MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Lake Superior's greatest hits

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

Eagle Harbor Light on the Keweenaw.

© Torsten Muller

The Eagle Harbor Lighthouse sits on a cliff in the Keweenaw Peninsula.

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.

For an overview of what you'll see, go to Circling Lake Superior.

Duluth to Thunder Bay, 189 miles 

Every year, readers of Lake Superior magazine vote Minnesota's North Shore their No. 1 favorite attraction on the big lake.

With Lake Superior rarely out of sight, it's everyone's favorite drive. Get an early start from Duluth's Canal Park; if you're lucky, you can watch a boat arriving or departing. 

The 150 miles from Duluth to the Canadian border is a national scenic byway, with non-stop scenery, including countless cobblestone beaches and waterfalls.

Be sure to take Scenic 61 to Two Harbors, not the Expressway, and stop in Knife River for some smoked fish or old-fashioned candy. 

In Two Harbors, see the lighthouse and ore docks and walk the Sonju Trail in front of the lighthouse.

Between mile markers 40 and 60, you can see Gooseberry Falls, visit Split Rock Lighthouse, enjoy the view from Palisade Head and walk the half-mile trail to Shovel Point at Tettegouche State Park.

Stop for lunch in Grand Marais. Visit the re-created fur post at Grand Portage National Monument; admission is free.

Just short of the Canadian border in Grand Portage State Park, hike half a mile to 120-foot High Falls on the Pigeon River. For closer views, including from the top of the waterfall, hike from the Ontario visitors center just across the border.

Ontario is on Eastern time, so you'll lose an hour. In Thunder Bay, the largest town on Lake Superior, the best-located hotels are the new Delta Hotel by Marriott and the 1911 Prince Arthur near Marina Park.

A saltie waits in Thunder Bay's harbor.

© Beth Gauper

A freighter waits in the harbor off Thunder Bay's Marina Park.

Multicultural Thunder Bay is a great place to eat. And if you're there on a Wednesday afternoon or Saturday morning, stop at the indoor Country Market to stock up on perogies, cheese and pies.

Thunder Bay to Rossport, 116 miles

Have breakfast at the Hoito in the nearby Finnish neighborhood (skip the line and go straight to the counter).

Spend at least several hours with the costumed living-history interpreters at Fort William Historical Park, the world's largest re-creation of a fur post. See nearby Kakabeka Falls.

On the way to Rossport, you'll see the turn-off to Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, but that deserves more time. Instead, stop to see Ouimet Canyon, a provincial park with sheer rock walls.

In Rossport, stay at the Willows Inn B&B or Serendipity Gardens Guest House, which also has a nice cafe. The B&B on the Beach is 4 miles east of town.

Rossport to Wawa, 178 miles

Spend the morning kayaking the Rossport Islands, whose three tiers protect paddlers from the big lake.

Stop to see the falls in Rainbow Falls Provincial Park and, just short of Terrace Bay, Aguasabon Falls.

In White River, see the statue of Winnie-the-Pooh, who was inspired by a real-life bear from the town. For more, see Giants of Lake Superior

In Wawa, stop at the quirky Young's General Store. In 2020, the Best Northern Motel and Kinniwabi Pines, which has been the best restaurant east of Thunder Bay, are under new management.

Another good option is Rock Island Lodge, on Lake Superior at the mouth of the Michipicoten River.

A tour boat goes through the Soo Locks.

© Beth Gauper

A tour boat heads through the Soo Locks.

Wawa to Paradise, 210 miles 

Stop on the beach of Old Woman Bay on the north end of Lake Superior Provincial Park and then, on the south end of the park, see the pictographs at Agawa Rock.

In Sault Ste. Marie, watch the boats go through the Soo Locks and take a Soo Locks cruise on the St. Marys River.

If you can build in an extra day to see one of the highlights of the Circle Tour of Lake Michigan, drive an hour south to St. Ignace and take a ferry to visit Mackinac Island

Otherwise, head west around Whitefish Bay, stopping at Point Iroquois Lighthouse on the way to Paradise and on to Whitefish Point, the Graveyard of the Great Lakes.

Stay right at the crew quarters of the Whitefish Point Light Station, in the restored 1923 Coast Guard Lifeboat Station. It's one of four places around Lake Superior where you can stay in a lighthouse.

Playing in the Lower Falls.

© Beth Gauper

In Tahquamenon Falls State Park, visitors play in the Lower Falls.

In Paradise, the Magnuson Grand Hotel has a beach and indoor pool. Eat at Brown Fisheries Fish House or the Inn Gastropub & Smokehouse.

Or, stay in Tahquamenon Falls State Park, camping or in a camper cabin and a three-bedroom lodge that sleeps eight. The park has its own restaurant and brewery.

Paradise to Munising, 99 miles 

Tour the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, if you haven't already.

Otherwise, get back on Michigan 28 and head west. From Seney, it's 25 miles north to Grand Marais, where you can climb the Grand Sable Dunes.

Or continue on Michigan 28 to Munising and the west end of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

If possible, hike the stunning, 10-mile Chapel Loop, which includes the only trail section where the cliffs can be seen from land. If you don't have time, there are many shorter hikes.

A cruise boat along Pictured Rocks.

© Beth Gauper

From Munising, cruise boats take tourists to see Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

In Munising, stay at the Sunset Motel, facing on the bay. It's friendly and quiet and has places for children to play. There are other options, and Munising now has a couple of good restaurants and also craft breweries.

Munising to Copper Harbor, 190 miles 

If you didn't have time for the hike along the cliffs, take a Pictured Rocks Boat Cruise or Glass Bottom Shipwreck Tour from Munising.

Or take a kayaking tour along the multicolored cliffs, with transportation there and back by cruise boat.

In the college town Marquette, stop to shop, have lunch and see beautiful Presque Isle Park, a peninsula just north of downtown. 

Then, head up the Keweenaw Peninsula. In Houghton, take a stroll along the waterfront trail. In Calumet, see the historic business district and visit Coppertown Mining Museum.

Across the highway in Laurium, stop for a pasty at Toni's Country Kitchen.

At Ahmeek, get off U.S. 41 and take 5 Mile Point Road toward the lake and into Eagle River. Continue on the picturesque lake drive, stopping at the Jampot to buy baked goods from the monks of the Society of St. John.

In Eagle Harbor, see the 1871 lighthouse and, if it's warm, take a swim in the protected harbor. East of town, turn onto Brockway Mountain Drive and take it into Copper Harbor

In the hills above Copper Harbor, stay at the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge, which rents motel rooms and log cabins, many with wood-burning fireplaces but no kitchens.

Eat at the lodge restaurant or in town at the Harbor Haus, which also has B&B rooms.

Copper Harbor to Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, 115 miles

Between the harbor and Lake Fanny Hooe, visit Fort Wilkins State Park, a former frontier post staffed by costumed interpreters. 

Drive back to Houghton on the east side of the peninsula between Lac La Belle and Gay, using pullouts to explore the beaches and pick blueberries from late July to early August (bear sightings are likely).

A hiker on the Porkies' Escarpment Trail.

© Beth Gauper

A hiker walks above Lake of the Clouds on the Escarpment Trail in the Porcupines.

Drive to Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park and spend the rest of the day hiking the Escarpment Trail high above Lake of the Clouds. The park has camping as well as four yurts, 19 rustic cabins and a lodge.

Or, stay just outside the park at Mountain View Lodges, well-equipped cabins right on the lake.

Porcupines to Bayfield, 125 miles

Drive the park's South Boundary Road to the Presque Isle River to see the waterfalls, and rejoin U.S. 2 in Wakefield, where you'll get your hour back.

If you have time, head north from Bessemer, Mich., to see the five waterfalls of the Black River and/or ride to the top of the Copper Peak ski-flying hill for a panoramic view. It's 32 miles round-trip.

In Ashland, stop for lunch and to see the downtown murals. Just west of town, stop at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center to see the exhibits, including a cool relief map of Lake Superior.

In Bayfield, take a cruise to the Apostle Islands or the ferry to Madeline Island if there's time. In the evening, see a show at Big Top Chautauqua.

The rocks of Big Bay State Park.

© Beth Gauper

On Madeline Island, a hiker basks on the rocky shoreline of Big Bay State Park.

Stay at the friendly, well-run Seagull Bay Motel, which has organized a free shuttle to the Big Top and offers rooms, some with kitchenette. There are many other good places to stay.

Bayfield to Duluth, 80 miles 

Explore Bayfield. Continue west through Cornucopia and buy picnic goods at Ehlers General Store

Just before Wisconsin 13 rejoins U.S. 2 east of Superior, take County Road U to Amnicon Falls State Park and have a picnic among the rapids.

In Superior, visit the Richard Bong Veterans Historical Center and the S.S. Meteor whaleback museum on Barker's Island.

If you're spending the night in Duluth, reserve far in advance. It's very popular in summer, especially the Canal Park area.

The beach at Tee Harbor.

© Beth Gauper

Sleeping Giant Provincial Park is a highlight on the Circle Tour, but worth a trip in itself.

If you have more time

In Duluth, visit Glensheen mansion, explore Park Point, go on a train excursion or hike sections of the Superior Hiking Trail, using city buses as shuttles.

Spend more time exploring Minnesota's North Shore.

Sightsee around Thunder Bay and stay in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, a 40-mile round-trip detour from the highway but a highlight for many travelers.

The Trans-Canada Highway heads inland around Pukaskwa National Park, beloved by kayakers for its coves and backpackers for the 60-kilometer Coastal Trail. You can get a taste of the park by making the 20-mile round-trip detour to Hattie Cove Campground, just east of Marathon.

Spend time hiking and swimming in Lake Superior Provincial Park, or take the Agawa Canyon Tour Train out of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

Backpackers stand on a cliff at Pictured Rocks.

© Beth Gauper

Backpackers admire the view from the 42-mile Lakeshore Trail in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

Stay at one of the five yurts in Pancake Bay Provincial Park, on Lake Superior just north of Sault Ste. Marie.

Stay overnight on Mackinac Island on Lake Michigan. It's only an hour from Sault Ste. Marie to St. Ignace, from which ferries go to the island. You can see the sights by bike on the no-vehicles highway that circles the island. 

On the south shore of the lake, backpack the 42 miles of the North Country National Scenic Trail through Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, from Grand Marais to Munising.

Visit Isle Royale National Park by ferry from Copper Harbor or Houghton on the Keweenaw (or Grand Portage in Minnesota, the shortest trip if you're heading for the Windigo side of the island).

In the Apostle Islands, take a kayaking tour to the islands or take the ferry to Oak or Stockton Islands and camp.

And if you want to see the Crisp Point and Au Sable lighthouses in Michigan, build in extra time; they're at the end of bumpy forest roads, and Au Sable requires a hike as well.

If you'd like to stay overnight at those lighthouses and the ones in the Apostles, you can sign up to be a volunteer keeper for a week or more.


Last updated on October 2, 2020