Beaches of Minnesota's North Shore
Agate-hunters, storm-watchers and picnickers all want to be close to the edge.
Big, bad Lake Superior.
It's big as in vast, with a surface area equal to Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont and New Hampshire combined.
It's bad as in lethal, able to swallow ore boats or pulverize them against the hard volcanic rock that lines its shore. And it's
- like an enraged bull, its crushing waves can turn on a dime.
Oh, how we love this lake.
Bill and JoAnne Palmer of Tucson, Ariz., like it best at its worst, when waves are gun-metal gray and skies filled with thunderclouds.
"This is great," said Bill Palmer, watching a storm approach Duluth's Kitchi Gammi Park one August. "It could snow, and I'd be happy as a clam. We love the weather. "In Tucson, we have sunshine 300 days a year, and our visitors say, 'Oh, isn't this beautiful.' "
He made a face.
A cold rain began, and thunder boomed overhead. Wearing blissful smiles, the Palmers finally left.
A North Shore beach is the place to find weather, all right - often, several kinds in a single day. Stony Point is known as the place to watch giant waves crash against shore.
Other beaches attract agate-hunters and stone-skippers, birders and sunbathers, even swimmers in rare instances.
Going on a beach hunt
One August, I went on a North Shore beach safari with my son Peter, who's loved rocks since he learned to walk. From Kitchi Gammi Park, we drove through drizzle until we got to the lodge at Lutsen Resort .
The pebble cove in front of this 1952 lodge is one of the prettiest and most beloved spots in Minnesota. A covered bridge spans the mouth of the Poplar River, which splits the beach in two and joins the lake in flecks of root-beer froth.
From the bridge, a footpath leads to the boulder-strewn base of a cliff and either around or down to a spit of sand frequented by ducks and gulls.
Beach stretches below the lodge, too, and that's where we found the most treasures: oddly shaped driftwood, bits of quartz, greenstone as smoothly creased as a palm.
And there were chunks of black basalt with holes in them, formed by gas bubbles when this shore was a seething mass of lava.
These rocks tell a billion-year-old story. The jagged basalt and granite boulders along the shore once were lava, in which escaping steam formed cavities as it cooled.
Dissolved minerals of different colors flowed into the cavities, layer by layer, and hardened; over time, they were freed from surrounding rock by fracturing and erosion, and eventually picked up and spread by glaciers.
Now they're prized as Lake Superior agates, the Minnesota state gemstone, and they're found all along the North Shore.
The best ones actually are found in inland gravel pits, but it's so much more fun to look on a beach. Besides, other nifty rocks tend to turn up, too.
"There are lots of cool rocks on the North Shore, but agates are what everyone's focused on," says Rick Kollrath, a Duluth rock-climber and kayaker. "They're crazy about 'em."
Kollrath and naturalist Mark "Sparky" Stensaas are the illustrator and author of "Rock Picker's Guide to Lake Superior's North Shore," which, to their amazement, became a hit when they published it.
Taking a tip from their guide, we went to Good Harbor Bay south of Grand Marais to look for Thomsonite, a semiprecious gemstone with bands of pink and green that formed out of a single lava flow and is found only along this six-mile stretch.
To my surprise, I actually found one, looking like a small, cracked tooth with two bands of pink, and Peter was thrilled by an arrowhead-shaped piece of sandstone.
From the bay's Cutface Creek Wayside, we drove into downtown Grand Marais and made a beeline for the beach, whose flat, smooth red stones are perfect for skipping.
No one was skipping, but two people were kayaking, one was flying a rainbow-colored box kite and 8-year-old Brittney Farrow of Minneapolis was feeding bread to seagulls.
Brittney loves gulls, said parent Jacquelyn Farrow, and she was sure that one of them was "Sarah," a gull she named three years ago in Duluth when it perched on her hotel balcony.
"So all she wanted to do this time was come up and see Sarah," Farrow said with a laugh, "whom we've seen about a million times."
At Artists' Point, just beyond the Coast Guard station, we explored a beach of boulders, a Cubist landscape in which an artistic someone had stacked stones into tall cairns and arches.
"This is my idea of a perfect place to play," Peter said.
The glint of agates
It was drizzling again when we reached Paradise Beach east of town, and we sat in the car until Peter said, "This rain will make the agates shine, right?" He was right, so we hunched under umbrellas and plunged our hands into the clean, glistening pebbles as if they were King Midas' coins.
We did hit gold, a brown agate crowded with white eyes that looked already polished; Lake Superior acts as a giant tumbler.
At the mouth of the Kadunce River , we found a few more, and also a cleared spot on the beach where another artistic someone had arranged the flat cobblestones into a sunburst pattern, twisting like the tail of a comet.
But we found our most success at the curving, protected beach at the mouth of the Beaver River , just east of Beaver Bay, which the "Rock Picker's Guide" calls the best agate beach on the North Shore.
We turned up an orange and cream agate with faint bands, then another with a big yellow eye, and other rocks that made us marvel at their infinite variations.
Heading back down 61, we stopped at Gooseberry Falls State Park and right away found a small topaz agate at the mouth of the Gooseberry River .
But we had even more fun climbing the cliff up to the adjoining point, where we sat amid the late-summer wildflowers, butterflies and buzzing crickets.
And we stopped at Burlington Bay in Two Harbors, which adjoins the municipal campground and has some real sand, a rarity on the shore.
On Scenic 61, we turned off to Stony Point , passing the storm-watchers' post on our way to a quiet meadow with an abandoned fish house, where the woman who lives across the road was reading an Isabel Allende book on the narrow, half-hidden beach.
We had one last rock hunt in the sun at Brighton Beach at Duluth's Kitchi-Gammi Park, where local teens were stretched out on the smooth rocks, basking like sea lions.
We turned up a few tiny agates for our modest collection. Of course, we could have bought bigger and better ones, already polished, for a dollar or two at the Agate Shop in Beaver Bay. But then we would have missed out on the thrill of the hunt.
"It's frustrating," Peter said. "But when you find an agate, it's really fun."
Trip Tips: North Shore beaches
Getting there : It's 151 miles from Duluth's Canal Park to the Canadian border. For a guide to beaches and other highlights, see North Shore by the mile.
Agate-hunting : If you find a prize agate, take it. But don't haul away boxes of pretty rocks - leave them for others to enjoy.
Best agate-hunting : The mouth of the Beaver River at Beaver Bay.
Best swimming : Duluth's Park Point dunes, across the Aerial Lift Bridge. The Park Point Recreation Area beach, with beach house and restrooms, starts off 43rd Street.
It's usually too cold to do more than dash in and out. But occasionally, the water warms up. For more, see Swimming in Superior.
Best place to skip stones : Grand Marais Harbor.
Best sun-bathing : On the smooth slabs of Kitchi Gammi Park, on the east edge of Duluth, near the mouth of the Lester River.
Best storm-watching : Stony Point on Scenic 61, between the French and Knife rivers. This is also where you'll see surfers trying to catch the waves.
For more, see Minnesota's scenic 61.
Best natural spots : Iona's Beach SNA, a Minnesota scientific and natural area, is known for the musical sounds it makes when its smooth pieces of rhyolite "shingles" are lifted by waves and then fall back into place. It's three miles east of Gooseberry Falls State Park.
Sugarloaf Cove, an interpretive area that's six miles south of Schroeder, includes a U-shaped cobblestone cove, a wonderful one-mile interpretive trail and a nature center. Naturalists will confiscate rocks and other neat stuff visitors try to take - that's why it has a beach that looks the way all the beaches used to look.
Best picnic spot : The point next to Agate Beach in Gooseberry Falls State Park.
Best playground : Artists' Point in Grand Marais, where rounded stones of varying sizes can be made into cairns and pillars.
Best place to hike : Only one part of the Superior Hiking Trail is along the shore of Lake Superior.
Called the Lake Walk, it starts three miles east of the mouth of the Kadunce River, between Grand Marais and Judge C.R. Magney State Park, and follows a pebble beach.
Accommodations : Resorts with good beaches for rock-picking include:
The lodge of Lutsen Resort is a classic, with picture windows overlooking the beach.
Thomsonite Beach resort, between Lutsen and Grand Marais, has displays of gem-quality Thomsonite and is known for the Thomsonite on its beach, though owner Lee Bergstrom says she sends hunters to the Cutface Creek Wayside on Good Harbor Bay.
For more, see Where to stay on Minnesota's North Shore.