“I want to see some frozen waterfalls. Would you want to go up to the North Shore for some winter hiking?” I asked Andy one cold, dark winter night.
To his great credit, he did not laugh in my face; he considered my question seriously. As someone who has never loved winter, Andy surprised me with his enthusiastic response.
“Sure!” he said, and the planning began.
Last winter, our first winter back in Minnesota, we’d decided to try to embrace the seasons we both dislike. For me, that’s spring/summer. And for Andy, that’s winter. With such mild weather this winter (no polar vortex), it has been fun to embrace winter in the Great White North.
We had taken a weekend off in February to begin our “Year of Travel,” as we are calling 2020. We hadn’t decided where to go. Since it was a short weekend, we weren’t sure we wanted to splurge on plane tickets, but we didn’t know what we wanted to do in our frozen state of Minnesota. We didn’t want to rent a place until we knew what the weather was supposed to be like.
The forecast looked good for our weekend off, February 21-23. I found the perfect cabin — a little more expensive than I’d normally like to spend, but it allowed us to bring Teddy and Piper.
We hit the road early Friday morning, our new Subaru packed and ready to go.
The first leg of the journey is never an exciting one. Driving up Highway 35 to Duluth is pretty flat and boring, but we entertained ourselves the way we always do on road trips, with good tunes and some wildlife scouting.
About an hour from home, we realized we’d forgotten our camera. We got as close to turning around to go back for it as taking an exit ramp before telling ourselves it would be ok. Disappointed and, frankly, a bit angry with ourselves, we continued on our way.
The scenery changes as soon as you hit Duluth, and this is where our fun began.
We were staying a little further north than we normally do, so we decided to do some hiking along the way.
We hit up Temperance River State Park, sliding our way down to the lake side for a view of Superior and to visit the park bathrooms. I was fighting the end of a wicked cold, something that had kept me in bed only days before. But the cold clean air of the North Shore was revitalizing in a whole new way.
We crossed the highway to hike our favorite portion of the trail and to visit a spot that has a lot of meaning to me.
It was incredible to see what a difference the snow makes! If we hadn’t known what it was like in summer, we would have no idea where we were going. Trails that are so familiar I could walk them with my eyes closed now looked nothing like they do in warm weather.
It felt like a completely different place!
We loved watching the water move beneath the ice.
After Temperance, we visited Cascade River State Park, another favorite.
Our original intentions were to climb to the top of Lookout Mountain Trail, but the trails were a bit more slick than we had bargained for and the path to the top was not well distinguished. We went until we started growing tired and daylight began to fade, then turned around for the car.
We weren’t too far from our cabin, which was located just outside of Grand Marais. We normally stay in Tofte or Lutsen, so it was fun to explore the town of Grand Marais more than we normally do.
We arrived at the cabin around sunset. The pictures had made it look quite nice, and we definitely weren’t disappointed. We got settled quickly.
We opted for the bedroom upstairs, which was interesting for the dogs but very cozy overall.
After sniffing every nook and cranny, Teddy made himself at home.
We built a fire to warm the place up and then took the dogs for a snowshoe around the property.
After going out in Grand Marais for a tasty dinner and drinks, Andy and I came back to our cozy cabin. Andy stopped abruptly in the driveway and said, “look.”
He was looking up at the night sky. And it was astounding. There were so many stars it was hard to decide where to look first. The crisp air made the clarity outstanding. We plopped down in a snowbank to take it all in, but there are no words that can do justice to the blanket of dark blue, dotted with twinkling lights against the dark skyline of pine trees. We had fun pointing out recognizable constellations and listening to coyotes yipping in the woods nearby.
This was the life.
The next morning, we had a quick breakfast and coffee by the fire before hitting the road for the day’s adventure.
We had decided to head to the northern border of Minnesota, about an hour away.
My frozen waterfall goal had been to see High Falls on the Pigeon River, Minnesota’s tallest waterfall at 120-feet high. It’s located in Grand Portage State Park, on the border of Minnesota and Ontario, Canada.
Andy and I had never been this far north together before. We could see the border crossing into Canada as we turned into the parking lot.
The hike wasn’t far, and it was certainly worth the drive to see it.
Photographs cannot do it justice. As you stand across from the falls, you notice ice formations reminiscent of something out of a fairy tale. The water thunders down into the pool below, the mist creating a small rainbow. It was simply magical.
After enjoying the falls for a while, we decided to hit the road again. But not before stopping to see our Minnesota sign!
We’d decided to hit up Devil’s Kettle Falls on our way back to Grand Marais. There’s a mystery behind Devil’s Kettle — the waterfall splits and part of it goes into a hole and disappears.
Well, it turns out that after years of not knowing where the water was going, the DNR determined it wasn’t going anywhere special except back into the river.
But that’s no fun! The mystery may have been solved, but we still wanted to see it for ourselves.
The journey there was…a bit treacherous. I had traction devices on my boots but it was still a challenge. The snow was thigh-deep in some places. If you stepped off the trail, you found that out pretty quickly. Not to mention the almost 200 steps, dangerously covered in snow and ice.
We took it slow and eventually made it to the kettle.
It was hard to see much with the snow and ice, but the day was beautiful and we just enjoyed being outside. It was so nice, in fact, that I only wore my jacket one time during the entire trip up north!
We headed away from the kettle to check out the lower part of the falls.
Then it was time to make our way back to the car. The hike is a little more than 2 miles roundtrip, nothing major, but the snow made for a slow but interesting trek. And we found ways to make it even more entertaining.
Our journey did include something almost more exciting than the falls, at least for me. These photos do not show size well at all, and I am the last person to cry wolf. However, these tracks by the river’s edge were easily three times the size of Piper’s paw prints, much larger than any coyote tracks we’ve ever seen.
Had I not forgotten the camera, I would have better photos. I’m hesitant to say wolf, but I honestly do not know what else they can be. The size just doesn’t add up to anything else. If they’re wolf tracks, this will be the first set I’ve ever seen in Minnesota!
If you don’t know by now, wolves are very special to me (just see my volunteer history at California Wolf Center; the wolf handling course I took; and my excitement of seeing wild wolves in Yellowstone — dream come true). I was recently selected to be on the advisory committee for developing the new wolf management plan with the Minnesota DNR. Wolves are an important part of my life and interests.
Anyway, cool. If those are wolf tracks like I suspect they are, that’s pretty exciting!
We made it back to the car and back to our cabin for some much-needed rest.
The dogs were pooped. We were pooped. Our legs were worn out.
But that didn’t keep us from going for an evening snowshoe! We decided to leave the dogs at the cabin this time, remembering all the coyote tracks, fresh scat, and yipping from the night before.
It was a beautiful evening. The woods were perfect. The weather was perfect. Everything was perfect.
Until Andy fell into a creek.
The photo doesn’t show the scale of the hill well, but it was fairly steep with deep snow. And I was entertained watching him climb his way out! (It was probably more difficult only because we were both laughing so hard.)
After another nice dinner out, we went to bed exhausted after a day of fun.
The next morning, my legs hardly wanted to move. It could barely bend my knees, my ankle flexor hurt. But I was thrilled. The feeling of nice, sore muscles after a day of hiking has eluded me for too long.
Our trip was already coming to an end. It was time to check out of our cabin. We packed up and headed out for a big breakfast. We didn’t want to say goodbye but we were thrilled to have found our new winter getaway.
We’d already decided to do some hiking on our way home. First, we stopped by the Lutsen Resort to walk along their shoreline.
Piper couldn’t get enough of the snow.
Next, we decided to stop at Illgen Falls, a place we’d never been before. The description of how to find it was pretty slim: a gravel turnout on the lefthand side of Highway 1, about a mile from Highway 61. No signage, except stating it was State Park land.
We found it, even with the snow. But at first, we couldn’t figure out where the trail was. We finally found a couple of prints heading over a huge mound of snow. Since it’s not an official trail or site, the trails are not groomed and are far less traveled.
But we made our way the short distance to the falls. For being such a short climb down, it was surprisingly difficult. Andy had opted to use snowshoes — the right choice. I just went in my boots, and I learned firsthand what it was like for one leg to sink into the snow up to my waist and have to pull myself out. In fact, I experienced this more than once.
But it was worth it once we saw the falls.
It was quiet, secluded, beautiful. Nobody else was around and we were just basking in the sunlight, watching the frozen falls cascade into the pool below. We were so close to it, we could feel the mist from the falls.
Eventually, we tore ourselves away to make our way precariously back to the car. A few more stops on our way home kept us entertained. We finally made it to Duluth after hours of site seeing (including looking at a chunk of land outside of Duluth with potential for a future home or cabin).
We celebrated our day of hiking and arrival with a beer from Bent Paddle.
After grabbing some food, we hit the road for home. Teddy and Piper immediately passed out in the backseat.
We made it home safely after dark. Though we’d only been gone two nights, our adventures made it seem like much longer. I’ll put this trip in one of my top favorites. The weather was beautiful. Seeing the frozen waterfalls was amazing. Visiting Lake Superior in winter was absolutely worth it. Our cabin was homey and simply lovely. We got to spend quality time with each other and our dogs.
I hope we make this some kind of tradition, because I certainly hope this isn’t our last trip to the North Shore in winter. It was wonderful.
We saw what we believe are wolf tracks, and our animal scouting included 4 bald eagles and 46 deer.
Until next time — Adventure is out there!