Alicia Underlee Nelson
I’m not normally someone who waits for ships to come in. But after just a few hours in Duluth, I’m a believer.
The giant freighters laden with iron ore, limestone and coal approach the Twin Ports of Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin (the largest freshwater port on the planet) with a whale’s hulking grace. The arrival and departure of the Great Lakes ships (“lakers”) and the ocean faring vessels (“salties”) are part of the rhythm of this waterfront city.
Everyone watches the ships here: sunbathers on the beaches, kids skipping rocks, joggers trotting along on the Lakewalk and tourists resting on benches in Canal Park with their eyes fixed on the Aerial Lift Bridge, a symbol of the city. Watching the bridge clang out a warning and then quietly raise up to accommodate a ship several football fields long is strangely transfixing.
So is the city itself. The town perches along the steep hillside, but it keeps its eyes firmly fixed on the rugged coastline and crystal clear waters of this western tip of Lake Superior. A pair of lighthouses stand sentinel on parallel piers just steps from the Aerial Lift Bridge. A unique microclimate and cool lake breezes keep fragrant lilacs blooming well into July. It’s sometimes hard to remember you’re in the Midwest.
Learn about the city marine history and industry at the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center, located right in Canal Park. The Lake Superior Marine Museum Association also operates multiple live harbor cams and posts the ship schedules at lsmma.com, so you can see the steady stream of sailboats, fishing boats and freighters from anywhere in the world. But nothing beats standing so close that your chest vibrates as the freighters’ horns rumble their greetings.
Maritime enthusiasts can tour the William A. Irvin floating museum. The freighter was decommissioned for being too small (it’s over 600 feet long, just over half the length of many of the ships in the harbor today), but it gives you an excellent idea of what life was like on board. Or hop aboard a Vista Fleet boat for day cruises or a narrated tour of the Duluth harbor.
When it’s warm, head to the beach. Getting your toes wet might be just enough; with water temperatures hovering around 60 in high summer, a Lake Superior plunge is a breathtaking sucker punch to the solar plexus, refreshing but intense.
Two popular beaches are found on Park Point, the largest freshwater sandbar in the world. The sandy shores of 12th Street Beach are accessible via a small parking lot just off 12th Street. Or you can walk to it from the Aerial Lift Bridge. Further down the peninsula, Park Point Beach offers sand volleyball courts, grills and picnic shelters.
If you’d rather stay dry, grab an ice cream cone from Grandma’s Boxcar and set out on the 7.5-mile Lakewalk. Stroll the boardwalk, join joggers, cyclists, scooters and skateboarders on the blacktop path or follow the under 12 crowd and hop along the flat rocks closest to the water like a mountain goat.
There are plenty of places to stop, rest and soak up the Lake Superior views. A pebble beach half a mile away from the lighthouse pier where you started has lots of smooth stones perfect for skipping across the surface of Lake Superior. Continue about another mile to see sculptures, a stately fountain and gazebo and over 3,000 colorful rose bushes in full bloom in the Leif Erickson Rose Garden.
Walk up to the historic Fitger’s complex (located roughly between the pebble beach and rose garden) to stock up on crowlers from the city’s oldest brewery. You can also shop for books, toys and outdoor gear, score artisanal ice cream from Crank & Dasher, or book a massage or manicure at Fitger’s Spa.
Savor dinner, lake views and craft cocktails at The Boat Club Restaurant and Bar. Or head back towards where you started and snag a spot on the Canal Parking Brewing Company patio for upscale pub grub, waterfront vistas and refreshing ales, lagers and seltzers made right in Duluth. If beer’s not your thing, sip handmade gin, vodka, aquavit and whiskey at a sidewalk table outside Vikre Distillery, just a few feet from the Aerial Lift Bridge. The Silos serves up savory sandwiches, burgers and steaks on the lakefront patio – and hands out dockside to-go orders to boaters.
See the Canal Park district from a horse-drawn carriage operated by Top Hat Carriage Service. Wheel Fun Rentals offers bikes and multi-person surreys and coupes too. Or set off on foot to browse the boutiques, art galleries and shops in the quarter. For a truly authentic souvenir, treat yourself to smoked Lake Superior lake trout and whitefish from Northern Waters Smokehaus or handcrafted canvas and leather gear from Duluth Pack.
Other Duluth attractions interact with Lake Superior in unexpected ways. The Great Lakes Aquarium features hands-on exhibits like touch pools and showcases animals found in freshwater systems around the world, including the lake right outside the building. The aquarium’s Thursday evening beer garden events in the harbor (now through August) feature local drinks, food trucks and performances by the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra.
You can also step into history at Glensheen, the city’s premier historic home. Visit the 39-room mansion, then explore 12 acres of paths, gardens and Lake Superior shoreline. Shark on the Lake, an all-ages outdoor spot along the water, offers addictive ice cream from Love Creamery, beer and wine daily and concerts on the pier on Wednesday nights in July and August.
You’ll have front row seats and a glass of something local when the evening’s ships come in. This is lake life at its finest.
Alicia Underlee Nelson is a freelance writer and photographer. She co-hosts a podcast called “Travel Tomorrow,” available atTravelTomorrowPod.com and wherever you find your podcasts.Her first book, “North Dakota Beer: A Heady History,” was published in 2017. Follow her adventures atprairiestylefile.com.
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