Fall for Minnesota

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I know I promised in my last post that I would start doing more stories about things to do in Iowa, but I had the opportunity last weekend to visit one of my favorite places in the whole world, and it just happens to be in Minnesota. So sue me.

It’s been two years since my husband, Dave, and I have traveled together for something other than my work or a family-related event. So when I saw on Facebook last Thursday that the Cascade Lodge had a last-minute weekend cancellation on one of its cabins, I nabbed it. Weekend cabins on the North Shore are practically impossible to book in the fall; when I used to travel up there to hike the Superior Hiking Trail every fall, I generally booked my cabin by early summer.

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I’ve been going to the North Shore regularly since the fall of 2000. I’ve been up there now about 20 times, mostly by myself. I used to go there to hike, but over the years my intentions are less about serious hiking and more about just being there – enjoying the drive, the food, the scenery, and hiking short, easy trails.

I know I’ve blogged about the North Shore before, but I honestly can’t get enough of it. Driving up there last Saturday just made me smile. It’s so beautiful and so, I don’t know, familiar. I’ve stayed in several places along Hwy. 61 (the road that hugs Lake Superior from Duluth to Canada), from Cove Point Lodge on the southern end to East Bay Suites in Grand Marais toward the northern end. None compares to Cascade Lodge, the place with which I’m borderline obsessed. It’s not fancy, but the cabins are spacious and they smell like wood smoke and I love them. On this trip we stayed in Log Cabin 11, a charming cabin with a fireplace and a front porch that stretched from one end of the cabin to the other.

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On our drive north, we stopped at Gooseberry Falls (above). This is a very popular state park for two reasons: It’s easily accessible, and it has waterfalls. Gooseberry is not my favorite place because it’s so popular – I prefer the remote, out-of-the-way areas that you have to really work to find (i.e., drive down gravel roads, find the tiny, unpaved lots, and hike a few miles). But Dave likes waterfalls, and I will admit that Gooseberry is pretty (especially the trees this time of year), so we spent about an hour there.

After that we drove straight through to Cascade Lodge, passing by the Split Rock Lighthouse scenic overlook (another popular spot) and the Caribou wayside where I normally stop to take a quick hike. But we’d gotten a late start, and it was already starting to get dark.

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After hauling our stuff into the Cabin 11 (above) and taking in the loveliness that is Cascade Lodge, we headed to Grand Marais http://grandmarais.com/ (about 9 miles north) for some Sven and Ole’s pizza. This pizza is one of the best reasons to go to the North Shore if you don’t like to hike. I always order the Vild Vun (Sven and Ole’s is Norwegian if you hadn’t noticed, and they have a lot of fun with the dialect), which is a pizza with wild rice, green pepper, mushrooms, and onions. It also has Canadian bacon on it, but I order it without.

IMG_9156This is an amazing pizza. I always try to eat upstairs in the Pickled Herring bar, which has a much better (and much more north-woodsy) atmosphere than the dining room downstairs. I usually manage to be there when some little league team is eating there or something. Last Saturday there was no baseball team, but I’ve never seen the place so crowded. It was nuts. Luckily we found a table upstairs and ignored the frenzy. Sven and Ole’s has a web presence (“velcome to the vebsite”), but unfortunately no online menu at the moment. (Not that you need one – just order the wild rice pizza. It’s the best.)

After a couple of beers and that amazing pizza, Dave and I went back to the cabin and attempted to build a fire. We spent the rest of the night siting on the couch, reading. I cannot think of a better way to spend a chilly fall night.

The next morning we ate breakfast at the restaurant at Cascade Lodge. This is another reason to love this area. Breakfast here is fast, cheap, and delicious. I ordered two eggs with hash browns, toast, and coffee.

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IMG_9167That was the perfect fuel for a morning of light hiking. We hiked the Mt. Oberg loop, a very accessible hike on the Superior Hiking Trail that offers spectacular views of Lake Superior and inland lakes and forests (above). (To access the parking lot, take Onion River Road at the 87.5 mile post.) We were unfortunately about a week to 10 days too late to see the peak color (the first weekend in October is generally the best) but it was still beautiful. Afterwards we stopped at a coffee shop in Lutsen for a latte, which we consumed on the patio. The weather was spectacular.

IMG_9249Our next short hike was at Cascade River State Park (the entrance is around mile marker 101, just north of the lodge). I’ve hiked this trail from the road before, and it’s a killer. Today we took the easy way and drove up into the park and took a short trail to see the upper falls (right). The Cascades are spectacular, and there are a number of great viewpoints and ways to see them depending on your fitness level.

By now we were hungry again, so we stopped in downtown Grand Marais at the Pie Place Café. I was hoping for soup but ended up ordering a maple/wild rice/cranberry salad concoction that was absolutely delicious. And I still had room for a piece of maple pecan pie with ice cream.

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With that in my belly, it was time for more hiking. We drove a short distance north of Grand Marais to Cook Co. Rd. 58 (mile post 114-ish) for a glorious hike through a birch forest (above) that eventually gave way to a pine forest (below). We stopped when the trail got too steep and headed back to the car. We drove north a few more miles and hiked along the Kadunce River, but it was disappointing and we were ready for a beer.

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We headed back to Grand Marais to my other favorite restaurant, the Gunflint Tavern.

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The Gunflint Tavern is an amazing place, with craft beers on tap, an eclectic menu that includes plenty of vegetarian options, and live music. The restaurant (open all year) recently expanded, so the bar and dining room are both larger, plus a second bar called The Raven adds even more tables and drink options.

I ordered the vegetarian black bean chili; Dave got a stacked enchilada, and we both drank a couple of Alaskan Ambers. It was way too early to call it a night, but we were tired so we went back to the cabin and built another fire. Ahhhhh.

The next morning we had one last meal on the north shore – breakfast again at the Cascade Lodge restaurant. This time we ordered pancakes. Mine had blueberries. So delicious!

Here are few parting shots of the North Shore:

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