Duluth is back; see for yourself

The city of Duluth and the surrounding area was hit hard by last month’s historic flooding and then again when FEMA announced last week it would not provide disaster relief for individuals affected by the storm. But day-to-day life has largely returned to normal in the city, which is why Duluth has invested heavily in an advertising campaign to draw tourists back to the area.

Well, my family and I had planned a Duluth vacation well before the flood and decided right away that we’d stick to the plan. After years of industrial age decline, Duluth is breathing, growing and changing for the better. We wanted to support the Zenith City of northern Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region. We try to get there once a year and our trip this year was probably better than any previous ones. While remnants of flood damage are evident in some places, travel in the city is easy and the major sites are all open.

We decided to include a portion of the North Shore on this trip. As residents of the Iron Range we took the overland route, which is what the locals do. You can cut through Makinen, Palo, Bassett, and Fairbanks and pop out in Silver Bay. It’s a long haul and if you have young kids they will yell “booooooring.” But adults in the car will enjoy the hilly scenery, hard woodland settled by the Finns when they were blacklisted from mines.

Our first stop was Split Rock Lighthouse north of Two Harbors. This was a major destination since our son Douglas recently announced that he planned to be a light house keeper when he grows up. We have tactfully held back the existence of GPS technology from him until he is old enough to handle the news. This is a remarkable historical site, a wonderful blend of natural beauty and the region’s shipping history.

That’s my son Henry walking on the rocks in the foreground. We continued on to Gooseberry Falls State Park, which was equally picturesque but also very hot (it is summer) and so we hurried on to Duluth and the Edgewater water park, which was kind of a big deal for the kids.

Now, in the spirit of the Olympics, international contests of strength and speed conducted by taut-bodied athletes the world over, I am not going to share pictures or further describe myself in a swim suit. I will summarize our stay as comfortable and very fun. It’s a lot of work if your kids are younger (mine are 7, 5 and 5) but there is a nice hot tub for parents of kids who are able to do more on their own. We did not catch any diseases from the water park and it was very nice. Let’s call that a win.

One of the highlights of the trip was something totally free, spending time down in Canal Park watching ships come in and checking out the Army Corps of Engineers Lake Superior Maritime Visitor’s Center. Our boys loved watching the Lift Bridge go up and down and catching the ambiance of the harbor. In case you didn’t know this, there are seagulls in Duluth.

The next day was site-seeing day. After some more waterparking, we visited the Lake Superior Train Museum. We went before Thomas the Tank Engine arrived (he’s still there this week if you’re interested. We saw Thomas last year and decided to try it with smaller crowds and more focus on the real trains.

That’s Henry, Doug and George in front of the William Crooks, the first train to arrive in Minnesota and “Great Northern Railway #1.” It pulled James J. Hill’s personal cars for much of the tycoon’s career. I drew a lot of inspiration for my Great Northern Radio Show from this visit. The boys seemed to enjoy seeing the engine cabs and the elaborate model train on display. One of these days I’ll get to read all the little informational items on the walls there. I think that day will be when my children drop me off there on a field trip when I am in a home.

Next up was the Great Lakes Aquarium. This is a really nice facility with many stunning displays of the wildlife of Lake Superior. Several of their rotating displays include other kinds of fish. One of the nice things about the GLA is the number of interactive water activities for kids. Doug and George really loved the Great Lakes water table, which let them pilot boats through locks and dams to the Atlantic Ocean. Henry enjoyed the “wave maker,” which lets you adjust the frequency of waves in water.

And hey, Duluth Mayor Don Ness has gotten a lot of attention for his work in moving the city forward and his response to the floods. On this random day of our random visit, we see the mayor involved in some kind of tour at the aquarium. He’s everywhere! My boys think he’s the mayor of everything because of how much he’s on local news broadcasts.

The boys were exhausted after this, but we did manage to meet my sister for dinner and then some friends up at Enger Tower, the stony Norwegian spectacle perched atop Duluth’s skyline. It’s a little bit of a hike up the stairs, but the view is worth it.
Oh, there happened to be a sailboat race mingling with the normal shipping traffic at the Port of Duluth this day, so the view was even better. There was a group of Chinese tourists with us in the tower. We had to laugh because though we did not understand their language their tone of voice was identical to our boys’ excited cadence. We’re pretty sure they were saying some of the same things.

Back at the hotel we got to see a closer view of the ore ship and sailboats.

On our final morning in Duluth we stopped at the Lake Superior Zoo. Epicenter of the flood’s damage, the zoo lost some animals in the flood and zookeepers had to retrieve an escaped polar bear and seals. The arctic exhibit is still closed for repairs (the animals are staying at the Como Zoo in St. Paul) and one of the trails is still damaged, but the rest of the zoo was open and functional. Morning is a good time to go because the animals are active and it isn’t so hot outside.

You can see here that the creek that one month ago brought a torrent of water into the zoo has returned to its normal, beautiful self.

The zoo trip sealed the deal. I can heartily recommend Duluth in every possible way for a visit. The city represents a vision for northern Minnesota that includes the region’s history and traditions, along with new industry, a vibrant arts community and plenty of activity for young families. I’d love it if some of that rubbed off on the Iron Range and, by golly, it just may.


  1. All you missed was visiting the Last Place on Earth for your souvenir package of incense.

  2. I forgot to mention! We drove by there during the raid! Very exciting.

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