Planning a Circle Tour of Lake Superior
For a great vacation, follow the shores of the world's largest freshwater lake.
© Beth Gauper
The Whitefish Point Light near Paradise, Mich., is the oldest operating lighthouse on Lake Superior.
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 along the way.
Here are tips to get you started.
For an overview of what you'll see on the trip, see Circling Superior.
For a 10-day, nine-night itinerary, with a list of the best places to stay, see Lake Superior's greatest hits.
When to go: Late May and June are least crowded and rates usually are lower, though weather is unpredictable and black flies are heaviest.
© Beth Gauper
If you're staying in Duluth, plan around the big festivals at Bayfront Park.
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-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 and bugs light.
Fall colors can be spectacular — expect peak the last week of September and the first week of 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 annual Travel Guide, which comes with a map. The guide is free with a subscription or available at newsstands, bookstores or the magazine's store in downtown Duluth at 310 E. Superior St.
Or, order the map by mail (free, but postage and handling is $3.95).
Consult the guide's map chart and 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.
2019 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 21-22, and nearly every weekend.
People who like to watch Great Lakes freighters should be in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., June 28 for Soo Locks Engineers Day, when the public can walk across the lock walls. This year, the International Bridge Walk is June 29.
Canada Day is July 1 and celebrated in Canadian towns everywhere.
© Beth Gauper
The Sawtooth Mountains rise behind Grand Marais and its harbor on Minnesota's North Shore.
In Thunder Bay, events include Blues Festival July 5-7.
In Grand Marais, watch for the Wooden Boat Show, June 21-23; Arts Festival, July 13-14; and Fisherman’s Picnic, Aug. 1-4.
In Marquette, Blueberry Festival is July 26, and Art on the Rocks is July 27-28.
Near Nipigon, Ont., the Live From the Rock folk festival is Aug. 9-11.
In Grand Portage, the Rendezvous and Powwow is Aug. 9-11, and the surrounding area books up a year in advance.
Paradise, Mich., near the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum on Whitefish Point, celebrates Wild Blueberry Festival Aug. 16-18.
In Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park on the U.P., the Porcupine Mountains Music Festival is Aug. 23-25.
In Superior, Wis., the Lake Superior Dragon Boat Festival is Aug. 23-24.
Crossing borders: U.S. citizens 16 and over need a passport or passport card. For details and updates, check regulations on travel to Canada.
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.
© Torsten Muller
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.
© Beth Gauper
The Grand Sable Dunes, just west of Grand Marais, Mich., are part of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
Pukaskwa National Park (pronounced PUCK-a-saw), 807-229-0801. Campers shouldn't miss this large and beautiful park along Lake Superior.
Most people in cars bypass it because it's a 40-minute detour each way from the Trans-Canada Highway.
Lake Superior Provincial Park, 705-882-2026.
Wawa, 800-367-9292, Ext. 260.
Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., 705-949-7152.
Last updated on April 26, 2019