At the turn of the 20th century, more millionaires lived in Duluth, Minnesota, per capita, than any other city in the United States. The Zenith City, as it was dubbed, is the terminus of the Great Lakes Seaway, the far western end of Lake Superior, where anything from the East Coast or Europe was offloaded from ships in port and sent by train to Seattle and San Francisco, and the grains and iron ore of the Northwest Territories were loaded for the return trip. In gross tonnage passing through, Duluth was the busiest port in the United States.
Those glory days may be in Duluth’s past, but the city is no less impressive. From Skyline Drive, the lake opens up beyond the city, with the Aerial Lift Bridge and ore docks as evidence of Duluth’s continued role as a prominent port city. Driving north out of the city, Highway 61 winds along the shore, past other port towns like Two Harbors and Silver Bay. Between these outposts of civilization, the road passes half a dozen State Parks and past cascading waterfalls that tumble into the big lake. The Superior National Forest creeps to the road’s edge and moose are a constant road hazard.
As the road gets closer to the Canadian border, towns get fewer and farther between.
Split Rock Lighthouse, one of the prettiest anywhere in the world, sits on a rock outcrop where it was built in response to a 1905 storm that claimed 29 ships and over 30 lives. The lake and its moods are a constant presence felt in all the communities up and down the North Shore. Its massive size and chilled waters create its own climate; 80s farther south yield to sweater weather up on the shore even in midsummer. Towns along the way are perfect places to stock up on pie, beer and smoked lake trout and herring. Derelict fishing shacks dot the shoreline, long abandoned and now serving mainly as photogenic props in a maritime idyll.
As the road gets closer to the Canadian border, towns get fewer and farther between. The last stop before leaving the USA is Grand Marais, a fishing village that became an artist’s community and outdoorsman’s base camp, thanks to its half-moon-shaped harbor and location at the foot of the legendary Gunflint Trail, gateway inland to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Brewpubs and fine dining rub shoulders with lumberyards and canoe outfitters. A seaplane sometimes bobs in the harbor. Another 30 minutes north is the border crossing, defined by the Pigeon River and a lonely customs office.
One can circumnavigate Lake Superior in either direction, but it just seems right to depart from Duluth and drive clockwise, keeping the lake on your right, knowing that in a week or more, you’ll be finishing right back here in the Zenith City.