Located along the spectacular North Shore of Lake Superior, Split Rock Lighthouse State Park is one of a series of picturesque parks located between Duluth and Grand Marais in the Arrowhead region of Minnesota. If you’ve never been to northern Minnesota, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the rugged landscape. Reach the park on State Highway 61, 50 miles northeast of Duluth or 20 miles northeast of Two Harbors. Camping is available at the park, including unique cart-in campsites.
The lighthouse itself stands 130 feet above Lake Superior on sheer volcanic cliffs. Built in 1910 and initially accessible only by water, its construction was prompted by a 1905 gale that wrecked seven vessels near the location and 30 ships across Lake Superior.
The lighthouse cliffs are made up of billion-year-old anorthosite, a hard, single-mineral igneous rock that intruded into the preexisting rocks from below. The area was further shaped by the last period of glaciation, which helped to create the Lake Superior Basin and shear the cliffs along the North Shore.
Use the Superior Hiking Trail, a 205-mile continuous trail stretching from Two Harbors to the Canadian border, to explore the Split Rock River and for further exploration of the North Woods. There are many access points to this trail system. Paddlers can kayak or canoe along the Lake Superior Water Trail from Two Harbors to the park. Bicyclists can use the newly completed Gitchi Gami bike trail. If going in the wintertime, take along your snowshoes or cross-country skis.
Minnesota has rapidly changing weather conditions, with Canadian fronts driving through the area with amazing speed. It can snow on you almost anytime of the year. There’s typically snow cover from late fall to early spring. Prepare adequately. The North Woods can be wet, too, so plan on protecting your equipment from the elements. Another factor to consider is mosquito season, which starts in mid-June and stretches through the first frost in early September. Bring your bug juice.
This park has more to offer than a dramatic lighthouse on a cliff. At 2,075 acres, you easily could hike the trails in a day or two, but the variety of photographic subjects will slow you down, including rocky beaches, protected coves, birch and pine woods, and lush ground cover with showy trillium, pink lady slippers, lichen, mosses and other types of vegetation.
Once you’ve explored the lighthouse grounds, go down the Little Two Harbors Trail and hike along the rocky shore, taking in views of the lighthouse and exploring the small coves. The shoreline is covered with rounded gray rocks, with the occasional piece of driftwood. During winter, Lake Superior often freezes over, creating interesting ice formations along the shore. After shoreline exploration, head into the woods, possibly along Split Rock River or Split Rock Creek. The view of the coastline from Day Hill is dramatic. Catch the golden evening light on the lighthouse and cliffs back at Little Two Harbors.
When finished with Split Rock, check out the other excellent parks along the North Shore, including Gooseberry Falls, Cascade River, Temperance River, Tettegouche, George H. Crosby Manitou and Judge C.R. Magney.
The park is open year-round. Summers are short, but pleasant, with average daily temperatures ranging from the 50s to 70s. The 16 hours of sunlight and two-plus hours of twilight will wear you out in mid-summer. Spring and fall days are cool. Fall color starts in early to mid-September and the leaves are gone by mid-October. Late fall is the best time to catch the northern lights, especially when solar activity is high. Winter conditions are chilly, with average highs of 23 and lows of 5, but you’ll have solitude, short days, ice floes on Lake Superior and snow-covered woods.
Contact: Split Rock Lighthouse, (218) 226-6377, www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/split_rock_lighthouse/index.html; Superior Hiking Trail Association, www.shta.org.
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