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.
On Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula, distance is both curse and blessing.
Jutting deep into Lake Superior, it's far from big cities for Detroit residents, Nashville and Washington, D.C., are closer than the Keweenaw (pronounced KEY-win-awe).
Along the shores of Lake Pepin, villages like to play a game called Tempt the Tourist.
The tourists think theyre going to go for a drive and see some scenery. But the villages give them so many places to indulge themselves, they end up mostly eating and shopping not that anyones complaining.
The highway around Lake Pepin is a gantlet of temptations bakeries, bistros, wine bars and gift shops. Some people never make it beyond Stockholm in Wisconsin or Red Wing in Minnesota, just an hour from the Twin Cities.
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.
Exploring the Minnesota landscape on a scenic byway, you'd expect to see some singular features.
But Waters of the Dancing Sky Scenic Byway turns up a whole new face.
This is a burly part of the state, a scratchy-wool, buffalo-plaid kind of place that might seem Bunyanesque in nature but actually was the stomping grounds of a real-life legend, the shorter but tougher voyageur.
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.
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.
In Wisconsin, people build whole trips around the roads less traveled.
Their destination? Nowhere. And on one of the state's lovely Rustic Roads, nowhere usually is enough.
Across the state, brown-and-yellow signs point to lightly traveled roads that preserve remnants of the past piebald llamas (Rustic Road 92, south of River Falls), an 1870 lighthouse (Rustic Road 38 in Door County), Amish farms (Rustic Road 56, south of Ontario).
Around the world, people know Minnesota for its waters source of the Mississippi, land of lakes.
But those are not the waters for which it's named. Those waters belong to a river whose cloudiness led the Dakota to call it "waters reflecting the skies" the Minnesota.
It was more than a mile across at the end of the last ice age, when it drained glacial Lake Agassiz, the largest lake that ever existed.
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.
Across the Upper Midwest, vineyards are being planted and wine trails formed.
Vineyards tend to be in very scenic areas, and wine trails allow buyers to meander along pretty country roads, stopping here and there to quaff a glass of wine or have a picnic.
Of all the states, Iowa has been most active in forming wine trails. And why not? There are a lot of farmers in Iowa.
It's a hot Saturday in Duluth, and it seems as if every tourist in town is on Canal Park.
But a few have found their way to a quieter spot, on Amity Creek above downtown.
Just off Skyline Parkway, some 10-year-olds are having a great time climbing rocks and splashing in a pool beside a waterfall, thanks to a mother who went to college in Duluth. She's brought her daughter's soccer team to play and cool off between tournament games.
The corner of Third Avenue and U.S. 2 in Grand Rapids doesnt exactly look like the edge of the wilderness.
The Blandin Co. paper mill is across the highway, its smokestacks sending plumes of white smoke into the air. Trucks rumble past, en route to North Dakota or Duluth.
But this corner is the beginning of the Edge of the Wilderness drive, Minnesotas first National Scenic Byway.
Fish boils, cherry pie, chic shops and a nonstop stream of tourists.
Yes, thats Door County, all right. But so is this:
Secluded beaches of fine white sand. Estuaries lined with herons. Hiking and bicycle trails winding through sun-dappled cedar forests.