These are days when I get two or three calls, asking for the route to see the best northwoods autumn color.
For a few years I wrote about heading north at this time of year. We rambled through the endless timber, sometimes lost. We always wished that we lived in quirky, artsy-craftsy Grand Marais, Minnesota, from mid-summer until the first light snowfall. Now, scenic-seekers are phoning to ask how to find this northland.
Follow your nose, I tell them. When we reached Hayward, Wisconsin, we breathed deeply and sensed that we were in the right terrain. It has an essence of “up north,” and from there we headed toward the crystal Lake Superior and the awe of a place called Naniboujou. I am dazzled to even write that name, Naniboujou.
This is an ideal time of year to admire the northland, the miles of color that are a paintbox of orange maples and yellow birches. The leaves are yet to peak in Ely, Minnesota, a ranger at Superior Forest told me last week.
FIRST checkpoint: Duluth, Minnesota. Here it all begins and you can make Duluth in a long day’s drive. You’ll pass Glensheen, a lovely, spooky haunted mansion of murder. Visitors are welcome — for a fee. Stay on U.S. 61, and take what a marker calls “The Scenic Route.” You will be so close to Lake Superior that on a windy day, the spray from the blue lake waters will splash on your windshield. Minnesota Magazine calls this route, “One of the most beautiful drives in all of America.”
Ahead is Two Harbors, where you will want to stop for some smoked salmon at Al’s Smoke House before heading through long tunnels into the bona fide northland of Split Rock Lighthouse. The adventure takes hold if you turn off at a hamlet called Lutsen and find yourself engulfed in miles of dense timber and lakes where you may see a moose. There are no markers, you just drive. If you’re lucky you’ll find Trestle Inn, a rustic bar hewn from old railroad trestle timbers. It’s a hidden treasure, of good burgers and homemade root beer.
Take any network of winding dirt trails. It’s a tuckered-out description, but the autumn color is breathtaking. Helen and I cannot speak to each other. We murmur, “This must be heaven.” The colorful leaves bend so low they tickle the top of your car.
YOU CAN easily get lost, but who cares? These roads must lead to somewhere, but once we were very lost, and it was getting dark, but we found a “nobody home” type house. A friendly Asian woman emerged to sell us a jar of honey and pointed the way out.
Aim to overnight in Blue Fin, with its solid glass bathrooms for showering and still not lose your view of Lake Superior. At nightfall, this Eden lights a bonfire on the beach for guests to toast marshmallows.
We are eager to drive 35 miles to Naniboujou. It is worth the trip to dine in this astonishing place, built to replicate a Cree lodge. It flunked as a country club in 1929, and in the last decade has been born again as a bizarre restaurant and small hotel. The dining room is towering with Cree American Indian color and culture.
Try a trip up north. Try to follow my awkward directions. Do it soon before snow touches all that fall foliage.