Monday, June 13, 2011

Insider's guide to Split Rock Lighthouse State Park

Split Rock Lighthouse, November 10, 2009
Split Rock Lighthouse is a towering beacon over Lake Superior and an icon for the state of Minnesota. For many people, the lighthouse is the North Shore. The state park that surrounds the lighthouse, however, is a hidden gem that only some visitors enter and only very few truly explore.

The view from Split Rock Lighthouse
If you stand with the crowds around the base of Split Rock Lighthouse, you can't help but notice and enjoy the view down the shore. One rugged cove leads to a steep rocky point, and then another and another, as far as you can see. That entire landscape is within the boundaries of Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, and you can hike, camp or even bike through the heart of it. 

This is my personal opinion, though I've heard from many people who feel the same way: the best place to camp on the North Shore if you want real quiet, real privacy and real adventure is the cart-in campground at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. Twenty campsites are scattered through the woods and along the shoreline. Each site comes with its own cart, which you can use to roll your camping equipment from the parking lot to your private campsite. 

Fourteen of the sites can be reserved in advance through the Minnesota DNR's reservation system. Virtually the entire summer of 2011 is already reserved. 

Insider's tip: Six sites are available first-come, first served. I've found that if you arrive before 10:00 am on a Tuesday or Wednesday, you should be able to get one of those sites; stop at the park office to get on a waiting list. 

Since sites can be reserved 365 days in advance, now is the time to reserve your top pick for the summer of 2012.

Hanging out on your own rocky beach, feeling the splash of cool waves, enjoying a private picnic by the lake shore...that's quintessential North Shore. And you can have it in Split Rock. There are at least eight separate beaches in the park, ranging from the broad, steep beach at Little Two Harbors next to the Picnic Area to the remote beach in Crazy Bay. 
Unnamed beach below Day Hill

Insider's tip: I just discovered a new beach this weekend, a small cobblestone beach with a great view of the lighthouse. Head out the back door of the Trail Center building in the park, and walk out across the main Little Two Harbors Trail. Follow a little unmarked trail that seems to lead to a cliff edge. This opens up to a great ledge rock shoreline full of splash pools. Head up the shore toward the lighthouse, which looms above. You'll find a gravel beach that's about 100 yards long and 10 yards wide. 

Split Rock Lighthouse State Park is at the midpoint of the longest stretch of completed trail of the Gitchi Gami State Trail. You can ride west about seven miles to Gooseberry Falls State Park or seven miles east to the quaint town of Beaver Bay. 
Iona's Beach
Insider's tip: This is not an easy bike trail. There are steep hills and sharp curves. You may have to leave your toddlers on training wheels at home. I recommend going west to Gooseberry State Park and planning to stop at Iona's Beach about halfway there. Iona's Beach is a state Scientific and Natural Area and was set aside to protect its unique red shingle beach. 

Next time you're on the Shore, take the time to explore this hidden gem of a state park. You'll be glad you stopped by.

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