Lake Superior State Water Trail

Lake Superior Water Trail

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Lake Superior has the largest surface area of any freshwater lake on our planet, containing 10% of all the fresh water on earth. The lake's 32,000 square mile surface area stretches across the border between Canada and the U.S. Two countries, three states, one province, and many First Nations surround Superior's magnificent shoreline.

The Minnesota portion of the Lake Superior State Water Trail extends from the St. Louis Bay in Duluth to the Pigeon River on the Canadian Border, a distance of approximately 150 miles.

Local contact

Kettle River location mapCook, Lake and St. Louis counties
Contact Parks and Trails northeast regional office: 218-328-8980

Water trail segments and maps

Segment 1 - St. Louis River to Two Harbors

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About this segment

The St. Louis River to Two Harbors section of the water trail offers paddlers the opportunity to explore undeveloped backwaters, a busy industrial port, and small resort communities. You will see 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 State Water Trail and the western-most corner of Lake Superior.

The water trail begins its northeasterly course at the famous lift bridge in Canal Park, and 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.

Nearby recreational opportunities

  • Downtown Duluth: Take a stroll along the Lakewalk; watch the aerial lift bridge go up and down; smell one of 3,000 rose bushes at Leif Erickson Park and Rose Garden; see how many countries are represented by the ships in the harbor.
  • Up the hill in Duluth: Drive the Skyline Parkway for some amazing views of Lake Superior and to visit the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, where birdwatchers can view birds including Bald and Golden Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, Broad-winged Hawks, and Northern Goshawks.
  • Further north, in Lester Park: Hike up to Lester Falls in summer; try cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in winter; watch fishermen net smelt at the mouth of the Lester River in spring. Check out the accessible shoreline at Brighton Beach Park, just east of the Lester River Bridge.
Segment 2 - Two Harbors to Caribou River

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About this segment

The Two Harbors to Caribou River portion of the water trail covers approximately 40 miles of Lake Superior's shoreline in Lake County and is one of the more scenic sections of the North Shore. You will see spectacular high cliffs along the shoreline and other landmarks, including Split Rock Lighthouse, Palisade Head, Shovel Point, sea caves and Manitou Falls.

Shoreline and cliff-top vegetation includes aspen, birch, white cedar, and red and white pine.

Nearby recreational opportunities

Around Two Harbors: For a shorter paddle, launch from harbor to harbor (Burlington Beach and Agate Bay) to view working ore docks, a historic lighthouse, the Corps of Engineers breakwall, and city parks and trails.

Segment 3 - Caribou River to Grand Marais

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About this segment

The Pigeon River to Grand Marais stretch of the water trail covers approximately 40 miles of Lake Superior's shoreline in western Cook County. Observant paddlers will see many interesting geological formations embedded in the low basaltic shoreline outcroppings, views of small villages from a largely bygone commercial fishing era, broad vistas of the remnant peaks of the Sawtooth Range, and a waterfall at the mouth of the Fall River. You will also see forested outcrops, sheer cliffs and small caves.

Shoreline and cliff-top vegetation includes aspen, birch, white cedar, and red and white pine.

Nearby recreational opportunities

Around Grand Marais: The town offers excellent paddling and camping, with numerous places to launch watercraft and picturesque rock outcroppings and rugged shoreline to explore. The the harbor is protected by a Corps of Engineers breakwall and navigation lights.

Segment 4 - Grand Marais to Pigeon River

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About this segment

The Grand Marais to Pigeon River stretch of the water trail covers approximately 42 miles of Lake Superior's shoreline in eastern Cook County. This section contains some of the most picturesque cobble and sand beaches along the entire North Shore, as well as many interesting geological formations embedded in the low basaltic shoreline outcroppings.

Nearby recreational opportunities

Grand Portage Indian Reservation: Roughly half of this segment falls within the reservation and has limited public access points. Located within the reservation are the Susie Islands and views of high inland vistas. Much of the reservation land is in an excellent state of preservation in a semi-wilderness setting. Please be mindful of Tribal land-use and shoreline regulations while enjoying the Grand Portage and Tribal areas.

Water characteristics

The Lake Superior State 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, and know where small craft harbors and protected areas are located. Paddlers of Lake Superior need to be prepared mentally and physically to deal with adverse weather conditions and possess the paddling skills necessary to assure their own safety and that of others.

The weather can and does change suddenly on Lake Superior, and even skippers of ocean-going freighters have learned to respect Lake Superior storms. This lake is no place for an inexperienced or unprepared boater, even in moderate weather. Be sure to read safety information specific to Lake Superior, and know where small craft harbors and protected areas are located

Hypothermia is the lowering of the body's core temperature, and it is an ever-present danger on Lake Superior. A drop to your core temperature of more than 20 degrees F can kill you. Except for shallow bays and beaches, the lake's water temperature seldom reaches 55 degrees F., even during the hottest summer weather. Without a lifejacket most people can survive less than two hours in the lake, so always wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved lifejacket when you are on Lake Superior. If you do fall in it will not only help keep you afloat, it will help retain body heat - particularly the vest- and full-sleeved models made of polyvinyl foam.

Recreation along the North Shore

Trails

Landscape

About 1.1 billion years ago volcanoes spewed fiery lava, which cooled and built up in thick layers, forming the bedrock along most of the North Shore. Much later, when glaciers moved down from the north, they scraped and dislodged the rock. As the melting glacier retreated, it left deposits of rock and soil on top of the scoured bedrock. Between the many glacial advances, streams on the land gradually eroded through these deposits and into the bedrock. As the surrounding volcanic rock was worn away by erosion or the scouring action of glaciers, agates were released from the lava.

Lake Superior agates are believed to be among the oldest in the world. Visitors like to search for them, and anyone can appreciate the remarkable colors and intricate patterns of the wave-polished stones. Collectors value rocks for their size and unusual markings. A rock and mineral show is a good place to see many different agates.

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 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, and are home to a variety of animals such as moose, deer, bear and wolves.

History

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 in the early 1600s. Grand Portage, near the northernmost point of the water trail, was a major trading center for the fur trade.

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 and 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 and then transitioned from a natural-resource-extraction-focused economy to a tourism-focused economy the latter half of the century, after a decline in the production of high grade iron ore. 

Hospitality and tourism continue to be a major part of the economy along the North Shore, which is a major tourist destination for hikers, paddlers, campers, cyclists, off-road vehicle enthusiasts and more.