Chase Waterfalls on the North Shore
Winter's snowpack promises high-water spring.
Inquiring about someone’s favorite waterfall is like asking for a fishing spot or pie crust recipe—while the answer may not be a lie, nor will it be the truth. Fortunately for anyone with a hankering for waterfall chasing, innumerable rivers, creeks, and seeps draining the Superior Highlands are spread along 150 miles of the North Shore, from the big-draw falls along the Gooseberry River to nameless cataracts that no trails reach. Ever-changing circumstances bring to mind the ancient Greek adage about the impossibility of stepping into the same river twice.
This past winter’s snowpack promises another high-water spring. The wild card is, as always, when—and how quickly—will heat uncork the deluge? Two Mays ago, North Shore waterfalls had already shriveled to summertime levels. Last April, however, the shore was stuck in winter. I went waterfall peeping in the shadowy Cascade River canyon and sat atop a snow-buried bench, staring, a little terrified, at a falls that thundered into an ice tunnel. Soon after, rains began, and the Cascade and other North Shore rivers surged to even greater heights.
The hike along the Split Rock River at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park is a stellar route in any season. The river spreads its descent over several idyllic slides on its journey from the highlands. Last summer I approached the river from Lake Superior by paddleboard, eventually ran aground, then continued on foot along the stony riverbank. Up a ways gurgled the long cascade where an open ice cauldron had remained bubbling all through the preceding winter. Higher still was the pool in which, when I was a teenager, my unstaked tent had sunk, complete with sleeping bag, after blowing from an upriver campsite. In a grotto of red rhyolite cliffs, I listened, as I had many times before, to the murmuring of a falls echoing in chorus. I’d never tire of this spot because Heraclitus had it right, both the river and its watcher are different every time.
Ask an Expert
Duluth outdoors writer Sam Cook has been wandering the shore for decades and recommends Minnesota's tallest falls up near the Canadian border: "I don't think you can beat the High Falls on the Pigeon River in spring runoff. Big volume, and the way some of the side channels cascade on ledges is just beautiful. Grand Portage State Park has made it easy—and safe—for falls watchers to reach an excellent vantage point to watch the show."
Falls to Explore, South to North
- The cascades lacing western Duluth are numerous, precipitous, and threaded with hiking trails. (Trails within city limits are closed during spring mud season.)
- The locally maintained Knife River Trail south of Two Harbors has a new loop along one of the shore’s larger rivers. The trailhead is on East Shilhon Road north of State Highway 61.
- You won’t find solitude at Gooseberry State Park’s trio of iconic falls sandwiching Highway 61, but you can lose the crowds by walking upriver a mile to Fifth Falls.
- The 100-foot High Falls on the Baptism River in Tettegouche State Park is the state’s second highest, reached via a 1½-mile hike from the visitor center.
- George Crosby Manitou is a lightly developed state park and offers miles of hiking along the tumultuous Manitou River.
- Three-quarters of a mile walk from the Caribou Falls State Wayside, the namesake falls spills silkily into a broad pool.
- The imposing timber arch bridge on a new section of the paved Gitchi-Gami State Trail south of Grand Marais passes the Fall River as it plunges down to Lake Superior.
- In Judge C.R. Magney State Park, the Upper Falls on the Brule River is preceded by the Devil’s Kettle, where some of the river’s flow disappears into subterranean passages.