Things to do at Grand Portage State Park
Sometimes in life, there are trips that go down in the history books. This has to be one of them. Coming off the Gunflint Trail, I was so close to reaching the top of Minnesota I could taste it. We were actually staring at the border a day earlier while we were paddling in the BWCA. On a whim, we decide to turn left and head down to Grand Portage State Park.
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Getting to Grand Portage State Park
During the entire trip to the BWCA, we decided to forgo technology. With the exception of using its camera feature, our phones were completely off-limits. This includes getting directions. From previous reviews of the state and Grand Portage State Park, it seemed you just take highway 61 North.
We were welcomed with signs for the town of Grand Portage 33 miles ahead and counting down. Then you get to the town and think, it’s just ahead. Soon you see Grand Portage National Monument. We found it!
Think again. The Grand Portage National Monument is just south of the State Park. Thinking something was off, we decided to pull out the phones. Did you know in remote northern Minnesota, traditional cell phones are useless? We couldn’t get enough internet to pinpoint where we needed to be.
After a quick chat with the Park Ranger, we determined we were at the wrong place. We needed to go all the way to the border. Back on the road again.
Going to the border was actually quite entertaining. There was construction and oh yeah, the border is officially closed! The construction workers stopping traffic assisted us on what turn take you to the State Park.
Any further and we would have had to have the embarrassing conversation with the border guards about missing our turn. Even though we were born here, border security always makes me nervous. Crisis averted, or so we thought.
History of Grand Portage State Park
Long before it was part of the visitor’s center, it was used by Native Americans as a ‘carrying place’ as the falls caused considerable obstacles for river travel. In order to get around the falls, a trail 9-mile trail was formed around the falls to Lake Superior.
This portage was known as the Grand Portage. This hiking trail was used by American Indians, voyageurs, and fur traders.
Grand Portage State Park did not officially become a park until 1989 through the cooperation of the State of Minnesota and the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa Indians. The land is leased from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The state does not own its land.
Why Go to Grand Portage State Park
The main draw to this park is the epic Waterfall. It is along the Pidgeon River, which borders the park and provides the division between the United States and Canada.
The park is a mix of hardwoods forest, mostly birch, and aspen. The forest floor is covered in bunchberry, club mosses, and ferns. It is part of Grand Portage State Forest.
The waterways are home to osprey, eagle, otter, beaver, moose, and great-blue heron. Visitors have reported black bears, white-tailed deer, and other small animals along the trails.
Things to do at Grand Progage State Park
The biggest draw to Grand Portage State Park is the waterfall. High Falls is the most visited dropping 120 feet. It is the highest waterfall in Minnesota. The park offers three separate overlooks for the waterfall. From the viewing platforms, you can watch the river spills behind a huge rock wall boulder. For those looking for a hike, there are also middle falls.
The section of the trail between the visitor’s center and High Falls is paved. This is the only bikeable area within the park’s boundaries. If you plan on biking, consider going further south and biking along the old highway 61.
Poplar Creek Road to State Highway 61 stretch of Pigeon River is 7 miles long and is a class I-III+ section of whitewater according to American Whitewater. The State Park doesn’t have any portages or boat launches. Do so at your own risk.
Grand Portage State Park Hiking Club Trail
Miles: 1 mile
Total Miles Hiked: 81.4 miles
The park was packed with a constant flow of people entering and leaving the parking lot and trails. Grand Portage State Park doubles as an MN Welcome Center. But with the border being closed, all the traffic was from people making their way up the highway.
High Falls Trail at Grand Portage State Park is one of a few ADA accessible trails at MN State Parks. It reminded me of Pipestone National Park with its paved hiking club trail and boardwalks, leading to one of the most epic waterfalls in the state. High Falls plummets 120 feet making it the highest waterfall in MN.
The waterfall has three viewing platforms. If stairs are an issue, you can still see the falls from one of the overlooks. The boardwalk gets slippery when wet, so take it easy.
Download your Grade Portage State Park Map before you leave home or at the visitors center. The Free Avenza map is a GeoPDF map allowing you to track your location as you hike without the need for the internet. I recommend this especially if you plan on hiking beyond the hiking club trail.
If you are looking for more fun, there are additional hiking trails to overlooks and rivers along the High Falls Trail. There is also a 5 mile round trip to Middle Falls. This is traditional hiking with rugged and rocky terrain. The park is for Day Use only as there is no camping or any other features at the park.
Where it went wrong for us
My son needed to use the potty so I hurried him out of the car the second we pulled in. We get halfway across the parking lot when my husband calls over to me with a concerned look. “Umm Jenn, do you have the keys? I think I may have just locked them in the car”.
Who knew it was even possible to lock a key fab in the car? Supposedly there are some places your keys can slip into that are protected from the sensors.
Breaking into a car
There has to be a hack to this right? I can’t be the only one that this has happened to. I immediately grabbed my phone to search the web! Oh yeah, we don’t have service up here. Not just the internet but the phone either. Thankfully, inside the visitor center is free Wi-Fi.
I did a little searching to find that most people solved this problem by grabbing their spare set of keys. That was not an option. Plan B, call the Sheriff.
Thankfully, they have a free courtesy phone inside the visitor’s center to make local calls. And empowered the Wi-Fi in the visitors center, I could look up phone numbers. It seems the sheriff will not help you without a child or animal trapped inside.
Plan C: Locksmith. All three numbers the Sheriff gave me would not answer and I couldn’t leave a message without having a phone number they could reach me at.
Plan D: The Park Ranger. They didn’t have the tools to help either but gave me the number of Ryden’s Border Store located a half-mile down the road. According to the park ranger, they had helped people in the past.
Plan E: One quick call, the person running the store and in less than two minutes he was at my car tools to get it open. Another 5 minutes and we were in the car again. We tried to compensate him for his services and he wouldn’t take anything from us.
Before leaving the area we wanted to share our appreciation with our savior and shop at his store. It was the least we could do if he wouldn’t take money.
We pull into Ryden’s Border Store to find that he was the only one working. He literally closed down his store to help us out. I was in shock. We refilled on sodas and snacks for everyone. I keep thinking we should have gone back and spent more money.
If you are ever in the area, please stop in. Even if we could have gotten a locksmith on the phone, they would have come from Grand Marais, an hour away. But this nice man, was there in minutes helping out perfect strangers.
Love epic waterfalls? Skip Gooseberry State park and head over to Temperance River State Park along MN North Shore
Common Questions about the park
Where to stay near Grand Portage State Park?
The Grand Portage Indian Reservation is the closes town to the State Park. Stay at Grand Portage Lodge and Casino. They have a pool, internet, canoe landing, and more.
Is Grand Portage State Park free to visit?
Yes, it is one of a few Minnesota State Parks along the North Shore that is free to explore. That’s because it is a United State welcome center.
For more great things to do along the North Shore, including other free parks to visit, make sure to check out 28+ Stops on the North Shore’s Highway 61 – Minnesota’s Road Trip
Would I go back to Grand Portage State Park?
Yes, even though we had a car issue, I’d love to explore more of the park. There are a lot of fun things to do at Grand Portage State Park, and plenty more to see.