best fall color tours north shore
best fall color tours north shore

best north shore fall color tours

Here are my recommendations for the best fall color tours on Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior. Remember any weather works for viewing fall colors. On grey, misty days, the colors vibrate while the contrast of bright blue on a sunny day can be glorious. To keep the sun at your back, start in the east and head west in the morning, then the opposite in the afternoon.

  • Is your car the way to go? Choose DRIVES (and Take Your Breath Away).
  • Looking for exercise and fresh air? Choose HIKES.
  • Want some soul-stirring beauty? Choose TAKE YOUR BREATH AWAY.
  • Prefer your time in the woods alone? Choose ALL BY MYSELF.

When to have all this fun?

mile 26.2

paved roaad fall colors between two harbors and beaver bay mn

Two Harbors to Beaver Bay

This route explores the backcountry including northern hardwood forests of oak, maple and basswood and boreal forests of pine, spruce, cedar, aspen and birch. 30 miles + 24 mile return to Two Harbors

mile 36.3

autmn fall colors at wolf rock trail near gooseberry falls state park

Wolf Rock & Crow Creek

Short steep and so worth it! Trail departs from north end of parking lot [note – there are bike and cross-country ski trails leaving from this lot, too]. After a series of switchbacks, the trail parallels the ridge and rewards you with a Lake Superior view. Continue on to Wolf Rock for amazing wide-open vistas of the lake. The trail continues along the highlands over the Crow Creek Valley including an overlook and spur trail to the river. This trail is part of the Superior Hiking Trail, so you can continue on to Gooseberry Falls State Park, or return on the same trail.

Option: Hike in to Crow Creek and back; about 2-1/2 miles. Or leave one car at Gooseberry Falls, then do the stunning Castle Danger to Gooseberry Falls State Park hike. Highlights include overlooks at Wolf Rock, Crow Creek Valley and Mike’s Rock. The upper reach area of the Gooseberry River is particularly gorgeous.

From Hwy 61, drive west on West Castle Danger Road for 2.3 miles; trailhead is on east side of parking lot

mile 39.5

fall colors gooseberry

Gooseberry Fifth Falls Tour

Winding up the east bank of the Gooseberry River, this 1 1/2 mile loop passes the upper Falls as it leads to the Fifth Falls. Not as spectacular as further inland, but an enjoyable autumn stroll with great vistas.

mile 43.5

fall-colors-12oct-splitrock-river

Split Rock River Loop

Note – this hike replaces the Split Rock River Loop as the footbridge on that loop has been removed

The new loop includes a cobblestone beach on Lake Superior, some climbs and descents, hiking under the tree canopy, overlooks, and a portion of the trail that skirt Lake Superior. This 4.4 mile loop starts and ends at the Split Rock River Wayside.

Hike under Highway 61 towards Lake Superior, then follow the paved bike path for .2 mile before carefully crossing Highway 61. Take the Superior Hiking Trail spur to the main trail for views of the lighthouse and big lake. Where the path Ts, go north, then take the spur trail back down hill, across the Highway, along the bike path  then left on to the Corundum Mine Trail which features several overlooks.

mile 51.0

maples

Beaver Bay to Illgen City

This route explores the backcountry including northern hardwood forests of oak, maple, and basswood, and boreal forests of pine, spruce, cedar, aspen and birch. You will ascend to the top of the hills, then drop down for a woodland drive. Watch for deer – and maybe a rare moose – on this winding, low-traffic road. I suggest starting in Beaver Bay and working counterclockwise so you can enjoy the views descending MN Highway 1 towards Lake Superior and Highway 61.

This drive is lovely anytime during the season, showcasing ridge line maples early and poplar and birch later.

Option:  at MN Hwy 1, turn left and go to Finland for a visit and lunch; return on MN Hwy 1, or on Co Rd 6, where the final few miles of descent are also impressive. All roads are paved. Click on the map for a larger

mile 53.7

bright fall colors overlooking mic mac lake at tettegouche state park with lake superior in the distance

mic mac, nipisquit and the old tettegouche camp

Hike through the woods and along inland lakes with spectacular views the back side of the ridge that rises out of Lake Superior. Park on the Lax Lake Road [parallels Hwy 61 to the north] and follow the service road into the forest, taking the first hiking trail around Tettegouche Lake. Hike to the Old Tettegouche Camp, four cabins and lodge built in the early 1900s, sitting on the shores of Mic Mac Lake. Return south around Mic Mac, where an overlook gives way to the maple hillsides, and Nipisquit lakes, and return along the hiking/ski trails to the service road. This trail system has options for spurs or continuing on over the High Falls of the Baptism River to MN Hwy 1.

From Hwy 61, drive north on Outer Drive 1.1 miles -the road becomes Penn Blvd/Co Rd 11. Continue on -Co Rd 11 becomes Lax Lake Rd; after 4.4 miles [5.5 miles from Hwy 61] make a right on the Lax lake Rd and drive 3.4 miles to the parking area.

mile 60.0

north shore leaf color sep 30

Fantasia Overlook

Three overlooks, one good, one great and one outstanding. Hike inland a mile. About the time you want to take a breather from the climb, there’s an overlook of Lake Superior – nice, but nothing compared to the view from the spur trail you take to the north. This narrow, windy trail can be slippery when wet, especially on the bare rock portions of the trail. The first overlook is outstanding, with 270-degree views all along the shore and inland [pictured at the top of the page].

Looking west you see miles of maple hillsides with the blue, blue, blue of Lake Superior in the distance. Continue on around the exposed knoll to the north. After a short jaunt through pretty woods, you come to a northern overlook which scans the maples hillsides in the distance while at your feet, the cliff drops away to a slough; breathtaking. Return the way you came.

At mile marker 60.0, drive north on MN Hwy 1 for 1 mile to Superior Hiking Trail parking on the west/left. The trail departs on the east/right side of the Highway.

mile 66.0

section 13 fall color little marais mn

Section 13 Hike

Hike through boreal forests before climbing maple ridges that showcase magnificent fall colors and impressive rock cliffs with view to the Baptism River valley. The trail is 4.5-mile round trip.

From Highway 61, drive north on Lake County Road 6 for for 2 miles to the Superior Hiking Trail sign and parking.
*Bonus: on the drive back down Co. Rd 6, stop on the southbound gravel pull off just before the guard rail starts, for an excellent view of the big lake.

mile 80.4

maples turning orange along heartbreak ridge drive north shore

Heartbreak Ridge

Make this fall color tour drive number one your list. It is breathtaking. The short drive leads you down one of the prettiest maple canopied drives along Minnesota’s North Shore. A roadside plaque explains how Heartbreak Ridge was named. The final descent into Tofte offers a glimpse of the Tofte cemetery and views of Lake Superior. The Sawbill and Hwy 61 are paved; the other roads are gravel. 18 miles total

mile 83.4

britton peak orange maple fall colors lake superior north shore

Britton Peak

If you’re willing to hike up a hill, you’ll be rewarded with views of the maple and pine covered hills rolling down to Lake Superior, which stretches for miles to the south. The trail is about 1/4-mile to the top and you hike under maple and birch canopy before stepping out on a large basalt overlook. This hike is so short, it is worth it whether the colors are at peak or not. It is the hub for a variety of options, too – hike east to LeVeaux Mountain, return and cross the Sawbill Trail and hike to the top of Carlton Peak, or explore the adjacent mountain cross-country ski trails.

From mile marker 83.4 in Tofte, drive north 2.3 miles to the parking area on the east/right.

mile 83.4

rock outcropping peak looking over maples and birch to lake superior from carlton peak mn

Carlton Peak

Massive blocks of gray anorthosite form Carlton Peak. This heady summit gives bird’s-eye views of the maple forest you crossed to reach the peak. A nearby overlook has panoramas of Lake Superior, Tofte, and the Temperance River Valley, which makes this a great late season hike, too.

From mile marker 83.4 in Tofte, drive north 2.3 miles to the parking area on the east/right.

mile 86.1

maple hillsides oberg loop trail fall colors

Oberg Mountain Loop

Oberg is the trail to hike during autumn’s early season of maple colors. Enter the maple woods and hike under the canopy of birch and maple before you begin the 2-mile loop that includes seven overlooks. This trail begins with a spur, which connects to a loop that circumnavigates Oberg Mountain. Overlooks include views of adjacent LeVeaux Mountain, Lake Superior, the maple hillsides, and Oberg Lake. It is stunning and worth repeating every year.

Hike is 2.25 miles with some steep climbs. Plan on a busy trail filled with happy hikers – the views will do that.

From Hwy 61, drive north on the Onion River Rd (FR 336) 2 miles to parking.

mile 90.5

miles of colorful maple hillsides at lutsen mountains mn

Moose Mountain Tram

Wide open views of stunning – makes you stop talking/stop looking at your phone stunning – maple hillsides drenched in reds, oranges and a smattering of yellow. Plus you get to take a tram ride. An easy hike affords even more breathtaking views.

Ride the smooth, quiet tram down into the Poplar River Valley, over the river and up the east face of Moose Mountain, with Lake Superior views framed by the river valley. At the top, head to the chalet for 180-degree views of Lake Superior, the shoreline, and maybe on a clear, low-humidity day, the south shore of the lake. Hilltop trails [about a mile total] allow more perspectives on the lake views, and a stunning overlook gives 180-degrees northern views of maple hillsides.

You must purchase your tram ticket at the Lutsen Mountains office.

mile 92.8

golden treetops on way up white sky rock trail

White Sky Rock

A 230-foot climb in under a quarter mile brings views of Caribou Lake, and the thick maple forests surrounding it. This little hikes leads to a spur trail of the Superior Hiking Trail [SHT]. Look for the SHT trail sign on the left side of the lot, and follow the trail, which leads right to the Caribou Trail; cross the road and follow the trail to the top. This east-facing overlook makes for a pretty sunrise spot, too!

From Hwy 61, turn north on the Caribou Trail/Co Rd 4 for 4 miles to the small parking area on the left; if you come to the boat launch, you’ve gone too far.

mile 2.4

golden fall colors from top of pincushion overlooking lake superior

Pincushion Mountain Overlook [Gunflint Trail]

The Gunflint Trail climbs 600 feet in the first few miles to a maple ridge line. At the top is Pincushion Mountain Overlook, a parking area with 180° views of Lake Superior. For the full circle view, make the 4-mile roundtrip hike to the top of Pincushion, especially nice for late season color views. This recreation area is criss-crossed with single track bike trails, hiking trails, cross-country and snowshoe trails. Head into any of the cross-country ski trails for walks through birch, maple and pine forests.  It is conveniently located three mile from Grand Marais.

mile 4.1

arts on north shore

Maple Hill [Gunflint Trail]

Picturesque Maple Hill Church sits center stage surrounded by maples. This short drive is just outside Grand Marais, an easy add-on to your day, or perfect first stop on your way up the Gunflint Trail. Allow a few contemplative moments to enjoy the serene surrounding.

From the Gunflint Trail, turn west onto Maple Hill Drive for 0.6 miles. Return the same way.

mile 11.0

Maple stand after the rain

Trout Lake Road [Gunflint Trail]

The Trout Lake Road / County Rd 60 loop is a lovely drive, with beautiful sugar maple-lined sections of the road, often with their canopies meeting overhead. This is also a chance to get out into the woods from Grand Marais on an easy to navigate drive. You will head north on the Gunflint Trail, drive a loop and return on the Gunflint Trail, which, along with Hwy 61 are paved; all other roads are gravel.

From Hwy 61, drive north on Gunflint Trail for 11 miles; turn right on Trout Lake Road for 7.5 miles; turn right on County Rd 14 for 2.5 miles; take a slight right on County Rd 60 for 6.4 miles; turn left on Gunflint Trail for 4.7 miles, and, turn right on 5th Ave W for 0.7 miles.

mile 27.3

looking down hungry jack lake from honeymoon bluff at sunset

Honeymoon Bluff [Gunflint Trail]

Beautiful sunsets, big views, wooden stairs and a rocky overlook make this a great hike. Golden birch interspersed with deep green pine make it a great later fall season hike. Take the spur trail in and then start to climb those stairs. Your reward, amazing views of Hungry Jack and Bearskin Lakes, and out into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. If you go for the sunsets, bring a headlamp, flashlight, phone light for the return trip; half-mile round trip.

27.3 mile up the Gunflint Trail, turn east on the Clearwater Rd for 2.2 to parking area. The Trailhead is about .25 miles past Flour Lake Campground Rd

mile 17.1

fall color trail mn

Lima Mountain Drive & Hike [Gunflint Trail]

Take a late season fall color drive in the back country. From the Gunflint Trail, drive west on Forest Road 325 / South Brule Road for 6 miles, drive north on on the Lima Grade for 9 miles back to the Gunflint Trail, either continue up the Trail [7 miles to mid Trail forr a few shops and restaurants] or return the approximate 28 miles to Grand Marais

*Bonus Hike:
At about 3.4 miles up the Lima Mountain Grade, you will see a grassy parking area. A rocky, poorly maintained trail leads about 1.2 miles to the top of Lima Mountain, where a fire lookout tower once stood [erected in 1935 and removed in 1978]. You will also get great views of the golden backcountry from an overlook about 2/3-mile in; return the same way.

mile 128.7

hovland mn fire tower

Hovland Lookout Tower

The tower overlooks sugar maples, quaking aspens and conifers, making it a good drive and hike all fall color season long. This is a good wildlife viewing spot.

From mile marker 128.7 on Hwy 61 in Hovland, turn north on Arrowhead Trail for 3.7 miles, then park on the side of the road [leaving room for other traffic] and hike 1.5 miles west on the Superior Hiking Trail. Return for a 3-mile overall hike.

**Note: the Superior Hiking Trail Parking trailhead is 3.3 miles north on Arrowhead Trail; hiking from here increases the hike length to about 4 miles.

check out these north shore favorites

tour key

 – Driving Tour

 – Walking Tour

 – Best for Early Season Maples

 – Best for Late Season Poplars