With impending warmer weather, we always find ourselves searching for the “perfect adventure.” What makes for a perfect adventure, you ask? Well, for us it’s as simple as classic beauty, a drivable distance, kid-friendliness, epic scenery, plentiful experiences, tasty food, a healthy freedom to roam, affordability, friendly people, and a place to stop for a good cold brewski (that last one is just a bonus).
OK sure, maybe that’s not a “simple” ask, but when we live within arm’s reach of the city of Duluth and its northern counterparts, the North Shore just feels like a no-brainer. While it can certainly be the hot spot of all hot spots for summer tourists, my sister and I decided to head up on a random Thursday to avoid weekend crowds and it seemed to make all the difference. Warmer days bring more crowds (especially to a city that is notorious for its chilliness), but the North Shore stretches 145 massive miles and, depending on how far you want to go, you can certainly find spots that can be crowd-free. For our day though, we focused solely on Duluth and all it has to offer. And that, my friends, is a LOT.
We took off as early in the morning as we could with six kids under 10 and, with a stop for donuts and some mama lattes (and a showing-and-a-half of “Toy Story 4”), the 2.5 hour journey flew!
JAY COOKE STATE PARK
Before we even entered the city of Duluth, we stopped in Carlson, MN at Jay Cooke State Park, home of the swinging bridge and plenty of rock-climbing fun. While we could never cover the 8,000+ acres of land that makes up this state park (especially with donut-belly slowing us down), there is plenty to do in an hour or two upon entering the parking lot. The park sits just slightly east of I-35 and you will need a Minnesota State Park Pass to enter. These cost $35/annual or $7/day and it is worth every penny with this park alone (just do the annual – it’ll pay off, I promise). You’ll pass the visitor center and see signs for the swinging bridge. That’s where we parked. Then you just hop out of your car, walk, like, 20 steps and BOOM – you’re at the swinging bridge. This thing is crazy and the kids will think it’s awesome! Either direction from there is filled with fun times – I suggest sandals for the kiddos here so they can play in the water without hurting their feet. Rock climbing, rock hopping and rock skipping are always a fun pastime for us here.
There are cliffs for sure – if you have a runner or wanderer, keep your eye on them and don’t let them get too close to the edges. The overlooks are beautiful but the fall would be unpleasant. The water is not deep but we still kept ourselves busy holding hands to prevent anyone from soaking themselves completely. And some rocks can be slippery, so know that. But man, the frogs and tadpoles alone made for a hilariously entertaining 90 minute start to our day trip. As at any state park, respect your surroundings, pick up after yourselves and take lots of photos!
Once we released our Jay Cooke frogs, we piled back in the car and headed into the city of Duluth. Our first stop was the destination for which the city is most known – Canal Park and the Aerial Lift Bridge and Lighthouse. Prepare for traffic. The canal is narrow and extreeeemely busy in the summertime with really only one entry and one exit. Because my sister and I both went to college in Duluth, we know Canal Park very well (mostly for its bar scene, but that’s a story for another day). This made it easy to locate food, parking and a place to dine outside. While sitting in traffic, we ordered Old Chicago pizza over the phone and as we pulled down Lake Avenue, Julie hopped out and ran to get our pizza so we didn’t lose our “spot” in the one-way traffic line to get into the canal. Some days it’s not this busy, I promise…but many days are. If you’re hungry in Canal Park, consider dining at some of my other favorites: Little Angie’s Cantina for patio seating, Vitta Pizza for some delish wood-fired ‘za, or Hoops Brewing for a beer on the lake. You can also always just grab a hot dog and ice cream from Grandma’s Boxcar by the lighthouse.
Canal Park has a couple substantial parking lots – paid of course, but only about $1/hour. Once you snag a spot, grab a blanket and enjoy your lunch in the huge grassy section next to the lakewalk. Just watch out for hungry seagulls – they take no prisoners and love deep dish pizza!
You’ll want to walk the pier (just to say you did) and if you get lucky, you’ll see a ship come through that’s tall enough to make the lift bridge rise. While you can’t go inside the lighthouse, it’s fun to get a couple pictures here and check out Lake Superior from the elevated platform.
It was hot the day we went. Like, HOT hot. So when the kids asked if they could play in the water, we simply said “Yes.” And play they did. Usually we skip and collect rocks down by the pier, but this day we let them all go out to their waists and listened to them giggle gleefully.
We still climbed, skipped and collected rocks, but the temperature was begging for our bodies to be IN the giant lake. So we called an audible, grabbed some popcorn and snow cones from the Red Wagon trolley (again, seagulls LOVE popcorn, so be warned) and headed to the sandiest place we could think of to cool off – Park Point’s 12th Street Beach.
PARK POINT’S 12th STREET BEACH
Best. Part. Of. The. Day.
To get to the beach, we got to drive across the lift bridge, which the kids thought was cool (OK, some freaked out a little bit), but it’s a short 2-minute drive down the point to this beach. We landed a spot right in the free parking lot for 12th Street Beach, lathered our half-dozen in sunscreen, gathered up towels, snacks and waters and changed into swimsuits (in the car…no changing rooms to be found, but we didn’t look too hard).
With everyone fed and slightly exhausted, this was the most quintessential stop of the day, timed perfectly and lovely for us mamas. Lake Superior can be a dangerous animal, but at this spot on this day, the water was shallow nearly 50 yards from shore, it was warm enough to be relaxing, and we didn’t need to be incessantly hovering. There was a lot of sand play, games of tag, and laughter. No one wanted to leave…and we spent three solid hours here. I know – I can’t believe it either!
No one wanted to leave the beach, but for real, we couldn’t stay forever, right? We still had items on our day trip adventure agenda we wanted to check off, so we went with the one that would serve as the best bribery to get the kids to leave the beach – The PortLand Malt Shoppe.
PORTLAND MALT SHOPPE
The PortLand Malt Shoppe is quite well-known and for good reason. But that also means it too can get busy. It’s less than 10 minutes from Canal Park just up Superior Street. Grab a street parking spot wherever you can along Superior Street and simply enjoy the stroll. One of my favorite patios of all time is Fitgers Brewhouse (their black bean burger and apricot wheat ale are to die for), located right on Superior Street. And for a livelier patio/beer option, head a little further down the road to Sir Benedicts – where live music is often a daily occurrence and the beer is just as good (if not better) as the stuff at Fitgers.
OK….back to malts. If you go on a warm summer day there will be a line. Wait In It. I repeat – Wait In It. The shoppe is open from late April to mid-October and you’ll want to try one of everything on their menu. Just kidding (well, sort of). I don’t even like bananas very much and their banana split won me over. So, to say the least, they know what they’re doing. And our kids have never been happier. Portions are HUGE so order carefully. Enjoy and bring me back something if you go, mmmkay?
If your kiddos aren’t tired after this stop, consider heading to Leif Erikson Park and the Duluth Rose Garden to walk around and take in the smells and scenery. I took the best nap of my life in the Duluth Rose Garden in college and I’ll remember that nap until the day that I die.
By now, as you can imagine, we had 12 very tired little legs dragging behind us. Yes, they were happy little legs (because swimming and ice cream, duh), but they were tired. My sister and I had one more stop we really wanted to make – and it was on the way out of town – you just can’t visit Duluth without climbing Enger Tower.
Enger Tower sits on Duluth’s west end, giving you quite a view of the entire east section including Canal Park, the harbor, Lake Superior and the hilly city of Duluth. Enger Park is easy to find and offers plenty of parking in their lot. The park’s highlight is obviously the tower – built in 1939 (the same year The Wizard of Oz was released if that gives you a sense of its age), it sits right next to the main parking lot and is impossible to miss.
If weather allows, the tower will be open for you to climb to the top but be sure to check the website before promising the kids because Duluth has some pretty rough weather and just the right storm can shut this thing down fast. The climb to the top is exciting, spiraling around dozens of stone steps. Once you reach the top, take a rest on the built-in benches and then just soak in the view.
Enger Park is more than just the tower. There are some hiking trails and overlooks, big rocks to sit on and replenish with a snack, and gravel paths that lead you through the Japanese Garden. This garden is beautiful (my sister and I appreciated its obvious beauty far more than the kids though). The shrubbery and symmetry of it all is so meticulous and there is a sandy peace garden that is zen-like after a long travel day with kiddos. While you are supposed to be quieter around the peace garden, this does not include the sounds of the Peace Bell, which you can ring and hear its reverberations across the whole garden. The children (obviously) loved that part. Noise. Kids love noise.
After Enger Tower, our Duluth day came to a close. We grabbed Subway on our way out of town and listened to the sound of silence in the car as heads bobbed and eyes closed. They were six little troopers who played hard, ran hard and adventured hard all day. We were proud and happy mamas because Duluth holds a special place in our hearts, so sharing it with the kids was a wonderful memory that we will be sure to repeat multiple times a year now.
Speaking of revisiting, here’s a long list of “stuff we didn’t get to this day because time didn’t allow but surely will visit someday in the very near future.”
In the city of Duluth:
- Visit the Great Lakes Aquarium
- Tour the William A. Irvin ship
- Check out trains at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in the Union Depot
- See animals at the Lake Superior Zoo
- Spend time at the Duluth Children’s Museum
- Play at Bayfront’s Playfront Park playground
- Spend hours (and money) at Spirit Mountain Adventure Park (or just ride the Alpine Slide!)
- Play in the creek at Lester Park
- Hike through Chester Creek (and stop on Parkland Avenue and say “HI” to my old college house!)
- Throw rocks at the beautiful Brighton Beach
Further up the North Shore, check out:
- NEW IN 2021: A model train station and homemade candy store, Burlington Station opens May 29, 2021 in Two Harbors – it looks fantastic. Check out their website here. Here’s a story from Bring Me the News.
- Fulfill your sweet tooth cravings at Great Lakes Candy Kitchen
- Visit the waterfalls at Gooseberry Falls
- Hike at Split Rock Lighthouse
- Play in the soft black sand at Black Beach
- Take in the sights at one of my very favorite state parks: Tettegouche State Park
- Stop at Betty’s Pies for a slice of heaven
- Admire the pink rocks at Iona’s Beach
- Collect super smooth rocks (for rock painting?) at Pebble Beach
- Hike Bean and Bear Lake (this is more for the adults, but if you have a chance in your lifetime to do this hike, DO IT)
- Sip on a delicious patio brew at Castle Danger Brewing (if you’re there for honey raspberry wheat season, I’ll take a 6-pack please)