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Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, Minnesota

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Approximately halfway between Duluth and Grand Marais is Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. Situated along Lake Superior’s northern shore, the park is notably famous for a 54-foot-tall lighthouse that sits atop a 130-foot cliff. While driving down to the lakeshore from the lighthouse, you twist and turn through an amazing display of birch stands and quickly begin to realize that this park has much to offer. Often, I try combining features of the park such as nearby Ellingson Island in the foreground with the lighthouse in the far background, or I’ll use the rocky shore as a leading line to the lighthouse. The shoreline combined with the grandeur of Lake Superior provides an unlimited amount of compositions.

Spring months are fairly cool, with rain melting the snow while the forest starts to come to life. Summer months are warmer and the days are long, tourist season is in full swing, and the park can be busy. Sunrise and sunset can be dramatic, but clouds can be elusive. Autumn brings fall colors, cooler temperatures and shorter days. Winter brings very short days as sunrise begins around 7:30-8:00 a.m. and sunset at 4:00-4:30 p.m. The cold weather also means the park will be mostly vacant. Winter sunrise displays on Lake Superior can be vivid as cloud banks hug the horizon, rising mist whips side to side in front of you, ice covers the foreground, and the sky lights up with intensity. The temperature on Lake Superior’s North Shore, and consequently the shooting conditions, changes dramatically throughout the year. So many elements can combine for impactful imagery.

Photo Experience
With so much expansive water in the lake and shoreline, I bring a Hoya circular polarizing filter to minimize reflections on wet rocks and Hitech 4×6 grad ND filters to balance the exposure of the foreground while keeping detail in the sky. Many times I use a B+W 3.0 10-stop ND filter to get several-minute exposures for dynamic image blurs of rolling water. A tripod is necessary as exposure times are usually longer during sunrise and sunset, and I almost always shoot with a cable release for sharpness during long exposures. I use my Canon EF 17-40mm ƒ/4 L to capture the sweeping landscape and a 70-200mm ƒ/4 to zoom in on the lighthouse from a distance.

Best Times
Anytime is a good time to visit the park, but if you’re looking for warmer weather, you’ll want to visit during the busy summer months or in the spring. Even in the summer, be prepared for cold weather, and if planning a spring visit, bring warm clothes and try to visit later in the season as the forest will have come to life. Fall is also a terrific time to view the park as the birch leaves turn golden-yellow and blanket the forest. Braving the cold winter months pays off, however, as the landscape takes on a whole new look. The lake’s surface temperature is often warmer than the frigid air and creates an amazing mist that hovers and moves over the lake on extremely cold days. The mist, ice-covered rocks and interesting visual textures provide extra elements that can bring drama, depth and interest to your images. As large storms roll in, you could be greeted with waves as high as 10 feet. This adds an exciting element to capture, but can become dangerous as the jagged shoreline becomes very slippery when wet.

Contact: Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources,, (218) 226-6377. See more of Thompson’s work at

Essential Gear
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