Planning a Circle Tour of Lake Superior

For a great vacation, follow the shores of the world's largest freshwater lake.

Sunset on Grand Marais harbor.
The Sawtooth Mountains rise behind Grand Marais and its harbor on Minnesota's North Shore.

Of all the vacations a person can take in this region, a Circle Tour of Lake Superior may be the best.

It appeals to waterfall watchers, lighthouse fans and history buffs. It's a magnet for kayakers and hikers.

It makes a great honeymoon and also a great family trip, because small children adore frequent stops at the many pebble beaches.

You can do it in a car or a motorcycle; you can camp or stay in motels. It's all things to all people, the perfect vacation for anyone who loves the outdoors.

However, planning the 1,300-mile Circle Tour isn't easy, because you need a new place to stay every night or two.

It would be nice to be able to stop when you feel like it, but in summer, you risk being turned away or getting the worst place in town.

So it's best to reserve a place for every night. Late winter and spring is the time to start nailing down plans.

I've gone on the Circle Tour twice, once in late June-early July and once in late July. I went clockwise the first time, counterclockwise the second.

Both worked well; how you plan depends on what you want to do and which festivals you'd like to catch along the way.

Here are tips to get you started.

For an overview of what you'll see on the trip, see Circling Lake Superior.

For a nine-day, eight-night itinerary, with a list of the best places to stay, see Lake Superior's greatest hits.

Grand Island lighthouse near Munising.
The 1868 Grand Island East Channel Light, which tour boats pass on their way to Pictured Rocks, is a rare wooden lighthouse.

When to go: In April, the waterfalls are roaring, there are no bugs and rates are low, but campgrounds and some businesses may be closed.

Late May and June are least crowded and rates usually are lower, but black flies are heaviest.

From mid-June, festivals, attractions and tours are at full throttle. Canadian schools don't get out until the end of June, so tourism is light there until then.

Blueberry- and thimbleberry-picking season starts in late July. On the south shore, swimming is best in August.

Many people like to visit in September, when weather still is good, traffic is lighter and bugs are mostly gone.

Fall colors can be spectacular — expect peak from the end of September to mid-October — but weather may be chilly and even blustery.

In Ontario, Fort William and campgrounds at parks along Lake Superior close after the first week of October.

How to plan: First, get Lake Superior magazine's map with mileage chart. You can download it or pick it up free at information centers.

It's also included in the annual Travel Guide, which is nice to have. The guide is free with a magazine subscription or available at newsstands, bookstores or the magazine's store in downtown Duluth.

Decide how much time you want to spend driving each day. Then, see if there's an event you want to catch and build your itinerary around that.

2023 events: Duluth is very popular in summer, so plan early if you want to spend the night. The entire town is full for Grandma's Marathon, June 17, and nearly every other weekend, too.

Duluth's Bayfront Festival Park.
If you're staying in Duluth, plan around the big festivals at Bayfront Park.

Other popular events include the Duluth Airshow, July 15-16, and Bayfront Blues Fest, Aug. 11-13. And Thomas the Tank Engine will be in Duluth for the kids the first two weekends of August.

In Hancock and Houghton, Bridgefest will be June 15-18.

People who like to watch Great Lakes freighters should be in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., June 30 for Soo Locks Engineers Day, when the public can walk across the lock walls. The International Bridge Walk to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., traditionally is the last Saturday in June. The Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians Powwow is June 30-July 2.

Canada Day is July 1 and celebrated in Canadian towns everywhere. In the United States, the same goes for the Fourth of July.

In Wisconsin's Apostles, Madeline Island has a fun parade on July 4, followed by historical figures giving patriotic speeches.

Near Bayfield, the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa holds its traditional powwow over the Fourth of July. Sept. 9-10 is the Festival of Arts. For Apple Festival, Oct. 6-8, plan far ahead.

In Thunder Bay, events include Canada Day on July 1. In 2023, Fort William Historical Park celebrates its 50th birthday with the Great Rendezvous Celebration July 8-16.

In Grand Marais, Minn., watch for the Arts Festival, July 8-9, and Fisherman's Picnic, Aug. 3-6.

In Marquette, the Hiawatha Traditional Music Festival is July 21-23, Blueberry Festival is July 28, Art on the Rocks is July 29-30, HarborFest is in Aug. 25-26 and Blues Fest is Labor Day weekend.

Grand Sable Dunes near Grand Marais.
The Grand Sable Dunes, just west of Grand Marais, Mich., are part of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

Near Nipigon, Ont., the Live From the Rock folk festival is Aug. 11-13.

In Grand Portage, the Rendezvous and Powwow is Aug. 11-12, and the surrounding area books up a year in advance.

In White River, Ont., the Winnie The Pooh Festival is Aug. 18-20.

In Copper Harbor, the Copper Harbor Trails Festival is Sept. 1-3.

In Superior, Wis., the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival is in late August.

Paradise, Mich., near the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum on Whitefish Point, celebrates Wild Blueberry Festival Aug. 18-20.

Tourists at Whitefish Point lighthouse.
The Whitefish Point Light near Paradise, Mich., is the oldest operating lighthouse on Lake Superior.

In Ontonagon next to Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, CopperFest is July 21-23. In Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park on the U.P., the Porcupine Mountains Music Festival is Aug. 25-26.

Crossing borders: U.S. citizens 16 and over need a passport or passport card. For details and updates, check regulations on travel to Canada.

Residents of Minnesota and Michigan also can get an enhanced driver's license that will allow them to reenter the United States. It's an extra $15 in Minnesota and $45 in Michigan.

Children need a birth certificate or other proof of citizenship. If you're bringing a child who is not your own, you need notarized consent from both parents.

And don't bring the family pit bull — Ontario bans pit bull terrier breeds.

Kakabeka Falls near Thunder Bay.
Kakabeka Falls in Thunder Bay often is called the Niagara of the North.

Motorcyclists: Helmets are required in Michigan and Ontario. If you try to cross the Canadian border without one, you'll be turned away.

Bicyclists: It's a long slog on the more remote stretches in Ontario, especially between Marathon and Sault Ste. Marie. People do it, but it doesn't look fun.

To do a partial Circle Tour on the less-isolated southern part and also see Isle Royale, take the ferry from Grand Portage, Minn., to Rock Harbor and then another ferry to Copper Harbor, Mich.

For more, see Exploring Isle Royale.

Cruise ship: It's not exactly a Circle Tour, but Viking Cruises offers a cruise from Thunder Bay to Milwaukee, with stops in Duluth, Bayfield, Houghton, the Soo Locks and Mackinac Island.

Craft beer: Some of the many craft breweries can be found along the Lake Superior Ale Trail.

Camping: Campsites can be reserved 120 days in advance in Minnesota state parks,  five months in Ontario provincial parks, six months in Michigan state parks and 11 months in Wisconsin state parks.

Ducks on Marie Louise Lake Campground.
In Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, ducks gather in Marie Louise Lake Campground.

State-park campgrounds along Minnesota's North Shore are full nearly every day in the summer and weekends in fall.

In other places, tent campers can find a place without reserving, but it is best to have one on weekends, especially holiday weekends. The first weekend of each summer month is a holiday weekend for Canadians, and many go camping.

Regular camping fees in Ontario parks range from $38.70 to $59.33. Daily vehicle permits cost $12.25-$21, or $84.75 for an April-November seasonal permit.

In Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, camping reservations are required, including the backpacking sites along the Lakeshore Trail.

In Ontario's Pukaskwa National Park (pronounced PUCK-a-saw), campsites at Hattie Cove campground are first-come, first served. It's 10 miles off the Trans-Canada Highway east of Marathon.

Four parks also have yurts, cabins and/or lodges:

Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, east of Thunder Bay, has five three-bedroom cabins.

Pancake Bay Provincial Park west of Batchawana Bay, Ont., has five yurts.

Tahquamenon Falls State Park, near Sault Ste. Marie, has a camper cabin and a three-bedroom lodge.

Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park on the west end of the Upper Peninsula, has four yurts, 19 rustic cabins and a four-bedroom lodge on the lake.

Last updated on February 2, 2022

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