Charismatic Grand Marais
In the theater of seasons, this Lake Superior village always is ready for its close-up.
© Beth Gauper
The 1923 east pier light guides pleasure boats into the harbor.
At the far tip of northern Minnesota, Grand Marais is a place that people love even more when the weather turns.
When Lake Superior storms send giant waves crashing against the pier light, photographers rush to the harbor. Blizzards bring in skiers, and tourists flock to see ice floes and formations.
This photogenic village at the foot of the Sawtooth range is a drama queen, a magnet for those who bask in the big lake's chill and revel in its unpredictability.
Voyageurs, fur traders and Ojibwe came first to its natural harbor, followed by trappers, prospectors, loggers and then the fishermen and storekeepers who made it into a village.
Fishing waned, but hikers, skiers and canoeists arrived on their way up the Gunflint Trail. To Boy Scouts and paddlers fresh from the Boundary Waters, Grand Marais always has meant civilization, with its pizza parlor and municipal hot tub.
These days, it's a tourist destination in itself, with a full array of creature comforts: art galleries, gift shops, bistros, condos and villas. The aroma of espresso wafts through town, and whitefish comes with chutney, not tartar sauce.
At the height of summer, Grand Marais almost looks like an ordinary tourist town.
But this still is a Riviera for the rugged. In summer, downtown streets flood after a heavy rain. Winter is long, and spring is endless.
Few complain, because one thing remains constant throughout the year: spectacular beauty.
Here's what you'll find in every season.
No matter what the season, everybody goes to Artists' Point, "named for the many people who try to catch the temperamental spirit of Lake Superior on film or canvas.''
It's an island-like outcropping that's covered with hunched cedars and ringed by jagged basalt, split from a long-ago lava flow.
It creates Grand Marais' harbor, along with the breakwall on the other side of the Coast Guard station. Clamber onto its root-choked paths and you'll have a great view of the vast expanse of Lake Superior on one side and the hazy outline of the Sawtooth Mountains on the other.
In early winter, waves glaze its rocky edges and coat plants with spray, creating beautiful ice gardens.
Lichen covers parts of the breakwall that creates the harbor.
In the depths of winter, vapor rising off Lake Superior turns the harbor into Dante's Inferno. Because the lake is a giant heat sink, it keeps Grand Marais 10 degrees warmer than inland areas (and 10 degrees cooler in summer).
By late winter, Artists' Point has turned into a fantasia in ice. Clear chunks lie about like Lucite paperweights, and craters ride the waves like jellyfish, bashing each other's edges into tinsel.
Many people love the Grand Marais area in winter. There's skiing up on Pincushion Mountain and snowshoeing up the Devil Track River, where the scenery includes red rock cliffs, frozen waterfalls and the vivid white of aspen bark against ice-blue sky.
It's a blast — just don't forget those long johns.
It's a little hard to tell what "spring'' is in Grand Marais. Just over the Sawtooths, March actually is a great time to ski on the Gunflint Trail, often up to Easter.
In April, after the alpine-ski season is over at Lutsen Mountains, hotel rates go down. It's the slowest month of year and the only one when I haven't visited.
May can be cruelly chilly or full of summer's promise. One year, spring came early. Walking along the breakwall on the
weekend before Memorial Day, I spotted the rare butterwort, one of several arctic wildflowers that flourish in protected
Nearby, I saw a few frail arctic primroses, and on the branches of a squat spruce, buds as round and bright-red as
strawberries. Life was busting out all over.
The nearby mouth of the Cascade River also is a trove of boreal wildflowers — northern bluebells, goldthread, bluebead
For more, see Wildflowers of the North Shore.
Real warmth may not arrive until late June — but then again, peak hotel rates don't, either.
On a warm summer day, the streets of Grand Marais are festive. Everyone is JUST SO HAPPY to be there!
Little kids play with the cobblestones by the Coast Guard station and run and jump amid the outcrops of Artists' Point. Older kids ride mountain bikes on the zigzagging concrete of the breakwall.
© Beth Gauper
The World's Best Donuts shop sells its wares hot off the fryer.
Everyone skips rocks on the harbor, the best spot in the state for it. Just down the highway, agate-hunters crouch at Cutface
Creek Wayside, hoping to spot thomsonite.
First-time visitors from big cities walk around, a little dazed. Grand Marais has all the trappings of a tourist spot, but
it's still a down-home northwoods town.
There's a giant walleye slicing through the roof of the bait shop and exhaling radio music from its toothy mouth. Across the street, the aroma of hot oil and sugar wafts out of World's Best Donuts.
At the Joynes Ben Franklin and Department Store, people clog the narrow aisles in search of flannel shirts and rabbit-fur
hats, even in the dog days of August.
Artistic and crafty folks are in town, too, taking classes at the Grand Marais Art Colony and at North House Folk School.
And festivals pack the town, especially Arts Festival in July and Fisherman's Picnic in August.
For more about the town's long history with the arts, see Artistic Grand Marais.
For more good agate-picking spots, see Beaches of the North Shore.
Oh, and remember that it's 10 degrees cooler than inland areas in summer, and 30 degrees cooler than the Twin Cities. Be
smart and bring a jacket.
On fall weekends, everyone wants to be on the North Shore. Autumn colors are nice but not great in Grand Marais, which is surrounded by boreal forest.
But the hiking is top-notch in fall, after the bugs are gone. There's gorgeous scenery on trails that follow four river
gorges: the Cascade in Cascade River State Park, the Devil Track, the Kadunce and the Brule in Judge C.R. Magney State
Eagle Mountain, Minnesota's highest point, is inland; it's a fairly rugged seven-mile round-trip hike.
For more, see Hiking the North Shore
The last big festival is Moose Madness, over the Minnesota school break on the third weekend of October. After that, hotel rates drop, and there's another one or two weeks of good hiking before the firearm deer season starts.
© Beth Gauper
Sunset is photographers' favorite time to shoot along the harbor.
For Thanksgiving, it's fun to rent a lakeside cabin on the lake and watch the gales of November. That weekend, Santa arrives
on the harbor by dog sled, the town Christmas tree is lighted and winter starts.
Trip Tips: Grand Marais
Getting there: It’s 2˝ hours northeast of Duluth.
2013 events: May 31-June 2, Boreal Birding & Northern Landscapes Festival. June 21-23, Wooden Boat Show & Summer Solstice Festival. July 13-14, Arts Festival. July 26-28, North Shore Dragon Boat Festival. Aug. 1-4, Fisherman's Picnic.
Sept. 12-15, Unplugged: The Northern Harvest at North House Folk School. Oct. 18-20, Moose Madness Family Festival. Nov. 21-24, Winterers' Gathering.
Skiing: On the hill above town, the Pincushion Mountain Trails is a
25-kilometer network groomed for classic and skate skiing. A 1.3-kilometer loop is lighted.
It's free with a Minnesota Ski Pass, but a $5 donation is requested.
Hiking: The Superior Hiking Trail crosses
Pincushion Mountain, and many of its most scenic sections are just northeast of town.
Nightlife: The Grand Marais Playhouse hosts plays and concerts year-round. Downtown, the Gunflint Tavern hosts musicians on weekends.
For more, see Artistic Grand Marais.
© Beth Gauper
A now-faded sign still points up the hill toward the Gunflint Trail.
North House Folk School: Workshops and events are
held year-round at this Scandinavian-style school, which teaches all kinds of traditional crafts and skills —
woodworking, weaving, bread-baking, tool-making, boat-building.
Accommodations: Rooms in Grand Marais can get quite expensive in peak summer.
There are still quite a few mom-and-pop motels that are a good value, including Lund's Motel and Cottages and Nelson's
For more, see Mom-and-pop motels of Grand Marais.
The Grand Marais Hotel Company manages six properties, the Aspen Lodge, Shoreline Inn,
Spruceglen Inn and Cobblestone Cove Villas downtown, and Aspen Inn and Terrace Point condos just outside town.
The East Bay Suites, on the beach downtown, are well-appointed and popular with well-heeled tourists.
Up on the hill, the Pincushion Mountain B&B is next to the ski trails and has
four rooms for two people and one room for four people. There's a sauna guests can use.
Many other places to stay also are available.
Camping: The municipal Grand Marais Campground and Marina has 300 RV sites on the lakeshore and is next to the North House Folk School.
© Beth Gauper
The Beaver House has been supplying bait to anglers since 1963.
There's also an indoor pool with sauna and whirlpool, which campers can use for $4. Others can use the pool complex for $4.95 in summer, $3.75 in other seasons.
Dining: The storefront Crooked Spoon Cafe serves a cosmopolitan menu, 218-387-2779.
The Gunflint Tavern is more casual but very good, 218-387-1563. It's also the
place to go if you're by yourself and you enjoy good microbrews and live music.
On the edge of the harbor, the seasonal Angry Trout Café specializes in fresh fish from Lake Superior, 218-387-1265.
My Sister's Place serves salads, sandwiches and pizza. Sven and Ole's is famous for its pizza. Be sure to get something fresh out of the fryer at World's Best Donuts.
Shopping: There are a lot of good places to shop. The favorite of tourists and locals alike is Joynes Ben Franklin and Department Store, which is stuffed with an oddly compelling assortment of warm slippers, Canadian jams, fleece hats and other things you can't do without.
On the harbor, there are always crowds milling around the Lake Superior Trading Post. The second floor, with racks of outdoorsy but chic sweaters, jackets, bags and hats, is catnip to women, and men like the cool camping gizmos and supplies on the first floor.
For people who can't spend $100 ore more for a sweater, Threads offers 50 percent off odds and ends from dozens of retailers, including Coldwater Creek and J. Jill.
Sivertson Gallery carries paintings, photographs, woodblocks, jewelry and other art from mostly North Shore artists, many
with north-woods themes.
Information: Grand Marais tourism, 888-922-5000.
Last updated on March 1, 2013
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