Lake Superior State Water Trail: St. Louis River (Duluth) to Two Harbors

Lake Superior

Water Characteristics

The Lake Superior Water Trail offers paddlers a chance to explore the largest freshwater lake on earth. Views of sheer cliff faces, sea caves, and some of the oldest rock formations on earth will reward those who venture onto this great lake.

Lake Superior’s rocky shoreline is beautiful, but often treacherous. Canoes are not recommended. Sea kayaks are better suited to these unprotected and often windswept waters. Be sure to read safety information specific to Lake Superior including the Lake Superior Water Trail Safety Guide, Safety Information webpage, and Lake Superior Boating Guide, and know where small craft harbors and protected areas are located. More specific information about this section of the Water Trail can be found on the Lake Superior Water Trail Map. 

Lake Superior

Lake Superior

Landscape

This section of the Water Trail varies from broad river-estuary environments to the busy Lake Superior harbors of Duluth and Superior. Along this route is an unusual array of high quality coastal wetlands, old growth forests, diverse fisheries, streams, baymouth bars, sand dunes, and critical mid-continent bird flyaway and nesting grounds. This area is protected from the open waters of Lake Superior by the world’s longest freshwater sandbar. At the end of this sandbar is “Mile Zero,” the official start of the Lake Superior Water Trail. This area is the western-most corner of Lake Superior and the Water Trail begins its northeasterly course at the famous lift bridge in Canal Park then continues past low cliffs, stately mansions, cobblestone beaches, gentle headlands, and small resort communities as you travel toward Two Harbors. Southwest of mile zero is the St. Louis River State Water Trail. A key water access point in this segment is at the McQuade Small Craft Harbor.

Fish and Wildlife

Lake trout, the most prevalent game fish, retreat to very deep water during the summer, when most paddlers are on the lake. Your best chance for success comes in spring and fall, when lake trout occupy shallower water near shore. Troll a spoon or deep-diving plug as you paddle. You might also hook steelhead (migratory rainbow trout), which ascend tributary streams in the spring, or pink and chinook salmon, which appears at stream mouths in fall. A few brown trout inhabit the lake and may lurk at river mouths throughout the year. You may catch trout (usually small rainbows with a few brook trout by fly) by fly-fishing the lower reaches of small tributaries to the lake. The trails in the parks are carved through a forest of fir, cedar, spruce, and northern hardwoods home to a variety of animals such as moose, deer, bear, and wolves.

Cultural Information

Prior to European settlement, the prevalent Native American nations in this region were the Dakota and Ojibwa. French fur trading posts were established from Duluth to Grand Portage in the mid-1600s after the depletion of the beaver population in the Saint Lawrence River. Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut – Duluth’s namesake – explored the Saint Louis River in 1679. Permanent settlement in the region did not occur until the 1850s when first iron ore mining then timber harvesting brought inhabitants to the area. By 1870, Duluth was the fastest growing city in the country but the stock market crash of 1873 nearly wiped it from the map. Duluth remained a strong industrial port in the first half of the 20th Century. In part because of a decline in the production of high grade iron ore, Duluth transitioned from a natural resource extraction focused economy to a tourism focused economy in the latter half of the 20th century. Today it has become Northern Minnesota’s center for shopping, banking, and medical care, as well as a tourist destination.

Nearby Recreational Opportunities

Paddling is only one of many recreational activities that can be found along the North Shore of Lake Superior. In the downtown Duluth area, take a stroll along the lake walk trail, sit and watch a ship move under the historic aerial lift bridge, or smell one of 3,000 rose bushes at Leif Erickson Park and Rose Garden.

Further north is Lester Park, where there are hikes up to Lester Falls in summer and cross country skiing and snowshoeing in winter. When the smelt run in spring, watch fisherman try and catch them with nets at the mouth of Lester River. Be sure to check out the accessible shoreline park at Brighton Beach, just east of the Lester River Bridge. Walk or bike the scenic Highway 61 (the original road ‘up the shore’).

Take a drive along Skyline Parkway in Duluth for some amazing views of Lake Superior and to visit the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory. Birdwatchers can view thousands of birds fly over the observatory, including Bald and Golden Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, Broad-winged Hawks, and Northern Goshawks.

The C. J. Ramstad/North Shore State Trail is a 146 mile natural surface trail from Duluth to Grand Marais. Primarily used by snowmobiles in winter, it traverses St. Louis, Lake and Cook counties in northeastern Minnesota. The trail winds its way through the forests and across many river and trout streams along the outer bluffs that overlook Lake Superior, providing access to some of the most rugged and beautiful scenery in Minnesota.

The Superior Hiking Trail, also in the area, is a 296 miles footpath that begins in Duluth and follows the ridgeline above Lake Superior up to the Canadian Border. The trail is ideal for both day hikes and backpacking. For detailed information and trail segment maps check the SHTA website.