Minnesota's Backyard: At the tip of the Arrowhead, shared waterfalls at Grand Portage State Park
Destination No. 7 on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks offers history and hiking at the extreme northeast edge of the state. Grand Portage State Park is relatively new, but this site has drawn visitors for literally centuries, at the place where Minnesota and Canada meet, and native cultures met European explorers for the first time.
GRAND PORTAGE, Minn. -- Many maintain hope that things may change soon as the pandemic wanes and life incrementally returns to pre-March 2020 times. But for now, if you want to visit Canada, you most likely cannot, unless your journey there is “deemed to be essential” by the border official you encounter at a port of entry.
But if you are truly longing to see a neighbor from the north, you can go to Grand Portage State Park , have them meet you on the other side of the Pigeon River, and wave. It’s only a few hundred feet or less to another country. But you are unlikely to be able to converse with your Canadian friend, as the river’s raging waters are what draw visitors to this most northeasterly of Minnesota’s 66 state parks.
At the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers in the Twin Cities, Fort Snelling refers to a historic site, a former military post, a state park, an athletic facility and a light rail train station. As people learn when they drive to the tip of the Minnesota Arrowhead, the name Grand Portage is similar in that it identifies not only a fantastic state park, but also a town, a historic site vital to European exploration of Minnesota, a reservation, a casino/hotel/marina/campground complex and a national monument.
One of the newest uses of the name, opened in 1994, is the state park, which is unique in that it is the only one in Minnesota on land not owned by the state. The day-use park, and the access to its waterfalls, is part of a cooperative agreement between the state and the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. In the new visitor center, opened in 2010, are numerous displays about the history and culture of the region’s original residents, before European explorers came here as part of their fruitless search for a route to the Far East. But the Pigeon River and its waterfalls are the primary attraction.
From the visitor center, down a half-mile paved trail that is wheelchair accessible, is an overlook above the High Falls, which at 120 feet is Minnesota’s highest waterfall. For the more adventurous hikers, a nearly five-mile round trip hike takes them further down the river to Middle Falls.
“That’s a much more rugged hike, with 600 to 700 feet of elevation gain over the course of the hike,” said Travis Novitsky, the park manager. “You go up over a ridge that includes views of Lake Superior, and you can see the Susie Islands and see Isle Royale from up there.”
With access to Canada cut off, for now, it has had a negative impact on the residents of the region, who in normal times travel to Thunder Bay, Ontario (about an hour away) for groceries and to see a movie on occasion. But the lack of border access has not dampened the desire of visitors from the United States to visit the park. Novitsky said their June visitor numbers are double what is normal, and in April -- traditionally a slow month -- they were quadruple typical numbers, as folks seek to get outside on the back side of the pandemic.
Grand Portage exists because of those Pigeon River waterfalls. The region’s first European explorers could not take birchbark canoes over those raging waters, and came up with a roughly nine-mile overland route to a more tranquil stretch of river that took the voyageurs, eventually, to Rainy Lake, the Rainy River, Lake of the Woods and points further west.
That history is on display just a few miles south of the state park at Grand Portage National Monument , where costumed actors take visitors back to the days of the fur trade, and the village’s fur trading post and stockade had been re-created on the site where they first stood in 1731.
Isle Royale National Park is considerably closer to this part of Minnesota than it is to any part of Michigan, but still, the 45-mile long island in Lake Superior is considered a part of Michigan, not Minnesota. In any case, Grand Portage is a noted departure point for excursions to Isle Royale, with two ferries making the two-hour trip to the island and back each day in the ice-free months.