The skies were leaden and forbidding as Lake Superior slid into view and we descended into Duluth. The wind mauled our hair as we stood alongside the harbor canal, waving to the crew of the Sea Pearl II as it pushed toward Malta with a load of grain.
Driving up the shore, we listened to taped stories of shipwrecks: The sidewheeler Lotta Bernard, pummeled into pieces off Gooseberry Falls on Oct. 29, 1874.
The steamer Edenborn, hurled into the mouth of Split Rock River and broken in two on Nov. 28, 1905. The Lafayette, pulverized against a cliff near Encampment Island on the same day.
In November 1905, the people of Minnesota saw Lake Superior at its most malevolent.
As dozens of ships left Duluth-Superior Harbor in the calm after a violent storm, an even worse storm hit, with blinding snow and winds of more than 60 mph.
The 4,840-ton steel steamer Mataafa turned back and, just as it was about to slip into the harbor entry, was lifted by a giant wave, upended and smashed into first one concrete pierhead, then the other.
Long before reality shows turned survival into a stunt, there was John Beargrease.
With no fanfare and no road, the Ojibwe man delivered the weekly mail between Two Harbors and Grand Marais until 1899, using a dog team in winter. Using only four dogs to pull packs of up to 700 pounds, Beargrease could make the round-trip in a few days.
His stamina spawned a legend. Now mushers from around the nation come to trace his path, racing each other from Duluth to the Gunflint Trail in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.
When people have been beating a path to your door for more than 130 years, youre probably doing something right.
Swedish immigrants C.A.A. and Anna Nelson were accidental hosts in 1886, when they began putting up travelers in their new home at the mouth of the Poplar River, chosen because it was C.A.A.s favorite fishing spot.
More people came, and their Lutzen House became Lutsen Resort. Their children and grandchildren added a gabled lodge, ski hill, pool and townhomes. Then came log cabins, luxury condos, a golf course, a gourmet chef and a spa.
It took me nearly 20 years of hiking on the North Shore to tackle Eagle Mountain.
Its the highest point in Minnesota, but its not exactly on the shore; its 14 miles inland, as the crow flies. I was used to tramping along the rocky river gorges whose horehound-tinted waters rivers boil furiously down to Lake Superior; I was used to drama.
But the 3½-mile hike up 2,301-foot Eagle Mountain was just as dramatic. The path, a root-choked corridor through cedars and spruce, soon enters the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
In autumn, crowds of leaf-peepers mob Minnesotas North Shore, looking for fabulous fall color.
The last week of September is peak for inland maple forests and in the forests farthest north. The first weekend of October should be peak farther south, and the forests of Duluth stay golden through the second weekend of October.
Here's where to look for the finest fall color by foot or by car.
If you dont know much about Minnesotas North Shore, trip-planning can be confusing.
For one thing, its really the west shore of Lake Superior. People in Ontario dont get confused because they live on the real north shore. Chicagoans do because they call their northern suburbs the North Shore.
This pointy corner of Minnesota also is called the Arrowhead Region. Some people call its roads by their names Sawbill and Caribou and some by their numbers County Road 2 and County Road 4. Some people heading north along the shore say theyre heading east, and theyre right.
Big, bad Lake Superior.
Its big as in vast, with a surface area equal to Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont and New Hampshire combined.
Its bad as in lethal, able to swallow ore boats or pulverize them against the hard volcanic rock that lines its shore. And its treacherous like an enraged bull, its crushing waves can turn on a dime.
Most people know Two Harbors only by its spine, Minnesota 61, where a long gantlet of gas stations and fast-food joints tries to reel in tourists speeding up the North Shore.
Yes, Two Harbors is the last place to get a Big Mac before Canada. But there are better reasons to stop there.
Most tourists never see the massive ore docks, just a stones throw from a picturesque breakwall, boat launch and walking trail. Or the North Shores last working lighthouse, a 1892 brick beacon that glows flame-red in the afternoon sun.
In summer and fall, hikers by the thousands take to the hiking trails on Minnesota's North Shore.
In winter? Not so many. But those who strap on snowshoes to climb river gorges and follow the blue blazes of the Superior Hiking Trail are rewarded by stark beauty.
The brittle winter sun throws everything into high relief: Black lenticel pores seem to pop out on trunks of birch that are a brilliant white against the blue sky.
Once, passenger trains crisscrossed the state, and lighthouses guided sailors on the Great Lakes.
Trains and lighthouses are beloved relics now, symbols of a simpler past. In the digital age, they seem antique, like Grandpa's buggy or Grandma's butter churn.
But don't relegate them to history's dustbin just yet.
Up north, all of the snow that brought you great skiing just keeps on giving when spring arrives.
That's when it turns into waterfalls, roaring down river gorges and misting awed onlookers.
One of the easiest places to see lots of big waterfalls is along Minnesota's North Shore, where dozens of rivers roar down into Lake Superior. Where there's water, there's a waterfall.
In summer, when the cities start to sizzle, a lot of people suddenly realize theyd rather be in Grand Marais.
This village on Minnesotas North Shore is awash in Lake Superiors cool breezes, and it has everything else a tourist could want restaurants, shops, galleries, nightlife and scenery.
But it doesnt always have enough room for all of the escapees, especially on festival weekends.
A hundred years ago, Grand Marais was a wind-buffeted outpost at the tip of the North Shore, stomping grounds of trappers, loggers and fishermen.
The dirt road connecting the village to Duluth often was impassable, and winter provisions had to be brought in by steamer before Lake Superior iced over.
But amid the hardship, there was always art.
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.
Do you love to see gorgeous photos of your favorite landscapes, especially when you're sitting in an office cubicle?
Facebook makes it easy to see when giant waves are crashing along shorelines, when northern lights appear in the winter sky and when full moons frame lighthouses. Online galleries and blogs offer photography tips as well as images.
One place especially blessed with photographers who share their work is Minnesota's dramatic North Shore of Lake Superior, where world-class scenery stretches from Duluth to the Canadian border.
When you live in the frozen north, you may as well embrace winter.
My idea of fun is to cross-country ski, but for that, Mother Nature needs to bring snow. But alpine skiing, which I also like, requires only some big snow guns.
After one wimpy winter, I bought alpine skis. They cost a lot, but I can actually use them, unlike my Nordic skis, all winter long.
In winter, ice comes with the territory. You can curse it or you can play with it.
Kids know how. Climbers and skaters know how. And photographers adore it.
Having fun with ice also is a good way to cope with a winter that drags on, endlessly, into April.
Long before Minnesota existed, Grand Portage was as familiar a name to many Europeans as George Washington.
As the American Revolution drew to a close in the East, traders at this Lake Superior outpost were busy minting the interior's first millionaires.
It was the crossroads of a continent, the place where voyageurs laden with goods from Montreal met voyageurs laden with beaver pelts from the Canadian wilderness.
On Minnesota's North Shore, winter opens new avenues for explorers.
Miles of hiking trails already follow the gorges of rivers that flow into Lake Superior. But why hike the trails when you can hike on the river itself?
A frozen river takes you straight into the scenery the slot canyons of the Onion, the steep red cliffs of the Devil Track, the waterfalls of the Baptism.
In the north woods, it's easy to fall in love with sled dogs.
They're exuberant and adorable but also focused, intense and explosive sort of like kindergartners crossed with Olympic athletes.
For huskies, life is simple: They live to run. Anyone who has watched the start of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon has witnessed the drive of a husky, a four-legged Ferrari that snaps into warp speed at the rustle of a harness.
Going hiking on the Superior Hiking Trail? You'll want to pack sturdy boots, thick socks, water bottles, maps and rain gear.
Oh, and don't forget the bikes.
There's a bicycle trail on the North Shore, a nice flat one. It's the paved Gitchi-Gami State Trail, with a 14-mile stretch that links Gooseberry Falls to Split Rock State Park and Beaver Bay and a 10½-mile stretch that links Schroeder to Temperance River State Park, Tofte and Lutsen.
Ten thousand years ago, the melting of Minnesotas last glacier transformed a placid beach into a rugged coast.
Its a 150-mile stretch of wild beauty, lined by piles of jagged black basalt, cobblestone beaches and the mouths of dozens of rivers, tumbling down from the old beaches of Glacial Lake Duluth.
Seven state parks follow their winding gorges, marked by rapids and waterfalls, and the Superior Hiking Trail crosses them on its way from Duluth to the Canadian border.
In spring, not that many people go to the North Shore to see the flowers.
Theyre small, and the rest of the scenery is big and distracting roaring waterfalls, jagged cliffs and that mesmerizing inland sea that fills the horizon.
If you do look down, youll find them huddled in cracks on lava flows, tucked along hiking trails and in boggy patches along streams. Theyre dainty, but many are fairly unusual butterwort as well as bluebells, rock clematis along with columbine.
In summer and fall, don't rely on luck to get a reservation on Minnesota's North Shore.
In the heat of summer, everyone wants to bask in Lake Superior's cooling breezes. In fall, everyone wants to see the fall colors. On winter weekends, skiers flock in.
Below are a few of the many places to stay; reserve as far in advance as possible for popular dates, especially Minnesota's school break in October.
In one 19-mile stretch of Minnesota's North Shore, Nature presents a one-two-three punch of incomparable beauty.
Just half an hour north of Duluth, Gooseberry Falls State Park presents an eye-popping spectacle of waterfalls, lumpy beds of ancient lava and twisted cedar clinging to rock outcroppings.
Six miles farther, Split Rock Lighthouse sits picturesquely on its cliff, a tourist attraction since 1924, when people could get to it on the newly completed Minnesota 61.
On Minnesota's North Shore, its a happy day when snow is as abundant as scenery.
Despite its miles of cross-country ski trails, the western shore of Lake Superior gets only modest amounts of lake-effect snow, because the storms that blow in from the east tend to dump it inland, where the land mass is colder.
So if you want to ski, the trick is to head for the hills, ignoring the thinner snow along the highway.
There's one spot along the North Shore at which everyone has to stop.
Its five falls tumble over lumpy floes of ancient lava, filling the air with mist and tumult.
Intriguing crannies, created by jagged walls of rock and twisted cedars, turn adults into compulsive shutterbugs and bring out the Indiana Jones in children, who clamber from one precipice to another.
Thanks to a four-lane stretch of Minnesota 61, tourists can zoom up to Two Harbors from Duluth in 15 minutes flat.
The question is, why would anyone want to?
There's much more to see along this 19-mile stretch of old 61, a part of the North Shore that has changed little in the last few decades. It's not the fanciest part, but it may be the most genuine.
To a novice, Minnesota's Superior Hiking Trail presents a bewilderment of possibilities.
There are 310 miles of trail between Jay Cooke State Park near Duluth and the Canadian border. Some are in the city, some deep in forest. Many stretches include spectacular views of Lake Superior, but others (gasp!) are a little boring.
People come from all over the nation to hike this beloved trail, and some take three or four weeks and do the whole thing. But there are many ways to hike the trail.
Thirty years ago, dining on the North Shore was pleasant, if a little utilitarian. A meal often came with a view, but most of the menus had the same fish, steak, chops and burgers you could get anywhere.
Things have changed. One Memorial Day weekend, my husband and I ate at three of my favorite places and two newer ones, one of which definitely was worth a detour. A three-star culinary weekend on the North Shore who knew?
On old Highway 61 between Duluth and Two Harbors, the cheery New Scenic Cafe is a fixture of fine dining. I had my usual, the pistachio-crusted goat-cheese salad, with a starter of sashimi tuna tacos.
The first times I went up to Minnesotas North Shore, I did the same thing everyone else does: See Gooseberry Falls. Take pictures of Split Rock Lighthouse. Hike Oberg Mountain.
Thats North Shore 101.
Like most tourists, I rushed right through Two Harbors, completely missing its lighthouse and ore docks. I spent a lot of time watching boats on Duluths Canal Park but didnt make it up to Skyline Parkway.
For alpine skiers, these are the best days of the year.
At least, they are at Lutsen Mountains on Minnesota's North Shore.
Started in 1948, the ski hill has the regions steepest vertical drop, the longest runs and the widest variety, plus a killer view of Lake Superior.
Every week, a few dozen people join an exclusive club high above Minnesota's North Shore.
To get there, they lug all their food and gear 1¾ miles up and down a steep hill. They draw their own water and make their own fires. They clean and then lug their garbage over the same hill.
And they consider themselves lucky.
On the northeast tip of Minnesota is a coastline of uncommon beauty, lined by sheer basalt cliffs, cobblestone beaches and the mouths of dozens of rivers rushing into Lake Superior through narrow, winding gorges.
This is where Minnesotans go to breathe.
Since 1924, when the first highway opened, the North Shore has been a refuge for city folk tired of congestion, for farmers tired of flat fields, for blue-collar workers tired of the grind.
If youre a bargain-hunter and most Midwesterners are the best weeks of summer are in August.
By the second week, football and band practice has started at schools, and back-to-school sales are in progress. In Minnesota, everyone wants to go to the State Fair.
Not many people are thinking about vacation which is precisely why its a great time to take one. The weather is still warm and sunny, the crowds are gone and, best of all, prices drop, usually on the second or third Sunday.
Remember all those summers when you looked longingly at Lake Superior, wishing you could swim in it for more than a minute without going numb? The summer of 2012 wasn't one of them.
Non-stop, beastly hot temperatures mellowed the waters of the big lake, turning it into the world's largest swimming pool.
Water-surface temperatures pushed 75 degrees on the notoriously cold stretch between Duluth and Grand Marais. That's was the warmest in a century and 20 degrees higher than normal for mid-summer.
When snow is sparse on Minnesota's North Shore and even when it isn't skiers head for the hills.
Over the Sawtooth Mountains and deep into Superior National Forest, the Flathorn-Gegoka trails gather up the snow, arrange it prettily atop boughs and wait for cross-country skiers to come ooh and aah.
The perpetually snow-flocked pines never fail to amaze people who come to stay and ski at the National Forest Lodge.
During the heady days of the Roaring Twenties, a group of Duluth businessmen conceived a plan.
They would buy 3,300 acres of land along Lake Superior and on both sides of the Arrowhead River, encompassing beach, waterfalls and rocky gorges. Theyd buy another 8,000 acres inland, where caribou still roamed and lakes were thick with fish and fowl.
Theyd build a clubhouse, with tennis courts and golf course and swimming pool. And theyd name the whole thing for Naniboujou, the powerful but benevolent Ojibwe spirit who claimed this northern wilderness as his own.
In Duluth, tourists can see two small yellow boats puttering about Duluth's harbor amid tall ships, freighters, sailboats and kayaks.
They're 18-foot electric boats owned by Canal Park Boat Rentals, and they can be rented by anyone who'd like to explore the harbor or inspect giant freighters at the terminals where they're loading grain, coal or taconite.
They're wonderful because it's quiet,'' says owner Tom Althaus. A lot of people think electric boats are slow, but they go about the same speed as sailboats or the big boats, and you can talk as you go.''
In Minnesotas state parks, the goodies go way beyond hiking trails, picnic sites and fishing piers.
Minnesota parks house their visitors, too, not only in campgrounds but in suites and cabins and lodges and even a few split-level homes. Of course, they're very popular.
But the most popular place of all is the Illgen Falls Cabin in Tettegouche State Park, especially in summer.
Only tough guys lasted for long around Lake Superior, and Father Frederic Baraga was one of them.
The Slovenian priest arrived in 1831 and spent a long and frenetic life canoeing and snowshoeing between Ojibwe settlements in Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan; Grand Portage on the northeastern tip of Minnesota; and La Pointe on Wisconsin's Madeline Island.
One day in 1846, Father Baraga, learning of a possible epidemic among the Ojibwe in Grand Portage, set out from Madeline Island in a small boat with an Ojibwe guide.