Landing on an early morning flight from Chicago, Minnesota looked frigid, peaceful and vast. Exactly the type of mini-trip I was looking for when I booked it on the whim a month ago. Coming with me on my Minnesota trip, was my boyfriend Roman. We planned to fly into Minneapolis early in the morning, and then drive 4 hours north past Duluth to Tofte, Minnesota.
What were we going to do in Tofte, Minnesota and why would we go in the dead of winter? It may surprise people but I actually love going to cold places in winter? Why? Because of the few crowds and the incredible beauty of winter. You’ll see in my pictures that if you can travel in cold, the rewards are worth it.
So fresh off the plane, the outside temperature hovered around 12 F (-11 C). Our plan was simple, grab some food from Trader Joes so we didn’t have to eat out for every meal. So we grabbed our lovely rental car from Alamo, grabbed a quick bite to eat at a café, got our food from Trader Joes, and hopped on I-35 N towards Duluth.
The drive north is very easy and pleasant. Even on a Friday afternoon the highways in Minnesota weren’t very busy and the weather was great. The further north we drove, the more we noticed how much snow was on the ground and the less dense the highway became. Duluth, on the edge of Lake Superior, is the last major city before empty northern Minnesota.
Near Duluth there is a hill right before the edge of the city that overlooks Duluth, northern Wisconsin and Lake Superior. We missed the exit at first but turned around and snapped some photos on top of the hill, totally worth it! We then drove into Superior, Wisconsin, just to say we went to Wisconsin which Duluth borders to the north.
Duluth is a cute city but there isn’t much to do. This is however the first chance to see Lake Superior, in which we would drive along for the rest of our trip. From Duluth it’s about another 2 more hours north on MN-61 through national forests and small Minnesotan cities. Our destination was Chateau LeVeaux in Tofte, Minnesota near the Lutsen Ski Resort.
I would highly recommend it, no matter if you’re traveling to northern Minnesota in the winter or summer. Chateau LeVeaux has all types of cabins and when we arrived we were booked in one of the smaller cabins. While checking in, the television in our room wasn’t working so we were given an option to be upgraded for free plus a discount. We jumped because now we had a bigger cabin plus a kitchen to cook in!
Up to Canada
On the second day we decided to use our passports and make the 2 hour drive north to Thunder Bay, Canada. It ended up being a great day to go since it was the warmest day out of the 4 days we were there. It did snow that morning but the drive never seemed unsafe and there were few people on the road.
The drive is extremely beautiful and peaceful. The route is not very populated with people and there was a very nice mix between sun, landscape and the lake. We stopped many times on the highway to snap some dramatic photos and tried to enjoy the journey and not rush. If you’re planning to enter Canada for just a day, the border guards will scrutinize you on both sides so prepare for that! I get admittedly nervous at border crossings even though I have nothing to be nervous about!
Once across the border there is two things I noticed. Roads in this part of Canada were better than Minnesota and it is even emptier than Minnesota. Cellular data doesn’t work for us in Canada so we relied on old-fashioned maps and back country roads to guide us to the famous Kakabeka Falls, about 25 minutes west of Thunder Bay, Canada.
This provincial park has a minimum of 3 dollars to get in and was nearly empty! At around 15 F, the falls were nearly frozen solid, giving us some very unique pictures. However it was still possible to hear the water that was flowing behind the ice and there was some small openings to view it. It was a great find and I’m glad we decided to stop there first.
Heading east on the Trans-Canada Highway, we arrived in Thunder Bay, a rather unimpressive city. In fact we could never really find where the downtown actually was? We picked up some Starbucks and then drove south to the Fort Williams Historical Park that was empty. In fact we went inside and there was nobody even at the register handing out tickets. It was supposed to be one of the top things to do in Thunder Bay but it wasn’t even open. Oh well.
Back in Minnesota
After we crossed back to Minnesota we decided to take that night easy, cook a meal, have some wine and watch a movie. The next day we decided to make it a very easy day and head up to the Lutsen Mountains, a short 5 minute drive from our hotel. That day the weather was freezing, barely reaching 10 F outside. We had to ride in a gondola for a chilly 10 minutes before we reached the top of Moose Mountain, 1,000 feet above Lake Superior.
On Moose Mountain there is a very nice lodge on top with huge windows that overlook the resort and Lake Superior. We snapped some photos at the top and then went inside, shredded our jackets and had a nice cup of coffee while enjoying the view. This is the type of vacation that I like sometimes, when I’m required to do nothing!
After spending an hour or so we heard there was an observatory point that was a mere 3 minute walk away from the lodge. We bundled up again and walked to the point, getting lost a couple of times. Honestly it was pretty but nothing really to write home about. However I took some lovely pictures of use in the beautiful snow-covered forest.
Freezing outside and nothing more to do on the mountain, we headed back down the gondola and to the comfort of our car. I forgot my bathing suit and I wanted to go swimming in the hotel pool so we tried to find a store near Tofte that would be open and have a bathing suit. Luckily there was and I bought a kids bathing suit for $12 since it was the only bathing suit that fit me!
Across the street we found a restaurant to have lunch at, Coho Cafe. Pricey yes but the meals were very large and very tasty. This was the only meal we had while in northern Minnesota that we didn’t cook in our cabin kitchen and it was nice to “splurge.” We went back to our hotel, opened our remaining beers, put on the Superbowl and relaxed in the hotel pool and hot-tub. It was very nice way to end our trip.
Back to Chicago
On Monday morning we packed our things and headed south to Minneapolis. We had the day to kill really so we decided to keep it easy and take as many breaks necessary. We stopped in Duluth to have a bite to eat and see the city for a bit. We stopped near Moose Lake, Minnesota because I wanted to take pictures of the fishing cabins that all the lakes in Minnesota seem to have on them!
The very last and very touristy thing we did was to go to the Mall of America, located near Minneapolis Airport. The mall was impressive but honestly it wasn’t spectacular. It was a good place to kill, get warm in and have a bite to eat at Benihanas since Roman has never been. After that it was time to go to the airport and catch our late flight back to Chicago.
Minnesota was great and what I will take away from the trip was how beautiful the state is, even in winter, and how friendly its people are. This state is totally worth a visit and will surprise you in many ways, especially northern Minnesota.
images by: shawnvoyage