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Lake Superior

Duluth 101

Here’s everything you need to know about visiting this lively port town on Lake Superior.

Thirty years ago, motorists whizzed right through Duluth on their way to Minnesota's North Shore, putting it into their rear-view mirror as fast as they could.

That changed in the early 1990s, when the rejuvenation of Duluth's lakefront started to transform this working-class port town into the belle of Lake Superior.

Now, it's packed from summer through fall, and rooms at its hotels and B&Bs can be hard to come by. It's a Cinderella story, really.

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Gales of November

Along the North Shore, early-winter winds evoke visions of shipwrecks.

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.

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Marquette's double appeal

This college town on Lake Superior is both sophisticated and outdoorsy.

The first time I visited Marquette, I saw mostly Yooper Land.

I chuckled at a 10-foot mosquito, giant chainsaw and packages of Roadkill Helper. I noted the best-sellers in the bookstore window: "A Look at Life From a Deer Stand'' and "Leap of Faith 2: God Loves Packer Fans.''

This is the Marquette that's sports-crazy, hunting-happy and tough as nails, with a population descended from Cornish, Finnish and Italian immigrants who could put up with the rigors of iron mines and, later, their closings.

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Hawk heaven

On a ridgetop in Duluth, bird watchers keep eyes on the fall skies.

On Duluth's Hawk Ridge, a bird in the hand is worth at least two in the sky.

They're impressive when spotted overhead. But up close, it's easier to get to know a bird — say, the northern goshawk, a fierce predator whose image once adorned the helmet of Attila the Hun.

As she held a young goshawk by the legs, naturalist Willow Maser struggled to make herself heard above its high-pitched screeches.

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Michigan's Pictured Rocks

There's a lot of scenery crammed into one stretch of Lake Superior around Munising.

Along Michigan's Pictured Rocks, there's no such thing as a bad view.

White sandstone cliffs line nearly 40 miles of national lakeshore, the nation's first when it was created in 1966. Named for the colorful swishes and whorls painted by mineral-laden water oozing through cracks, Pictured Rocks draws tourists from around the world.

This part of Michigan is inconveniently distant for tourists from big cities: Detroit is closer to Charleston, W.V., than Munising.

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Four seasons of Grand Marais

On Minnesota's North Shore, this photogenic village always is ready for its close-up.

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.

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In the shadow of the Giant

In a provincial park wrapped by Lake Superior, campers exult in beauty.

On the northwest corner of Lake Superior, a 1,000-foot-high sleeping giant stretches across the horizon.

It’s mesmerized onlookers for millennia. In 2007, Canadian Broadcasting Corp. listeners voted it No. 1 of Seven Wonders of Canada, far outpolling Niagara Falls.

From Hillcrest Park in Thunder Bay, it looks exactly like a cigar-store Indian, with a square jaw and arms folded over a powerful chest.

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Circling Lake Superior

A trip along its gorgeous shores provides everything a tourist's heart could desire.

Of all the Great Lakes, Superior is the drama queen.

It's unpredictable and petulant, throwing tantrums that threaten to swallow any boat that ventures onto its waters. In 1975, it famously swallowed a boat that itself was called Queen of the Lakes.

Superior loves irony. The first recorded wreck, in 1816, was called the Invincible.

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Lake Superior's greatest hits

With this nine-day itinerary, take in the highlights of the magnificent Circle Tour.

The Circle Tour of Lake Superior is one of the world's most scenic drives, 1,300 miles of non-stop scenery and attractions.

There's a staggering number of things to do and see around Lake Superior. But if you have only a week's vacation, you can see the highlights on this nine-day, eight-night Circle Tour.

Drive clockwise or counterclockwise, depending on what festivals or events you want to catch. For more, see Planning a Circle Tour.

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Giants of Lake Superior

On a trip around the biggest lake, stop to see larger-than-life heroes and mascots.

You can expect to see a lot of big things on the 1,300-mile drive around Lake Superior, the world's largest lake by surface area.

There's a fish, a Fox, a bear, a goose and a moose — not to mention a 32-foot thermometer and a 35-foot aspiring saint.

These giants all have stories, part of the folklore of this colorful lake, where life isn't for the faint of heart. On a Circle Tour, be sure to stop and say hello.

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Planning a Circle Tour of Lake Superior

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

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.

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Dwelling in the past

Around Lake Superior, overnight guests can try out life at a lighthouse.

When Lake Superior lighthouses had keepers, there was nothing romantic about life there.

The posts were cold, lonely and meagerly furnished on the government dime. The work was physically taxing and repetitive. Through the long nights, keepers had to get up every two hours to wind the mechanism that rotated the lens.

It's no wonder many of the early lighthouse keepers were hermits or grouches.

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Dunes of Grand Marais

At the end of the road, this quirky beach town is the eastern gateway to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

The village of Grand Marais, Mich., feels as if it's at the end of the world, sitting in a front-row seat.

Beyond it lies Lake Superior, filling the horizon and plunging to its deepest point, 1,333 feet, not far away. Behind it is the vast wilderness of Lake Superior State Forest and the solitary road that cuts through it.

And on its western flank loom the Grand Sable Dunes, which would look impressively bleak if not for their wavy toupees of marras grass, beach pea and hoary yellow puccoon.

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Locking through the Soo

In Sault Ste. Marie, heavy traffic thrills boat watchers.

In Sault Ste. Marie, tourists find out what floats their boats.

For most, it’s watching serious machinery moving through the Soo Locks.

What really floats a boat, however, is 22 million gallons of water, which is what it takes to lift a boat through the Poe Lock, a liquid escalator between Lake Superior and Lake Huron.

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Exploring Isle Royale

Famous for its moose and wolves, this Lake Superior wilderness island is beguiling.

When it rains on Isle Royale, you just have to soak it up.

Moisture comes with the territory in Lake Superior's northern reaches. No one comes here for the weather, despite early advertising that called it a "Summertime 'Bermuda' Paradise."

Bermuda it's not. But paradise? It depends on how you look at it.

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The season's first ships

When the Great Lakes shipping season starts, boat nerds watch for salties.

Like robins and maple sap, Lake Superior ore boats aren't much affected by the never-ending winter that humans find so annoying.

Toward the end of March, ice-breakers arrive to clear the shipping lanes, allowing the first boats to leave winter layup, kicking off the spring shipping season.

Then traffic starts to move within Lake Superior, and when the Soo Looks open on March 25, boats arrive from other Great Lakes. 

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Dunes of Duluth

On Lake Superior, a windswept spit of sand draws beach bums and boat nerds.

Most people don't think of Duluth as a beach town.

It's a little chilly, for one thing. But the port city has six miles of sandy beach along the largest freshwater sandbar in the world.

Just over the Aerial Lift Bridge, Park Point is where Duluthians play. They hike and run on a two-mile trail through forest and dunes. They paddle canoes and kayaks. They hang out on the beach, watching waves in winter and braving them in summer.

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Graveyard of the Great Lakes

For 200 years, a bottleneck on the east end of Lake Superior has claimed ships and lives.

In 1816, the first schooner built for Lake Superior shipping also became first to sink. It was called the Invincible, but it was no match for winds whipping off the east end of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

The Invincible wreck was the first of hundreds along what become known as the Shipwreck Coast. The last — we hope — was the Edmund Fitzgerald, which went down in 1975 with 29 lives lost.

At Whitefish Point, not far from the Soo Locks, the lake narrows into a funnel where shipping lanes converge, visibility is poor and northwesters reach full fury, building up over 200 miles of open water.

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Living in a lighthouse

Around the Great Lakes, volunteers keep the light on for tourists.

Around the Great Lakes, love for lighthouses is unlimited. Often called "America's castles,'' lighthouses are symbols of a more adventurous era, and tourists find them irresistible.

Now, the state parks and friends associations who care for them have found a way to harness all this passion: They're turning tourists into volunteer keepers. 

For a week or two, volunteers live at the lighthouse, hosting visitors and doing chores. Some get to sleep under quilts in the historic keepers' quarters.

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Boat watching in Duluth

In this Lake Superior port town, tourists hang on the latest shipping news.

When the ore boats start arriving in Duluth, the tourists soon follow.

Fifty years ago, ships were part of the industrial landscape on Canal Park, and no one thought they were all that romantic.

But things have changed. Today, these hulking big boats are to Duluth what killer whales are to Sea World. Because, boy, do they make people come running.

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Following the photographers: Lake Superior's south shore

Wish you were there? For people who love the Upper Peninsula and northwoods Wisconsin, online images are the next best thing.

Along the shores of Lake Superior, winter makes professional photographers really happy.

If they're lucky, they get weeks of northern lights. Then, perhaps an irruption of snowy owls swept down from the Arctic. And if it's cold and calm enough, the mainland ice caves of the Apostles not only will be accessible but magnificently frozen by subzero temperatures.

Amid so much natural beauty, photographers are like kids in a candy store. And they share their booty on Facebook pages and online galleries.

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Kayaking the Rossport Islands

Off Ontario's Superior coast, a lighthouse is an irresistible destination.

At the top of Lake Superior, there's a dramatic coast lined with rugged cliffs, cobblestone beaches and islands.

It's the home of Parks Canada's new Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area, created last October to protect the waters between the Sibley Peninsula, east of Thunder Bay, and the Slate Islands, off Terrace Bay.

The many islands are big, much like the Apostles in Wisconsin except closer together. That makes them ideal for kayaking. The Slate archipelago, where caribou live, attracts serious kayakers. But the Rossport Islands are perfect for any paddler.

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