Trip Report: Lutsen Sea Villas + Minnesota's North Shore
Updated: Dec 4, 2022
We recently had the chance to get away for the weekend at the beautiful Lutsen Sea Villas on Lake Superior. The North Shore is an absolutely gorgeous part of Minnesota; the landscape there is totally different from the rest of the state, in large part due to glacial action millions of years ago. This area is home to Minnesota’s only mountain range - the Sawtooths - as well as eight state parks and the famed Superior Hiking Trail. So much to do, so much to see! Read on for our recommendations and weekend itinerary!
It’s about a 4 hour drive to the Lutsen area from the Twin Cities, so we packed up the car and the dogs and hit the road around noon. We knew we’d have a full kitchen to cook our meals at Lutsen Sea Villas, but we made a stop at Betty’s Pies to pick up dessert for the weekend. Betty’s has been a North Shore mainstay for 65 years! Rather than committing to a) just one flavor and b) a whole pie for the two of us, we opted to create a pie sampler and chose a couple of different slice flavors to taste throughout the weekend.
We arrived at Lutsen Sea Villas a little after 4 and checked in at the main building. The lobby’s cozy fireplace and extensive board game/puzzle library had us excited for the weekend ahead! With keys in hand, we drove over to our townhouse building and started unloading and unpacking. We loved all the handy hooks in the front hallway of our two bedroom unit - perfect for winter coats, backpacks, and dog leashes. The unit was decorated with tons of cute cabin/woodsy touches, and it was so well stocked - all the way down to firewood, firestarters, and newspaper for kindling.
Once we’d gotten our things mostly put away, we walked the dogs out in the parking lot area for potty time - it was good to establish this routine quickly in our stay so they felt comfortable doing their business in a new spot. Then it was time for a quick spin behind the building and a walk along the shore for some sunset pictures. Lutsen Sea Villas are set right up against the lake - literally a stone’s throw from the water! As the sky turned shades of pink and orange, Bert and Ernie snuffled around in the snow and took turns licking the ice-covered boulders along the shore.
The four of us hopped back in the car and drove about 20 minutes north to Grand Marais. We had a mission - beer! On our last North Shore trip, we’d enjoyed lunch and some drinks at Voyageur Brewing Co and knew that we’d want to stock up on a couple of crowlers for the weekend. Voyageur has a dog-friendly patio, but given the single-digit temps and the foot plus of snow on the deck chairs, Bert and Ernie waited in the car. Voyageur has a full menu of apps and food as well as plenty of beer and fun merch, including dog toys. We especially appreciated the Bernese Mountain Dog representation with a couple of stuffed animals and a really cute sticker.
After seeing beautifully clear skies full of stars on Friday night, we awoke on Saturday to lots of clouds. As we watched the lake out the windows, we could see that the snow had begun. We made breakfast and packed up sandwiches, our usual post-hike fare, but we made them a little bit fancier than our usual PB&Js because *vacation*! We’d stocked up on some fancy meats and cheeses to give our hiking lunches a special touch - highly recommend the turkey/fig jam/manchego combo.
When we took the dogs out, we extended our quick potty stroll to explore the property a bit more. Lutsen Sea Villas’ on-site trail, the Villa Ridge Trail, loops around the resort and along the lakeshore. We stopped to take some pictures on the beach near the playground; we had to be careful to stay on the trail because the snow went over our boots when we stepped off the trodden paths. Bert and Ernie were up to their shoulders!
At about 9:00, we hit the road for our day of adventuring. Our first stop was Fika Coffee for a maple latte and some nifty steeped coffee bags (like tea bags, but with nitrogen sealed coffee grounds inside). Just a short 10 minute drive later, we arrived at Cascade River State Park and strapped on our snowshoes. (For more about how we pack for day hiking, check out this blog post) Bert and Ernie really seem to enjoy hiking in snow flurries - so do we! To start, we joined up with the Cascade River Lower Loop (also marked as the Hiking Club trail) and came to a bridge overlooking frozen Cascade Falls. The river was mostly frozen over, but not entirely as the motion of the water kept the base of the falls from completely freezing.
As we continued hiking, our trail joined up with part of the Superior Hiking Trail. It’s always fun to see the blue blazes on trees and know that you are part of something much bigger. Just as people hike the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Coast Trail in whole or in parts, adventurers undertake the SHT with similar fortitude. The SHT is over 300 miles long, beginning just south of Duluth at Jay Cooke State Park and carrying right on up to the Canadian border. Along the hike, we noticed lots of cages around trees, protecting the small white and red pines that were trying to grow without interruption or damage from humans and animals.
After a quick change into some dry socks, we headed a bit further north to Grand Marais, where we enjoyed our car picnic lunch while watching the waves battering the harbor walls. We parked out on Artist’s Point, a little spit of land that juts out into the lake. It houses a US Coast Guard station in the summertime, but it’s just a seasonal outpost since there are no boats in the harbor during the winter.
Next, it was time to fuel up our car and ourselves for our next adventure.
We stopped at one of the gas stations in Grand Marais and also at Java Moose, a cute coffee shop with harbor views, for a peppermint hot chocolate before we began our drive on the Gunflint Trail. Set off from downtown Grand Marais beneath a decorative sign, this scenic drive is the gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
We kept a close watch for any signs of moose, but they must have been hunkered down in the snow. There are a handful of turnoffs on the Gunflint for various resorts and boat launches, but make sure you have a full tank of gas from Grand Marais before starting out as there are very few opportunities to fill up. We lost cell service about 15 miles out from Grand Marais, too. As long as you stay on the main road, it’s tough to get lost (just straight out and back), but definitely be mindful of your car’s capabilities and emergency supplies. Bert and Ernie were happy campers riding along in the back seat.
By the time we returned to Lutsen Sea Villas, the lake was really roiling. The storm was in full swing and huge slushy waves were breaking on the rocks outside our windows! Lake Superior doesn’t have tides, but it is definitely impacted by weather and the waves are big enough to surf (and people do!). We spent a cozy evening by the fire at Lutsen Sea Villas, making dinner and playing cribbage. After a busy day of hiking and riding around, Bert and Ernie were wiped out.
In the morning, the snow was still falling but the lake had calmed significantly. Bert always enjoys a morning cuddle, and he really loved looking out the windows at the lake view. It was really special to be able to watch the lake change over the course of our visit - so tempting to just stay snuggled up all day long watching the snow fall. Alas, checkout time was looming and we had adventuring to do! After breakfast (and dog eggs, of course), we packed up and checked out from our stay.
To get headed in the right direction towards home, we chose to visit a state park that lay south of the Lutsen area. Tettegouche State Park straddles Highway 61 (the main thoroughfare running north-south along the shore), and we chose to explore the lakeside piece with the large visitor center. This gave us some different views and terrain than our “inland” hike at Cascade River the previous day. Tettegouche has a huge visitor center with equipment rental, camping registration, a small gift shop, vending machines, and most importantly - heated bathrooms. There is plenty of picnic seating and a small amphitheater behind the large building.
Heading to the right/south along the shore, you’ll come across the Baptism River trail, a short path down some stairs that leads to a spectacular view of the lake. Once we made it back to the visitor center area, we continued north along the Shovel Point trail for more great views. This trail had quite a few stairs (many with handrails) and they were really slippery with about 4” of fresh snow cover. We had our traction devices on our boots, but we still ended up sliding our way down a couple of sets! I wouldn’t recommend wearing snowshoes on this trail because of all the stairs. The Shovel Point trail is about 0.6 miles out to the scenic viewpoint, so 1.2 miles round trip.
As we packed up and began our drive back home, we took inventory of our North Shore adventures. When we’d visited without the dogs in the fall, we were able to hike at Grand Portage State Park, Judge C.R. Magney State Park, and Gooseberry Fall State Park. We’d added two more to the list on this trip but still needed to visit George Crosby Manitou, Temperance River, and the iconic Split Rock Lighthouse! We’ve only scratched the surface of inland hikes and know that there is so much more to see in the Boundary Waters, around Ely, and beyond.