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  • Lunch al fresco with a view of Grand Marais Harbor
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    Cook County: A Charming Harbor and an Alpine Resort

  • Riding ATVs through a forest trail in Grand Rapids
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    Grand Rapids: Picturesque Nature and Outdoor Adventure

  • Browsing the Little Falls Arts & Crafts Festival among the town's famed mural art
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    Little Falls: Small Town with Big History on the Mississippi River

An overlook at Grand Marais Harbor on the North Shore of Lake Superior
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Touring Minnesota’s Scenic and Charming Small Towns

By Idoia Gkikas

  • Route distance:
    827.00 km
  • Suggested Time:
    5 days

Experience these only-in-Minnesota destinations, brimming with character and outdoor beauty.

You don’t stumble upon these quaint cities and river towns by accident – with a bit of planning and patience, along a scenic path up the coast of Lake Superior and through the forest, you discover them. Here, alpine woods give way to towns with a welcoming spirit, historic attractions and an abundance of natural beauty. Take in the coastal landscape and mountain resorts of Cook County, explore Grand Rapids’ rugged Northwoods environment and go museum-hopping in historic Little Falls. This is a unique USA itinerary that will both refresh and excite you.

01
Lunch al fresco with a view of Grand Marais Harbor
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Cook County: A Charming Harbor and an Alpine Resort

Head north from Duluth International Airport along iconic Highway 61, the North Shore Scenic Byway. Enjoy the Lake Superior coastline and settle in Grand Marais Harbor, about two hours north of Duluth. This tiny town has big reputation, hosting both the Grand Marais Art Colony and the North House Folk School. Start with a leisurely hike from the Grand Marais Coast Guard Station to Artist’s Point, a rocky peninsula with inspiring views of Lake Superior, the historic Grand Marais Lighthouse and the Sawtooth Mountains. Make your way downtown to explore local shops, discover handcrafted arts, sample fudge and dine at a waterfront restaurant or brewpub with live music. Spend a peaceful weekend here in one of the charming bed and breakfast inns, or head down to Cook County’s southern gateway and the communities of Lutsen, Tofte and Schroeder.

Here, you’ll find outdoor adventure, small-town hospitality and endless opportunities for fun. Family-run Lutsen Mountains Ski and Summer Resort opened in the 1940s and is the largest ski resort in the Midwest. Ride the Summit Express Gondola to the top of Moose Mountain for dramatic views of the Sawtooth Mountains and Lake Superior. Summer visitors can take the lift up Eagle Mountain and test their daring by riding the Alpine Slide down. This luge packs a bigger thrill than any roller coaster as it whips you down the mountain for more than a kilometer. In winter, bundle up and hit the slopes. With more than 1,600 meters of vertical slope and 95 runs at varying degrees of difficulty, Lutsen offers a true mountain-ski experience. It’s just under three hours to your next destination, so take the night to unwind by the fire, listen to live music at Papa Charlie’s or enjoy a restorative walk in the alpine woods.

254 km
3 hours by car
02
Riding ATVs through a forest trail in Grand Rapids
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Grand Rapids: Picturesque Nature and Outdoor Adventure

The journey west will take you through parts of Chippewa National Forest, before resolving in charming Grand Rapids.  More than 1,000 lakes, 400,000 hectares of public forests and 3,000 kilometers of groomed trails signal your arrival to the Grand Rapids area. This is both a tranquil haven for lovers of nature, history, art and culture, and a place packed with abundant opportunities for outdoor recreation. Start your local explorations along Edge of the Wilderness Scenic Byway, a 76-kilometer path that begins in Grand Rapids. Stop at Edge of the Wilderness discovery site Birch Stand (mile marker 13.4) at Pug Hole Lake for both scenic viewing and fishing – anglers catch panfish, bass and walleye here. Once you’re ready to get on the water, head to outfitter Paddle Hoppers and rent a kayak or canoe for tooling around Wabana, Little Trout and Sugar lakes. Better yet, set aside a whole day in Grand Rapids and let Paddle Hoppers’ shuttle you to downtown Grand Rapids for a longer paddling trip on the iconic Mississippi River as it passes alongside scenic parks, historic sites and forests. Want to really take your adventure up a notch? Do as the locals do in spring (also known as “mud season”), and go for a thrilling ATV ride on the UPM Blandin ATV Trail. Clean up with a dip in the water at a lakeside resort, a welcome refresher before you hit the road in the morning, bound for Little Falls.

182 km
2.25 hours by car
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Browsing the Little Falls Arts & Crafts Festival among the town's famed mural art
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Little Falls: Small Town with Big History on the Mississippi River

From Grand Rapids, head south to this historic Mississippi River town, one of the oldest in the state. Little Falls is unmistakably quaint, abundant with leafy parks, antique homes and attractions that run the gamut from historical to whimsical. The river provides much to do here, from boating and fishing to biking and golf (the course at Little Falls Country Club is set right on the river). Spend a morning at Charles Lindbergh House and Museum, site of the aviator’s boyhood home, making sure to tour the house itself and walk the interpretive trail along the river. Local culture and history really comes across in the attractions here. Three other museums will vie for your attention, including the Minnesota Fishing Museum & Education Center with its 10,000 fishing-related artifacts. If you have time, take a 15-minute ride to Blanchard Dam, which stretches across the Mississippi River and is home to rare Staurolites, also called “fairy stones” for their unusual cross pattern. Another unique feature of Little Falls – and one you can easily see while shopping and dining downtown – is its mural art, including the three large murals that depict the area in the 1900s. Extend your walk around town to include a self-guided tour of the century-old homes that have been lovingly preserved here. When you’re fully relaxed after a night or two in small-town USA, Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport is two hours south.

Official Minnesota Travel Site

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