11 Jul Adventures in Cook County, Minnesota
One of our favorite areas of Minnesota, the state we call home, is Cook County. With sweeping views of giant Lake Superior, rocky coastlines, thick forests, an abundance of waterfalls, the Sawtooth Mountains (home to the highest elevation in the state), endless outdoor adventures, and one adorable town after another, this area has it all. We’ve been to this area more times than we can count, but somehow, our list of sights we want to see still keeps getting longer. In fact, on our recent weeklong trip to Cook County for a content project with the tourism board, almost every activity on our itinerary was new to us. When a region has that much to offer, you know it’s a place you will want to keep going back to! Thankfully, we don’t have too far of a drive to get there, as the adventures in Cook County are some of our favorites.
On this latest trip, we started out with a stay at a cabin just off the Gunflint Trail Scenic Byway. After a 6-hour drive, we had dinner at the Trail Center Lodge which was originally built as a logging camp in 1938. The restaurant is located on the shores of Poplar Lake and it is also home to a gift and grocery shop, gas station, information center, a few cabins and a small motel. We loved our burgers, the cozy feel of the restaurant, and the mish-mash of decorations like license plates, signs, snowshoes, and knickknacks galore.
Then, it was time to head to our cabin for the night. We were staying at Loon Lake Lodge—our cabin, Cabin #5, was situated right on the shores of Loon Lake. All the cabins at the lodge, except for one, are almost 100 years old! The character inside was fantastic and the lake views from our bed made it feel like we were practically sleeping on the lake! Cell phone service along the Gunflint Trail is almost non-existent, but Loon Lake Lodge does have Wi-Fi if you do feel the need to be connected. When staying at the cabins, you have access to kayaks, canoes, paddle boards, hiking trails, and a delicious onsite restaurant that serves breakfast and dinner. The owners, Derek and Andrea, make you feel right at home, and throughout our night at the cabin, we kept thinking of friends and family that we want to bring up to these cabins for a long weekend sometime soon.
Before heading out on our first adventure of the trip, we had breakfast at the lodge. Breakfast is all you can eat, but still made to order. We loved this concept—it gives you the ability to try a few different items but keeps the food waste much lower than a buffet. Plus, it was fresh and delicious! Between the two of us, we tried the eggs, toast, bacon, hash browns and Swedish pancakes with lingonberries on the side. Everything was delicious, but I have to say the pancakes were my favorite!
We then made our way farther north to the Tuscarora Lodge & Outfitters. Our objective for the morning was to get out on a canoe to experience the magic of the Gunflint Trail and Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Andy and Ada set us up with a canoe, life jackets, a map, and dry bags, and they helped us decided on a route that would give us a good feel for the area. With 2.5 hours to spare, we weren’t exactly flush with time, but we decided the best course of action would be to paddle and portage our way to Ham Lake This route gave us a great introduction to what a Boundary Waters trip would be like—it’s a trip we’ve been wanting to do forever but haven’t been able to schedule in as of yet. After this experience, we are definitely making it a priority for next summer. We loved paddling on different lakes and portaging (carrying) the canoe along the trails between them. We didn’t actually make it into the limits of the BWCA, but we were right on the edge and it was a wonderful day nonetheless.
After being overjoyed from our morning of canoeing, we then drove over to Gunflint Lodge for lunch and zip lining! There weren’t any available tables on the outdoor patio when we arrived, so we grabbed a window-side table with views that overlooked the lake instead. My walleye sandwich and Micah’s burger were both delicious and we enjoyed the peaceful setting of the restaurant.
It was nice to have time to relax because the next adventure of the day was zip lining right next door at the Towering Pines Canopy Tour. The adventure consists of eight zip lines that run through the boreal forest canopy. One of the platforms offers views straight into Canada on the other side of Gunflint Lake, and the tiny platforms will give anyone with a fear of heights quite the thrill. Zip lining is always a rush, and the scenery of the Gunflint Trail made this one of our favorite zip line rides that we have been on!
We were then spending the next couple of nights in Grand Marais, so heading to town and checking into our hotel was next on the agenda. We’ve stayed at the Best Western Plus Superior Inn before, but it’s been remodeled since our last visit. We loved the gorgeous new lobby, and our room was comfy as usual. Our room had a balcony overlooking Lake Superior and we were within easy walking distance from the main stretch of shops in Grand Marais.
Once we were settled into our hotel, we walked downtown to Fireweed Bike Co-op to pick up a couple of electric bikes. Grand Marais is filled with creative individuals and artistic sights; it’s one of our favorite aspects about this tiny town on the shores of Lake Superior. With our e-bikes in tow, we zoomed around to explore some of the public art throughout town. We stopped by several murals, sculptors, and more. It was fun to take a moment to really absorb one of the reasons this town is so special. Plus, the e-bikes were a blast! We had so much fun flying around town—it’s an entirely different experience to regular old biking!
We didn’t exactly work up an appetite on our electronic bikes, but after a long day of adventure, we were excited to check out dinner at Wunderbar Eatery & Glampground. This spot used to be a supper club, but now it’s an adorable and quirky restaurant and bar. They serve creative cocktails and delicious food, and we enjoyed relaxing on the patio to finish up our evening.
It’s not a visit to Grand Marais if you don’t stop for breakfast at the World’s Best Donuts. The iconic donut shop serves big cups of coffee and a variety of tasty donuts. We ordered banana cream bismarks and cozied up in a booth to chat about our plans for the day.
The fog was fairly thick that morning, but thankfully, the rain held off. So, after breakfast, we wandered over to Artists’ Point for a quick walk and to get an early morning dose of nature. Artists’ Point is located right by the lighthouse and the area got its name because it’s a popular spot for artists to bring their easels and paint. The jagged rocky shoreline makes for a beautiful and convenient spot for a short hike within the city limits.
The rest of our morning was spent hopping around several galleries, artist studios and boutiques throughout town. We visited Sivertson Gallery, Big Lake, Joy & Co, Upstate, Yellow Bird Fine Arts, Betsy Bowen Studio, Grand Marais Art Colony, and North House Folk School. The giant dose of art and creativity we observed was fantastic and we loved every minute of it.
For lunch, we made our way about 20 minutes north to Naniboujou Lodge and Restaurant. I’d heard bits and pieces about this spot from Micah (he’s been in the past), but wow, I was not expecting just how cool and funky this place would be! The lodge was built in the 1920’s, and it started out as a super exclusive club. Babe Ruth was even one of the original members. But, when the great depression hit, the club didn’t survive, and it was eventually purchased and turned into a hotel. The inside of the dining room is intense—when you walk inside, the walls and ceilings are painted with a strikingly bold design and the stone fireplace stands out as another beautiful focal point. These features have remained original and untouched since the property was built in the 20’s, so it was fascinating to see how well it has held up. Our lunch was delicious—I had the hikers lunch which consisted of a cup of chicken wild rice soup (the daily special) and half of the the Naniboujou Club Sandwich which was served on wild rice bread. Micah had the Dempsey Bleu sandwich, which consisted of a chicken breast, black forest ham, and swiss cheese, and it was served with some of the best chips we’ve ever tried!
A visit to Judge CR Magney State Park was in order next. The entrance is located right across the street from Naniboujou Lodge and hiking the trail to Devil’s Kettle is the perfect post lunch activity. The trail is just around 2 miles roundtrip, but the 200+ stairs you have to descend and then climb again on your way back make it quite the workout. Devil’s Kettle is a waterfall that has been puzzling people for generations. Right before the waterfall, the river forks and one side continues as a normal waterfall, while the other side drops into a deep pot hole with seemingly no outlet. Until this past year, no one has been able to figure out where this mystery waterfall leads—over the years, people have tried to track the water a variety of ways to no avail. Researches now believe the mystery falls reconnect with the river a short way downstream, but the mystery still brings hikers to the beautiful falls regardless!
After we made it back to our hotel and cleaned up, we walked over to the Crooked Spoon for dinner. When we arrived, the wait was around 45 minutes, so the hostess suggested we pop in to the upstairs bar to wait for our table. We thought it sounded like a great idea, and with views overlooking the lake, a couple of beers and a game of cards, our wait flew by! It was a fun precursor to a delicious dinner of steak and potatoes for Micah, and chicken and rice for me.
Sydney’s Frozen Custard is also a must try spot when visiting Grand Marais. They serve fantastic custard treats and a small menu for lunch and dinner, too. We were just there for dessert, though, and Micah and I both ended up ordering a Sydnami, which is ice cream blended up with your choice of filling, like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups or Oreos.
Our last full day in Cook County came way too soon, and before we knew it, we were arriving at North House Folk School for one of our final adventures: sailing on Lake Superior. We spent the morning out on the waters with a fantastic crew of individuals, and it was a blast. Our 50-foot schooner, Hjørdis, was named after the mythical Norse goddess of war. Micah tried his hand at steering the boat, we joined in on a rousing round of sea shanties and sailors’ songs, and we enjoyed the views on a very beautiful and calm morning.
Once we were off the water, we drove down south to the tiny town of Lutsen where we would be spending our last night. We arrived and picked up our wrist bands for a day of riding the gondola and alpine slide. First up, we made our way to the gondola for sweeping views over Lutsen Mountains. We spotted some of our favorite ski runs, had views of the rivers and Lake Superior, and also kept an eye out for wildlife.
After disembarking the gondola, we walked over to the Mystery Overlook for spectacular views of the Superior National Forest below.
Since the views from the chalet at the top of the mountain are so spectacular, we decided to grab lunch at the Summit Chalet as the patio provides sweeping views of Lake Superior. The menu consists of soups, salads, burgers, sandwiches, and more. To reach the Summit Chalet you need to either ride the gondola or hike a four-mile one-way trail.
We wanted to hike back down from the chalet instead of taking the gondola, but unfortunately, time wasn’t on our side. At least the views on the way back down the gondola are fantastic, too! Our next stop was the alpine slide for some fun flying down the hill. We have always enjoyed the slides, so we were excited to hop on the chairlift and carry our sleds to the starting point. The slides twist, turn and dip all the way to the base. We went down a few times in total—it’s one of those activities where it is so much fun you just can’t stop smiling the entire ride.
Next up was a visit to the brand new holes at Superior National Golf Course. Neither Micah nor I are golfers (I can barely hit the ball!), so instead of playing a round, we spent an hour or so riding around in golf carts to see the course, while stopping to take photos along the way. The golf course was absolutely beautiful—we loved how you could see views of Lutsen Mountains, Lake Superior, and rushing rivers. The scenery was simply stunning. My dad and brother are both golfers and I couldn’t stop thinking about how they would love to play a round here.
Our last stop of the day was the North Shore Winery. I had no idea there was a winery in Cook County, but I’m so glad we were able to check it out. Chuck, one of the owners, gave us a tour of the facility, then we sat down at the bar for a tasting. They make both wine and cider on site, and everything we tried was fantastic! Plus, to go along with the tasting, we had local Minnesota cheeses and meat from our neighbors across the border, Wisconsin. I couldn’t think of a better way to close out our visit to Cook County.
After the winery, we checked into our lodging at Eagle Ridge Resort. This resort is one of our favorite places to stay when we go skiing at Lutsen Mountains in the winter, and we loved that we were able to check out one of the newly renovated rooms. Our room had a king bed, fireplace, steam shower, and a balcony that overlooked the mountains. We also made a stop down at the new pool and hot tub—the views from the deck there were fantastic, as well! It felt like everywhere we went throughout the week was filled with gorgeous views overlooking the lush landscapes of Cook County, and every view seemed to be even better than the last.
Before heading home the next morning, we stopped for breakfast at Lockport Marketplace where we had one of the thickest, fluffiest pancakes and delicious eggs and bacon.
After a quick stop at the adorable Fika Coffee for some road trip fuel, it was time to head home. We had such a wonderful time exploring even more adventures in Cook County.
As always, we can’t wait to return to one of our favorite corners of Minnesota again soon!
We visited Cook County, as part of a paid content creation project. Special thanks to Visit Cook County and their partners for hosting us on our adventures. As always, all opinions are our own.