North Shore Waterfalls: Stay close to shore

North Shore Waterfalls: Stay close to shore
Signs warning Gooseberry Falls visitor

Just in the last few days, the waterfalls of the North Shore, from Duluth to Grand Portage, have shed their curtains of ice and are starting to roar. Record late snowfall will feed these falls for weeks to come as the woods slowly release their snowy load.

River Ice

River ice from the Gooseberry pushed up against an old cedar

The ice on the rivers must have just broken up in the last week. Along the banks of the Gooseberry River today, foot-thick chunks of river ice were piled up against the ancient cedar trees that hold the banks against the milky flood.

Unfortunately for us fans of waterfalls, it will be tough going to see these torrents up close. The snowpack still reaches all the way to the lakeshore. At Gooseberry Falls State Park, where at least a foot of snow is found in the woods around the visitor center and much more inland, signs warn visitors to the most popular falls to use ice cleats (and “CAUTION”)

How do I know?

I decided this morning to check out one of my favorite North Shore waterfall hikes. It’s Hike #17 in my book Hiking the North Shore: 50 Fabulous Day Hikes in Minnesota’s Spectacular Lake Superior Region. It’s a three-mile hike that runs up one side of and down the other of the Gooseberry River, bringing you to all five of the park’s main waterfalls.

Upper Falls, Gooseberry River
Upper Falls, Gooseberry River

It was easy going on the wide paved path as far as Upper Falls, the blocky fall right above Highway 61. Then it got snowy. And slushy. And wet.

Andrew Slade
Andrew on Fifth Fall Bridge

Slippy through the slush along the southwest bank, I made it all the way to Fifth Falls, where I crossed the river on the incredibly scenic footbridge. The northeast bank of the river had more sunshine on it and was a bit less snowy. And a bit more muddy. It was tough going.

Other parks, same story

This pattern of snowy slushy hiking on North Shore waterfall hike is true all the way up the shore. The snow gets deep fast as soon as you head inland from the lake and from Highway 61. Another favorite waterfalls hike, the Split Rock River loop on the Superior Hiking Trail, is probably deep in wet snow along the west side of the river.

For the best waterfall hiking on the North Shore this week, stick close to the lake and on well-used paths. If you have cleats for your shoes, strap them on; last thing you want is to slip off the well-packed trail down the gorge and into the just-melted river water rushing away.

Broken Up River Ice
Broken up river ice below Middle Falls, Gooseberry River

In Gooseberry, the basic trail around Middle and Lower Falls is in decent shape. People were strolling around in shorts and sneakers, despite the warnings. The famous Middle Falls is as scenic as anything else in the park. The stacked-up pile of broken-up river ice near the base of the falls shows the power of the river at break-up. At Cascade River State Park, the short loop around the lower river is good for hiking, with some mud and some occasional ice spots.

So you should definitely go check out some North Shore waterfalls this week or next. By the time the great hiking trails dry up, the waterfalls might have dried up too.


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