In the minds of many Minnesotans, the North Shore ends at the crossroads of Highway 61 and the Gunflint Trail in Grand Marais. The last 40-odd miles to the Canadian border consists only of a bunch of trees with a wide expanse of Lake Superior water on the passenger’s side. Not much else to see or do. I’m ashamed to say that I was one of these people for the first 59 years of my existence. But who says common sense can’t come later in life? Fortunately, the explorer in me kicked a little harder this summer. After pondering a visit to the two northeastern-most State Parks in Minnesota for a few years now, I finally took the plunge — literally! The magnificent waterfalls I witnessed at Judge C.R. Magney State Park and Grand Portage State Park prompted the internal question, “What took so long?!?!”
Basecamping at Cascade River
This long-time-coming trip included tentative plans to explore a few of the State Parks south of Grand Marais, spend some time shopping in Grand Marais, take a drive up the Gunflint Trail, and hike the two State Parks located north of Grand Marais. For proximity reasons we settled on Cascade Lodge as our basecamp.
It turns out that this location was absolutely perfect! We were less than 3 miles down the road from Cascade River State Park (and walking distance from the mouth of the Cascade River at Lake Superior.) Our cabin/hotel room was also just 10 miles south of Grand Marais, the gateway to the Gunflint Trail. Continue northeast for 14 miles past Grand Marais and you’re at Judge C.R. Magney State Park. From Judge Magney it’s a pretty short hop, about 26.5 more miles, up to Grand Portage State Park. Less time in the car and more time mucking up my hiking boots … ya gotta like that!
Trekking to Grand Portage State Park
Since Grand Portage State Park was our most burning destination, we decided to take advantage of Friday’s 75°F forecast with sunny skies. Construction work in Grand Marais caused a very slight travel delay, but we still completed the drive to the park in about an hour. Although we passed right by the entry into Judge C.R. Magney State Park along the way, we decided to forego the stop on this particular day and dedicate all of our efforts to the northernmost destination.
As we pulled into the Grand Portage State Park parking lot it was a bit disconcerting to gaze at the orange cones just 50 yards down the road, blocking the gateway into Canada. The border was completely shut down and the signs and blockades certainly weren’t portraying a welcoming feeling. Knowing that our Canadian neighbors want nothing to do with the germs from the south tamped down the excitement in my step.
But the crushed spirit didn’t last long. The beautiful new visitor’s center building beckoned us up its stone walkway lined with colorful animal signs. Each sign triumphantly displayed its Ojibwe animal name below its English animal name. The inside of the center shared more of the same beauty and history, but unfortunately the gift shop was closed for precautionary reasons. We gathered our trail map and headed for the main attraction … high falls on the Pigeon River. Estimated at approximately 120 feet, this is the highest waterfall in Minnesota, (but technically not, as half of the falls is perched on the Canadian side of the border.)
The hike quickly thrusts you into a ribbon of trees, brush and wildflowers on both sides of the incredibly-easy-to-navigate paved trail. The smooth, flat stretch of blacktop snakes along the river as the water rushes by on the right. Just a short distance from the visitor’s center we could start to hear the crashing force of the waterfall. The call of the water lured us off the main trail and down the bank to the rugged, rocky shoreline. From this new perspective we marveled at the Pigeon as it splashed through a beautiful black rock gorge.
After a few minutes of quiet appreciation for this magical spot we scrambled back over the boulders and up the hill to the main path. Less than a half mile from the trailhead we hit a well-maintained boardwalk. A slow upward slope to the first observation platform made the view of the high falls wheelchair accessible — the enormous smile of a fellow explorer seated firmly in a wheelchair verified that this was an incredible idea.
Standing at a point level with, or maybe slightly above the 120-ft. crest of the plunging water, I tried to decide which of the three observation platforms I preferred the most. The thought was only momentary, as I quickly decided they were all pretty magnificent in their own way. I took one last longing gaze at the water cascading into a colorful rainbow which hovered above the pool below. A large, satisfied grin spread across my face. The half mile hike back to the car included that hop back in my step that had been taken away by the border blockade when we first arrived.
A “Hell” of a Hike at Judge C.R. Magney
New day, new hike. Who wouldn’t want to set out in search of a waterfall named “The Devil’s Kettle?” This one had me a bit more worried, as the relatively short 2.2-mile round-trip hike earned a “Strenuous” ranking in Waterfalls of Minnesota’s North Shore – A Guide for Sightseers, Hikers & Romantics. I’ve found the authors’ assessments in this very informative guidebook, written by Eve and Gary Wallinga, to be pretty spot-on for my hiking abilities.
After reading and researching a bit more about the staircases and inclines involved in the hike, my wife and I decided to give it a go anyway, with the pact that we would scrap the mission if the trail wasn’t suited for our knees, ankles, backs or physical capabilities.
A quarter mile into the hike the packed earth/gravel trail that travelled alongside the Brule River was still a piece of cake. Eventually the gradient started to rise as we climbed a few rocky hills and natural stairways, but nothing was too strenuous. I’d guess we were about two-thirds of the way to our final destination when we reached the bench overlooking high falls. We sensed the dreaded staircase was nearby. Initial approach to this monstrosity of a wooden path created a lump in my throat. The steps seemingly led to a forest underworld that would be quite the chore to hike back out of. Is this the reason why the falls earned the name Devil’s Kettle?
Going Way Down Was Easy
The force of gravity plays along on the way down, so the steps were very negotiable. Well-placed platforms in manageable increments allowed for short rests whenever needed. But I’ll have to admit, my subconscious was already dreading the return trip up before I was about halfway down. At the bottom of the staircase is a small detour (less than two dozen steps) to the upper falls. This small but powerful water plunge is worth a look, but I’d suggest waiting until your trip back to do so. Instead, continue to follow the boardwalk to an intimidating but do-able steep flight of stairs that takes you up to the Devil’s Kettle overlooks.
Walking out onto the wooden overlook produced my first glimpse into the soul of this conflicting side-by-side waterfall. It reminded me of those movies where the protagonist tries to decide who to listen to, the Angel on his right shoulder or the Devil on his left. In this wilderness confrontation, the waterfall’s right side plummets normally over it’s rocky edge into a standard plunge pool below, eventually racing further downstream like any angelic waterfall would do. But then there’s the left side. So damn tempting … inviting you to follow it into a cavern of no return. The raging water drops violently into a rock hole and suddenly disappears.
No-one really knows where that Devil’s water goes after it dives into that cave. Legend has it that scientists have dumped dye into the water in an attempt to trace its path, never to see it again. Numerous ping-pong balls and other floatie things have also made that trip over the edge, never to return. It’s a phenomenon that, to this date, hasn’t been explained. Watching the water disappear was mesmerizing to me, but I resisted Satan’s charm and declined the plunge myself!
The Return Trip? We REALLY Stepped It Up!
It took a while, but eventually the lore wore off and we figured it was time for an about-face. The beginning of the trail back was a bit daunting. That damned staircase was the first obstacle on our return mission, so we really weren’t too excited to leave. We began the climb as I ticked off the numbers in my head. It was either 167 or 177 steps total – I admittedly momentarily lost track of my count at one of the platforms, unsure if I had stopped to take a breath at 101 or 111 steps. I guess that’s what depleted oxygen levels and excessively high humidity can do to an old codger like me.
We pressed on and my math skills never failed me again. Once the top of the stairs became a reality, we gave each other a high five, knowing the rest of the path to the parking lot was almost entirely downhill and uneventful.
Drumroll, Please ….
Back in the car we discussed the two very different waterfall experiences. A conclusion was reached that both were amazing in their own right. The pure size, power and outright beauty of Pigeon Falls was a step above (and 50 feet higher than) anything we had ever witnessed in Minnesota, although it couldn’t compare to a few of Yosemite’s treasures. Meanwhile the Devil’s Kettle was a mystery that we still couldn’t comprehend. Where DOES all that water go after dropping into the cauldron?
In the end there was really no reason to pick a favorite. Both High Falls on the Pigeon River at Grand Portage State Park, and The Devil’s Kettle Waterfalls on the Brule River at Judge C.R. Magney State Park are more than worthy of a full day’s trip north of Grand Marais. It may have been my first time visiting these special spots, but hopefully it won’t be my last. This truly “Superior Experience” convinced me not to wait 59 more years until I make this pilgrimage again!
Please Share Your Favorite!
Do you have a favorite North Shore waterfall, or, for that matter, favorite waterfall anywhere in the world? We’d love it if you’d share a picture or its location with us in the comments box below or email it to us at ParkYourselfOutdoors@gmail.com.
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