Split Rock Lighthouse State Park in Winter: A Guide to Exploring
Visiting Split Rock Lighthouse State Park in Winter is a great experience, as it is an opportunity to explore the frozen shoreline of Lake Superior. The park is an hour north of Duluth, Minnesota, and has beautiful views of the lake and the surrounding rocky shoreline. Given the choice to hike it in the summer or winter for the MN State Parks Hiking Club, I chose the winter! Just an excuse to see the shoreline of Lake Superior in winter. There is something magical that happens. First, the lake never completely freezes. Secondly, when storms come, water splashes along the shore, creating breathtaking ice formations. This was the goal of today’s trip!
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What is Split Rock Lighthouse State Park?
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park is a Minnesota state park and a National Historic Landmark on Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior. Split Rock Lighthouse State Park is about 17 miles east of Two Harbors, Minnesota. They built the lighthouse in 1900 and it is still fully operational today. It stands at an elevation of 1,223 feet above sea level and it overlooks Lake Superior for 18 miles.
The Split Rock Lighthouse State Park has over 3,000 acres, which includes the lighthouse, its surrounding grounds, and the nearby Split Rock River Valley. The area has abundant wildlife, including moose, black bear, otter, deer, and bald eagles, to name just a few. During summer you can tour the lighthouse through the Minnesota Historical Society. Split Rock Lighthouse State Park has been standing for over 100 years and is one of the most popular lighthouses in Minnesota. It stands at 115 feet tall and it’s still operational today.
What Do You Need to Know About Visiting Split Rock Lighthouse State Park in Winter?
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park is open year-round, but there are some things you should know before visiting in winter. For starters, not everything is open. The front office is open, but because of the slower time of year, not staffed at all times. They often leave to take care of maintenance activities, making it difficult to rent gear. Things like the State Parks Passport Stamp are outside in a box. Normally that’s not a big deal, but the ink pad was nearly frozen when we arrived. I recommend having an ink pad in your warm car so you don’t run into this problem.
Not all hiking trails and roads are open either. When there is at least two inches of snow on the ground, the park’s maps flip to winter. They converted regular hiking trails to fat tire bike trails and snowshoe/packed trails.
How to Get There and Parking at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park in Winter
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park is a popular destination in the winter. It’s an hour north of Duluth on Highway 61, or three and a half hours from Minneapolis. Split Rock Lighthouse State Park has ample parking. All four of the regular parking lots are open. The only one that isn’t plowed is the cart in camper’s lot.
MN State Parks requires all visitors to have a parking permit. But Split Rock Lighthouse’s North Shore status means there are a few ways to get around it. The first is to park at the Minnesota Historical Societies’ parking lot. No permit is needed. It’s right next to the Little Two Harbors Trail. The second option is to park on the DOT wayside by the Highway 61 overpass on the southern tip of the park. It’s a popular lot used by backpackers making their way to the Superior Hiking Trail and Split Rock Lighthouse waterfalls. You can also take the trail towards the river and onto the Split Rock Lighthouse hiking trail.
What You’ll See at Split Rock Lighthouse in Winter?
We arrived at Split Rock Lighthouse at around 11 am. Since this was a day trip, we were very impressed to make such a good time. Split Rock Lighthouse State Park offers a variety of winter activities. You can hike on the hiking trails or enjoy snowshoeing. If you want to get away from it all, Little Two Harbors is a great place for some peace. Winter on Lake Superior is so still. When the water is calm, the water produces a fog or mist. It’s best to get there early to catch it.
Before we even left the house, I called the day before and confirmed trail conditions. They had freshly fallen snow. Half the hiking club trail is open for snowshoeing and hiking. They confirmed I would still have access to the password on the snowshoe trail. The ranger was about to leave to pack the snow on the snowshoe portion of the trial and was confident we could hike it without snowshoes. They recommend Ice Cleats & Trekking Poles, which was a good call.
PRO TIP: Before leaving for a hike at a Minnesota State Parks, give their office a call. The park rangers will give you the lowdown on trail conditions, ice levels, closures, and things you must check out while there. They love telling you about the park.
Getting Around Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
Hoping to get to the Hiking Club Password was the main reason for going. But we also wanted to see the shoreline too. Soon after getting there, we walked down to Little Two Harbors. It’s absolutely stunning with a view of Split Rock Lighthouse. The cove is calm, with Ellingsen Island just out of reach.
Soon after, we continued on the hiking club trail. It winds along the shoreline and through the campground. Much to my surprise, there was a group camping in the -1 degree daylight weather. They had a stunning spot along the cliff with icicles dripping down. As jealous as I was of their location, I’m just not ready for winter camping yet.
Once outside of the campground, the trail shifted from well-trampled ground to deeper pockets and unstable ground. Similar to walking through sand, it takes a little more work to get through. Following the Hiking Club Signs, the trail continues on back around Day Hill. I followed along the trail straight up the hill. After the half-mile climb to the top of the hill, we realized we strayed off course. We were now on fat bike groomed trails.
Pro TIP: During Winter, pay close attention to the map. Don’t necessarily follow the hiking club trail signs.
This, unfortunately, is where we called our hiking adventure. I’m bummed we didn’t get the mileage I was hoping for. We saw the most amazing Lake Superior shoreline. There is always next time!
What You Should Bring to Split Rock Lighthouse In Winter?
The first thing you should bring on your winter trips is a pair of ice cleats. They will allow you to walk on the slippery surface without falling or slipping. The cleats will give you the conditions on the snow and also allow you closer to the water’s edge.
The second thing you should bring is a pair of trekking poles, which will help with balance and provide leverage for climbing steep slopes and hills. I don’t always hike with Trekking Poles during the summer, but in winter, they are a requirement. Not only do you get the stability, but you also can test the ground before putting your foot down.
The third thing you should bring is snowshoes. If you plan on snowshoeing the park, bring them! The park office rents snowshoes for $5 a pair, but you have to be there when the park office is open.
The last thing you should bring is snacks or a lunch. There is nothing to eat between here and the state park and Two Harbors. Normally it’s not a problem because we’d order from Bettys Pies on our way south. But we wanted to swing by Gooseberry Falls State Park and see it frozen. Having plenty of food in the car made sure there was no rush.
Other Things to do at Split Rock Lighthouse In Winter
During winter, Split Rock Lighthouse is a beautiful, serene spot to take in the views. Bring your camera to capture the panoramic view of Lake Superior and the surrounding area. Most people don’t venture past Little Two Harbors, but there is more to do than just take in the views.
I mentioned briefly that there is camping there as well. During winter, all sites are cart-in. The carts are available, but they won’t work in the snow. Most people spending the night used their backpacking backpacks to camp.
Paddle Board on Lake Superior? The calm waters for Little Two Harbors were ideal for paddleboards. We saw 5 different boards in the water while we were there, all in 1-degree weather. To stay safe, they are wearing drysuits.
Would I visit Split Rock Lighthouse State Park in Winter again?
Yes, I loved every minute. Even the freezing cold weather. The shoreline is magical. Next time we go, we may wait until it warms to 20 degrees and start the hike at the other end of the trail. This way we don’t stray off the shoreline path. Split Rock Lighthouse State Park has so many interesting areas to explore. I’ll probably stop again during the summer too to see the waterfalls.