A stone fireplace at the top of Day Hill stands alone, perfectly perched on a rock outcrop overlooking Lake Superior. While its full story remains a mystery, a nearby plaque along this hiking trail at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park guesses it was an unrealized dream of Duluth businessman Frank Day to build a home for his beloved, until she called off the wedding.
Incongruous and slightly haunting as the fireplace is, my husband and I easily grasp what would draw a dreamer here. The wind buffets us as we gaze across a grand view of Lake Superior. We sit and soak it all in. It’s a kind of place where you ponder life, where it’s taken you and where you still want to go.
To our far left, Split Rock Lighthouse rises from the trees, a historic beacon for ships of all sizes since it was built in 1910. To our right, the shore waggles and curves to Corundum Cove, Crazy Bay and Split Rock Point. In the far distance, cobblestones on Iona’s Beach cast a pink stripe between the lake blues and the forest greens.
While the big vistas inspire, all sense of time gets muddled whenever we’re up close to the shore, exploring the convergence of rivers and lake. Waves wash in hypnotically. We reach into icy water to grab stones that catch our eyes. We palm perfectly tumbled ovals and eggs.
Just up the North Shore Scenic Drive in the town of Beaver Bay, we join the steady flow of agate fans who pause and marvel at thousands of specimens in the free rock and mineral museum in the Beaver Bay Agate Shop. Bands of blue-gray, white and translucent iron reds swirl across specimens including South Dakota Fairburn and Montana dryhead agates.
Rare Mexican Laguna agates and moody Botswana agates line other shelves, while peace pipes, petrified wood, copper, vivid blue azurite, an almost 2-foot-wide ammonite and a 30-pound meteorite draw us in.
The Bartel family, which owns the shop and museum, says it’s the oldest continuing rock store in the country. Keith Bartel, a collector since childhood, says visitors are often most fascinated by the ancient calcified dragonfly, but he favors what’s local and among the rarest of the stones: Thomsonite.
Nearby “Grand Marais is the only place in the world you can find it,” he claimed.
That potential for finding a gem among stones keeps us on the hunt with every shoreline visit, watching and waiting for Lake Superior to wash up a treasure.
Things to do
Agate hunters can park at the Beaver Bay Wayside and Trailhead and follow a path along the Beaver River as it ducks under Hwy. 61 and spills into Lake Superior in a rocky cove. Other spots for rock-hounding include Pebble Beach at Split Rock State Park, the Split Rock River, or Agate Beach at Gooseberry Falls State Park.
Two shoreline coves with a completely different feel also can be found within a short drive. Iona’s Beach Scientific and Natural Area features pink-hued cobblestones that clatter and chatter as waves wash across them. And nearby Silver Bay’s aptly named Black Beach encompasses a sheltered sandy cove with a large rock outcrop dotted with trees and vibrant sunburst lichen.
The importance of Split Rock Lighthouse amplifies during Lake Superior’s late-fall storm season. History lovers can tour the lighthouse and talk with costumed interpreters through daily tours from May to October. The lighthouse is closed until mid-May, but the Visitor Center with its interpretive film stays open year-round (1-218-226-6372; splitrocklighthouse.org).
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park includes 14 miles of trails for hiking, biking, skiing and snowshoeing. In addition to the Day Hill hike, we enjoyed a trail that paralleled and crossed two branches of the Split Rock River with a small waterfall. The park’s 20 cart-in sites fill quickly, but the staff also manages rustic state forest campgrounds at Indian Lake and Sullivan Lake.
Beaver Bay Agate Shop & Museum has expanded with butterfly collections, along with its vast selection of agates, exotic rocks, jewelry, souvenirs and books on rock collecting (1-218-226-4847; beaverbayagateshop.com).
Based in the Silver Bay Marina, North Shore Scenic Cruises takes guests on 2½-hour tours for from-the-lake views of the lighthouse, Palisade Head and Shovel Point, with its dramatic cliffs (1-218-464-6162; scenicsuperior.com).
One of the best paved stretches of the Gitchi-Gami State Trail runs 17 miles from Gooseberry Falls State Park to Beaver Bay and Silver Bay. Some stretches are steep, and the trail will eventually run 86 miles from Two Harbors to Grand Marais (ggta.org).
North Shore Adventure Park opened a natural rock-climbing wall on the outskirts of Silver Bay this year. It will expand to ice climbing and ziplining as the site develops (612-357-7316; northshore adventurepark.com).
For a quirky roadside stop, Second Hand Rose Flea Market draws travelers with outdoor tables filled with vintage glassware (1-218-226-4844).
Where to eat
Camp 61 goes for a roadhouse feel in its 1937 eatery and motel, but it’s a comfortable one with regional souvenirs and a kick-back vibe, while you’re waiting for meals such as fresh-caught herring, Reubens, fish tacos or the award-winning pulled pork. Overnighters can reserve one of eight renovated rooms (1-218-226-4351; campsixtyone.com).
Lemon Wolf will fill you up with fresh herring, walleye and rainbow trout with wild rice, Swedish meatballs and hot turkey or beef sandwiches, but it’s wise to leave room for Rocky Wolf Trail pie or Grammy’s coconut cream pie (1-218-226-7225; lemonwolfcafe.com).
Where to sleep
With a pretty hook of land guests can walk out on, Cove Point Lodge offers lodge rooms facing the lake, along with cottages. Extras include a pool, campfire and a cozy boathouse for playing board games or relaxing near the water. Bikes can be rented from its casual eatery along Hwy. 61. Summer events may include family movie nights, beach barbecue and Sunday brunches on the Wenonah cruise boat (1-218-226-3221; covepointlodge.com).
AmericInn Lodge and Suites may be a part of a cookie-cutter chain, but this one has a one-of-a-kind location facing Lake Superior on the northeast side of Silver Bay (1-218-226-4300; americinn.com).
Beaver Bay lies about 200 miles north of the Twin Cities. It takes about three hours and 20 minutes driving north on Interstate 35 to Duluth and Hwy. 61 to Beaver Bay.
Lisa Meyers McClintick wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and the ninth edition of “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”