Duluth, Minnesota: The San Francisco of the Midwest
On Saturday morning I headed out the door about 8am and told the persons in the living room that I was headed with my family to Duluth. When one person asked, "What's Duluth?", I knew that a blog post had to be written. Duluth, MN is easily one of my favorite cities to visit in the world, and it's less than three hours away from home!
Duluth is located at the far west end of Lake Superior, the largest and deepest of North America's Great Lakes. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, the town was populated because of rich iron and copper deposits throughout the northern regions of Minnesota. The city quickly became a worldwide port as locks and dams connected the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. During the 20th century, Duluth was a major industrial port in the region, although that waned a bit in the late 1900s. Currently, the seaport is still used to ship out metals like iron ore and taconite around the world, but most of the city makes its living on tourism.
Duluth is built on a rather steep hill overlooking the western edge of the lake. stretching almost all of the seven miles across the lake is a sandbar that makes the western side into a nice, natural harbor. However, the city of Duluth built a canal to bring the boats directly into the harbor instead of rounding Minnesota Point, as the sand bar was called. However, some method of getting across the canal was needed, so in 1905 a large structure was put above the canal and a gondola was moved from side to side. It proved effective for a number of years until traffic became more and more demanding, so in 1930 a road that spanned the canal was built. In 55 seconds the Aerial Lift Bridge rises over 200 feet to let seaworthy boats pass underneath.
One thing not to miss is exactly that: the huge cargo ships that come from all over the world. This past weekend we did not see any up close, but I've had a couple times where a boat over 1,000 feet long fills up the whole canal and you're only 30-40 feet away from a hull towering above you. It's tons of fun and an amazing experience for this Minnesotan. (Get plenty of up-to-date news and photos at DuluthShippingNews.com.) Apparently a German world-class cruise ship makes a stop in Duluth every fall as well.
What else is there to see in this town? Well, one of my family's favorite parts is the Lakewalk. The Downtown Lakewalk includes a bike path and boardwalk for the first mile east of the Aerial Lift Bridge, and then a combined bilke/walk path for the remaining 2.5 miles. Another senic area is Skyline Drive, a road that rides the edge of the hill and provides great scenic views of Duluth and the harbor. Along Skyline Drive is Inger Tower, an old cement watchtower that is another great overlook. Also, when coming into Duluth, don't miss the Thompson Hill Visitors Center, where you can see the best view of the city and the harbor just before the freeway descends into Duluth.
For those looking to spend a bit of money, a number of the tourist attractions are worthwhile. The Vista Fleet gives guided tours of the harbor area throughout the summer and it's a great way to learn about the harbor, the big boats, and how things work in there. If you'd rather stay attached to the dock, The William A. Irvin is an old cargo ship that has been docked in Duluth for a couple decades and tours of the ship are given. This is another great way to find out what goes on these ships and just how big they are. Within the last couple years they've added a retired Coast Guard vessel to the tour as well.
The city's old rail depot is now home to the St. Louis County Heritage & Arts Center, more commonly just known as The Depot. It's a nice museum of the area's history and culture, but my favorite part since when I was really young is the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in the back of The Depot. Here, you can find all kinds of old trains that you can actually walk through. I don't know if they still do, but they would still run one of the old streetcars out of the station about a half mile and come back, which was lots of fun to ride in. There are real trains, model trains, and lots of old train-related items from days gone by.
If free is more your style, I highly recommend looking around in the Lake Superior Maritime Visitors Center, right next to the Aerial Lift Bridge. This is a free, public museum that has tons of info on the geography of Lake Superior as well as the shipping industry of today and days gone by. Of course, there's plenty of history of the Aerial Lift Bridge too. We haven't really ventured into Downtown Duluth proper in probably a decade since the tourist scene right on the lake started picking up, but there's miles of Downtown connected by skyways, so even rainy days can be somewhat fun.
And, finally, a trip further up the North Shore of Lake Superior is always a good day trip from Duluth. Almost every time I've been to Duluth, we spent at least an afternoon around Gooseberry Falls, a beautiful stop on Highway 61's stretch of scenic viewpoints. The upper and lower falls are beautiful and allow for great places to walk around and play in the water. I have pictures of me and family members sitting underneath this rock since I was 2 or 3, and this time my cousin's daughter got her first photo there. Just a little way up the shore is Split Rock Lighthouse, and a bit further is Temperance River, which is now cut very deeply through some stones and is a great scenic area as well.
The weather up there is often very nice, a bit cooler because of the lake. (Last weekend was definitely an exception though, with highs in the 90s.) No matter how hot it is, though, I'd recommend not swimming in the lake. Around this time of year, the water is about 45 degrees Farenheight. There is a nice beach on Minnesota point that is very shallow and gets a bit warmer, but expect to freeze some body parts if you go in the water. Also, on the way to and/or from Duluth, stop halfway at Tobie's in Hinkley, MN. We always go for the Ice Cream outside, but many stop for their baked goods. Still, the city of Duluth is one of the most beautiful and fun places to go in Minnesota, and some even say, in the world.
(Thanks to Lisa for the great photos and all for a fun weekend vacation.)