When you think of majestic, thundering, awe-inspiring waterfalls, Minnesota may not jump to mind. But it should. You likely know the mighty Mississippi originates in Lake Itasca and that Minnesota is the land of (more than) 10,000 lakes. What most people don’t know, and only a local could tell you, is that many of the state parks are built around the best and brightest of these soothing yet exhilarating natural creations. This volcanic region formed billions of years ago, the same one responsible for agate formation.
From Duluth, drive north along Minnesota’s State Highway 61 to see most of these waterfalls. Hikers follow the Superior Hiking Trail inland, with camping spots along the route, to discover these waterfalls. It’s common to use mile markers along the North Shore to quickly identify your stops.
Pro Tip: Springtime and after heavy rains are the best time to visit.
1. Gooseberry Falls State Park (Mile 39)
If you love waterfalls, you will be in your own personal heaven with the five located here. Its Native American name is “Gitchi Gami.” At full flood (in the spring), they are spectacular. The park covers 1,600 acres and offers 20 trails for hikers and bikers to explore. There are campsites available and it is one of the most popular parks in Northern Minnesota.
Great news for families: the middle falls are accessible for both strollers and wheelchairs. A gentle slope allows accessibility to different parts of the waterfalls. The visitor center has informative exhibits, a gift shop, and restrooms.
2. Split Rock Falls (Mile 51.3)
West of 61, south of the Split Rock Visitor Center (with amenities), it’s the hiker’s choice whether you take the 1-mile or 5-mile trek to Split Rock Falls. The best way to identify you’re in the right spot is the sign for “Split Rock River.” Park the car along the highway, climb through birch trees a half-mile, take the right fork, and you’ll reach the 20-foot waterfalls tumbling over grey rock.
If you hike in another 0.8 miles, you’ll spy a red rock gorge with twin red pillars and 50-foot cliffs. If you go further still, you’ll see additional waterfalls along the trail before you reach the river where the true seekers of great Lake Superior views will get wet crossing the river (only when it’s low water, never while it’s rushing) to the high east trail.
3. Beaver River Falls (Mile 58.7)
One of only two waterfalls, it’s possible to drive by along Lake Superior’s North Shore, the Beaver River drops in sections a total of 300 feet above the Highway 61 bridge. For the best photographs, take the pedestrian walkway on the north side of Highway 61.
4. Cascade Falls (Mile 59.4)
Tettegouche State Park contains four waterfalls: Cascade, Two Step, High Falls, and Illgen.
Three trails along the Baptism River allow you options for waterfall choices based on the time you have available and the amount of energy you’d like to expend. The main trail starts with an uphill climb and seemingly never-ending stairs which leads to the Two Step Falls.
If you catch your second wind, and you should, make the effort to get to the High Falls, at 100 feet, which can be viewed from below or from above via a swing bridge. Remember, it’s 3 miles downhill, which typically goes faster than the way up.
I would not consider any of these three waterfalls accessible to those with limited mobility, though the trail from the visitor center to the Cascade Falls, the smallest of the three, is less strenuous and 2 miles round trip.
To take the easiest route to reach the Illgen Falls, drive to Mile 70.7, catch a parking spot at the pull-off, and hike 0.2 miles. In spring, this 40-feet high waterfall rushes across the entire ledge. When the river is slower, you’ll view a steady cascade down the center.
5. Caribou River Falls (Mile 79)
If you’re ready for about 150 more stairs, this 1.2-mile hike will take you up nearly 100 feet in the first half mile past the first bench on the spur trail. Make a right and you’ll find the 35-foot falls over gray basalt rock framed by cedar and pine. Keep in mind that this wayside is seasonal. It’s not plowed or accessible during winter.
6. Cross River Falls (Mile 80.6)
Hop back in the car and back into the parking lot where restrooms and picnic tables can be enjoyed before or after witnessing these 100-foot falls roll down and under the roadway before dropping beneath the bridge on the south side.
7. Temperance River Falls (Mile 86.6)
Temperance River State Park
Minnesotans’ tongue-in-cheek sense of humor may be displayed by the name of this river. Said to originate because it’s the only river that empties into Lake Superior without a (sand) bar, there’s nothing moderate about the river itself. Eight deaths have been reported here in the past two decades, so it may not be a good place for children or dogs.
But if you’d like a 2-mile hike with three waterfalls, this is a great stop for adults. The river has carved out gorges for the Upper Falls, Hidden Falls, and Lower Cascades to traverse. The simplest waterfall to see is the Lower Cascades that flow directly into Lake Superior, just a quarter-mile loop.
After parking along the highway, look up through the narrow gap before going up often slippery stone steps to the cliffside overlook. Follow the river through stands of cedar to the Upper Falls.
The fun part is watching the water rushing through the gorge.
There are restrooms and a visitor center store.
8. Onion River Stair Step Falls (Mile 99.8)
More stairs await you to hike a little more than a mile above the river to the cascades, then beyond the river’s mouth about a half-mile to see Stair Step Falls. They’re best seen in spring, not only because the rush is that much more dramatic, but because vegetation makes it harder to spot or photograph in summer or fall.
9. Cascade Falls And Cascades (Mile 107.3)
Cascade Falls, Cascade River State Park
On a 2-mile stretch of river flowing into Lake Superior sits a 900-foot descent. Within the last 400 yards to Lake Superior are four cascades, the highest falls rising approximately 30 feet. There are trails on either side of the water with a bridge, making it possible to loop your way across the river.
The rock formations and zigzagging path between the cascades make this one of the most beautiful parks to visit.
10. Kadunce River Wayside Falls (mile 119)
9 miles northeast of Grand Marais, there’s a fun little (10-foot) waterfall that may be best seen by walking up the river in the summer. Other hikers report enjoying the path during winter, walking along the frozen river, and, of course, the more youthful or adept climb up the rockface to view it.
11. Fall River Falls (Mile 124)
Cyclists especially enjoy one of Minnesota’s legendary newly paved “Gitchi Gami Bike Trail” that passes directly in front of these Fall River Falls, 2.6 miles from Grand Marais. The views of Lake Superior definitely make it worthwhile for cyclists and hikers alike.
12. Devil’s Kettle Of The Brule River (Mile 150.3)
Judge C.R. Magney State Park
Originally thought to have no bottom, the Devil’s Kettle seems to be on a permanent simmer as the water froths and spins. The hike over the Lower Falls offers great vantage points and then it’s hiker’s choice between the path to the river flowing over the Upper Falls or the path watching the other half of the river disappear into the Devil’s Kettle. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) proved the Devil’s Kettle is an optical illusion. While the pool neither seems to fill nor show signs of water escaping, the DNR proved no water “disappears” underground.
Many people prefer to visit in summer or fall and, once again, there are more than 100 steps. Call before you go as summer closings are planned. The total distance is about 2 miles. You need a sticker to park.
13. High Falls Of The Pigeon River (Mile 188.7)
After the Devil’s Kettle, it’s a bit of a drive to Grand Portage State Park, right on the Canadian border, where you’ll find Pigeon Falls. Just a half-mile walk from the parking lot and visitor center, you’ll discover falls, cascades, and a footbridge over the river. Pigeon Falls, at 120 feet, is the highest of all Minnesota waterfalls and the largest. Multi-faceted, these falls come down the front and along the sides, providing a plethora of observation points.
Follow the sound, you’ll find the falls. The land, leased by the state from the Chippewa Indians, must remain a state park.
Sometimes called the “Niagara of the Midwest,” you’ll catch the spray from the falls from one of the two viewing decks.
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