situated at the center of the Superior National Forest, the International Wolf Center offers a chance to witness wolves as they eat, sleep, and play. The staff naturalists at the International Wolf Center will present the pack to children and adults several times a day through engaging events.
The engaging new Discover Wolves exhibit at the International Wolf Center will clue you in on how wolves have influenced numerous societies throughout history, particularly that of Native American culture.
Learn about how fascinating radio telemetry is in studying wildlife, as you sit in a virtual airplane cockpit, press a button, and take off from a frozen lake as search for wolf packs!
Staying the night? Just a mile away from the wolf center is Motel Ely, a family-owned and operated budget motel with great reviews for being impeccably clean.
See Related: 13 Best Things to do in Ely, Minnesota
9. Set off on the highly popular North Shore Scenic Drive
Looking to experience the true beauty in up north Minnesota?
This absolutely unforgettable North Shore Scenic Drive is one of the most popular Northern Minnesota activities.
Minnesota’s North Shore refers to the shoreline of Lake Superior that runs from Duluth, Minnesota to Ontario, Canada. The North Shore is characterized by cobblestone beaches, rocky cliffs and ridges, scenic rivers and waterfalls, and hillside forests.
People generally experience Minnesota’s North Shore by means of driving and enjoying a road trip on the simply glorious 145-mile North Shore Scenic Drive.
This All-American Roadway follows Highway 61 and winds its way through cute small towns, historic sites, and outstanding untouched wilderness.
The North Shore Scenic Drive can be experienced via several different itineraries and can include combinations of driving, biking, and hiking – making it a highlight of any Minnesota bucket list!
10. Marvel at Minnesota’s tallest waterfall at Grand Portage State Park
If you’re looking for splendid views with little effort, a visit to Grand Portage State Park is one of the best things to do in Minnesota.
This park is distinctive in several ways.
First, it borders Canada, and second, it is home to Minnesota’s tallest waterfall. The Grand Portage State Park is also one of Minnesota’s smallest state parks, and is owned and managed by the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa.
Middle Falls is accessible through a relatively challenging 3.5-mile hiking trek with stunning ridgetop views of Lake Superior and Canada. Hiking, photography, picnics, and other activities are all possible thanks to the breathtaking surroundings. This park is solely open for day usage and overnight camping is not available.
That said, the park provides stunning and easily accessible scenery, including High Falls, which is reached by a half-mile paved route that is wheelchair accessible.
Visitors will learn more about the park’s history through signs and displays that explain how Native Americans have utilized and managed the land in the past and present provide context.
See Related: 23 Best National Parks in the USA
11. Mull over the mind-bending mystery behind the Devil Kettle’s Waterfall
Best known for being home to the famous Devil’s Kettle Waterfall, Judge CR Magney State Park is a wonderful state park located fourteen miles northeast of Grand Marais. It’s one of the most popular Northern Minnesota attractions.
When in Judge CR Magney, hiking to Devil’s Kettle, the famous falls where the Brule River splits around a huge rock, is a must.
Half of the flow drops 50ft in a typically gorgeous North Shore gush, but the other half disappears down a huge hole and flows underground. Where it goes is a mystery – scientists have never been able to determine the water’s outlet.
The Devil’s Kettle waterfall is not only one of the best waterfalls in Minnesota and one of Judge CR Magney State Park’s most popular tourist attractions, but it is also recognized for its trout fishing and excellent hiking paths. As a result, this park is much more than just a waterfall trek!
You can spend less than a day exploring the park and its attractions. It’s also quieter because there aren’t as many tourists.
If you’re planning on hanging around the area for a day or two, this lovely private cabin surrounded by woods is just a few miles away from the Devil’s Kettle waterfall, and has everything you could need to enjoy your time up north!
12. See Duluth’s major attractions atop a helicopter
A helicopter tour is one of the greatest ways to explore Duluth and all the sights it has to offer. Aerial tours give breathtaking views of Duluth’s top attractions, providing you unequaled visuals of coastlines and dramatic cliffsides. If you come during the fall, you’ll see all the vibrant colors from above!
This is the best method of finding photo opportunities if you are a photographer. Tours are led by eagle-eyed professionals who know just where to go for the best photographs. You’ll get unrivaled panoramas of Lake Superior and spectacular views of the Aerial Lift Bridge and Enger Tower from your helicopter.
Tours vary from nine minutes to 55 minutes and range from nine miles to sixty miles! Keep in mind that this experience requires excellent weather to make the most of it, so ask your operator about refunds should the weather turn bad.
Book a room at The Inn on Lake Superior, a winner of the 2020 Property Of The Year Award, for the greatest views of the lake.
This hotel on the famous Canal Park boasts 174 opulent rooms and suites, the majority of which have their own lakeview balconies and provide panoramic views of Canal Park.
See Related: The 18 Best Hotels in Duluth, Minnesota
13. Uncover the history behind the Soudan Underground Mine
Along the south coast of Lake Vermilion, Soudan Underground Mine State Park gives visitors an up-close view of a significant part of the region’s history.
Visitors may discover the history behind the lives of the miners who dug out the mine in search of iron ore from 1892 to 1962 on guided 1.5-hour excursions. This fascinating history tour is among the best things to experience in Minnesota‘s past firsthand.
The mine’s worth was based on the high quality of the mineral it produced. In open-hearth furnaces, the iron ore’s high oxygen concentration was utilized to produce high-quality steel.
As metallurgy technology advanced, the tricky mine’s relevance faded. The Mesabi Range’s low-cost ores became more in demand, which caused the Soudan Mine to close in 1962.
Put on a hard hat, ride a half-mile underground in an elevator “cage,” then take a train journey deeper into the mine to see the cavern that was the last section where mining took place.
14. Try the best smoked fish on the North Shore in Russ Kendall’s Smokehouse
A cool neon sign welcomes you inside the Kendall Fish House, where four generations of the Kendall family have prepared local trout and Alaskan salmon. Buy yourself a traditional newspaper-wrapped brown sugar–cured slab! If you’re looking for delicious food to try in Minnesota, look no further!
The smokehouse, which is already well-known locally and regionally, has gained national attention in recent years as a result of TV and internet exposure.
Andrew Zimmern, the Twin Cities-based chef and food writer who hosts the Travel Channel show “Bizarre Foods,” loves this establishment and has featured the eatery on his show.
He also ranked it first on his list of “12 Favorite Bites on the Road” throughout the country.
15. Explore Minnesota’s oldest state park
Itasca State Park is Minnesota’s oldest state park, having been established in 1891. The Mississippi River begins its 2,552-mile trek to the Gulf of Mexico in this 32,000-acre natural refuge.
Peace Pipe Vista, old-growth pine in Preacher’s Grove, a bison slaughter site, and over 100 lakes are among the attractions of this magnificent expanse.
The Itasca Wilderness Sanctuary is located within the park. It was designated as Minnesota’s first National Natural Landmark in 1965.
In 1989, the Sanctuary was selected as the best example of Great Lakes Pine Forest in north-central Minnesota, and the majority of the Sanctuary was classified as a state Scientific and Natural Area.
Rental rooms, cottages, and the Itasca Suites are available at the nearby historic Douglas Lodge.
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