All the way to Grand Marais

Lake Superior’s North Shore is one of the most popular destinations in the state with hot spots like Duluth, Two Harbors and Lutsen at the top of the list for many Twin Cities families. 

Fewer folks go the 17 miles past Lutsen to make their final destination the far-flung Lake Superior harbor village of Grand Marais. 

Grand Marais, billed as the gateway to the Gunflint Trail, is also a portal to tons of family fun both in town and further north.

Beloved for its scenery, tasty eats and quirky artistic vibe, this laid-back town of 1,400 won Budget Travel magazine’s America’s Coolest Small Towns 2015 contest just a few months ago. 

Grand Marais is popular with all ages and it’s extremely family friendly year-round — though, admittedly, many of the town’s restaurants and stores shut down in the dead of winter, despite the ski season.

The point is: Summer is the time to explore Grand Marais with the kids!

Getting there: Going to Grand Marais is about the journey as well as the destination. It’s about 270 miles from the Twin Cities, roughly 4½ hours by car without stopping. Stop, of course, on the way up, first at Tobies bakery in Hinckley for donuts. Second, we recommend you spend one night in Duluth, followed by a leisurely drive up the shore, stopping at Gooseberry Falls, Split Rock and Tettegouche state parks along the way. End with three nights in the incredibly quaint, walkable town that is Grand Marais. 

The plan: It’s low-key here: Throw rocks in the lake, bum around the shops in town, hike, drive along the shore and just … unplug. 

Where to stay: East Bay Suites, conveniently located next door to an outdoors store and a food co-op, is ideal for families. Almost all the rooms have lake-facing decks or balconies. Ground-floor units let you walk straight out to the shore. Many units include kitchens so you can cook breakfast — if you’re not fetching pastries from World’s Best Donuts, which is next door (and pictured, below). Learn about other lodging options here.

Where to eat: During high season, you’ll have numerous restaurants to choose from — and most are kid friendly with phenomenal adult fare, too. Highlights include My Sister’s Place, serving a variety of burgers and dogs (even corn dogs); The Crooked Spoon Cafe, with crab cakes, mussels and fondue for you and organic peanut butter sandwiches for the kids (among other choices) and — finally — the beloved Gun Flint Tavern (pictured above), featuring some of the tastiest food in town, live music and a brand-new on-site brewery. Get there early if you have a party of five or more. A few blocks away is another craft brewery newbie, Voyageur Brewing Co. 

Bring warm clothes: Yes, even in July and August, Grand Marais can be chilly. Bring coats, hats and gloves, but also pack sunscreen and bug spray.

Go sailing: The North House Folk School in Grand Marais offers daily trips aboard the red-sailed 50-foot schooner, Hjordis (pictured, above). Typical sailing times are 9 a.m. (reduced rates), 11 a.m. and 1, 3 and 5 p.m., plus sunset sailings and full-moon trips during high season. See for details.

Take a hike on the shore: If the kids get tiredof playing on the clean, pebbly beaches, put on hiking shoes and wander out to the tip of Artists’ Point, a rocky protrusion into Lake Superior. Trails begin behind the Coast Guard building near the shore in the town center.

Little ones will definitely need handholding to navigate the root-strewn trails, but the views and the waves crashing on well-worn humps of rock are worth it. Then explore (with more hand-holding) the skinny cement breakwater to reach the lighthouse on Grand Marais Harbor. 

Explore woods, waterfalls: Short hikes and viewpoints abound if you travel even further north up Highway 61. 

At Judge C.R. Magney State Park, 20 miles from Grand Marais, check out the Devils Kettle falls, via a two-mile round-trip hike, enhanced with 200 stairs to help you and the kids with one steep section. 

Afterward, keep going north up the shore, making sure to stop at the scenic viewpoints for some of the most sweeping panoramas of Lake Superior around.

Stop at Grand Portage National Monument for a look at the historic fur trade as well as Ojibwe heritage. 

Then head about five miles north to Grand Portage State Park, which is right before the Ontario border. 

Explore the gift shop at the visitors center, then walk a 1/2-mile boardwalk to the three viewing platforms overlooking the 120-foot High Falls of the Pigeon River, Minnesota’s highest waterfall.

Head back: Spend a final night in Grand Marais. Skip a few last stones on Gitche Gumee. When it’s time to drive home, set out early and make the trip all in one day — ideally on a non-holiday Monday to avoid heavy traffic. Stop in Duluth for lunch and one last look at the lake. 

Plan your trip:

Sarah Jackson is the editor of Minnesota Parent.