This post is brought to you by the Youth Hockey Hub High School Hockey Podcast and my countless drives out of Duluth for work purposes over the past four and a half years to every small town northeast Minnesota has to offer. (Except Meadowlands. I remain convinced that Meadowlands is a mythical place and does not actually exist.) To qualify, a road must have a legitimate and distinct destination, thus ruling out mere connectors such as Minnesota 194, parallel roads such as the Jay Cooke portion of Minnesota 210 (pretty as it is), or the various township line roads that sputter out a short ways north or west of the city.
- Minnesota Highway 61 up the North Shore. Was there ever any doubt? Bonus points to those who take the Scenic Highway instead of the expressway to Two Harbors, but even the fast road provides a few decent lake views and eventual access to one of the greater drives out there. Drawbacks: rubberneckers, crowds on certain weekends, the inevitable overflow at Betty’s Pies. Additional delights, beyond the obvious cliffs and surf and rushing streams: Cedar Coffee, surfers on Stoney Point, a few roadside architectural marvels, and Rocky Taconite.
- Highway 13 on the South Shore of Lake Superior in Wisconsin. It’s a less dramatic driving experience than the North Shore, but it still has its quaint towns and lake views, plus eventual sea caves and the Bayfield Peninsula.
- Minnesota Highway 23. An underrated road, as it takes the driver through the full history of industrial Duluth along the St. Louis River corridor, then climbs to a nice overlook up the valley toward Jay Cooke. Winds pleasantly through forests of the Nemadji State Forest from there, and while it turns into a more standard straight shot through a few lost-to-time hamlets after that, it redeems any possible boredom by heading through Banning State Park before reaching 35 again.
- St. Louis County 4 to Biwabik. The Island Lake causeway is pretty, of course, but I’m fond of the winding road through the depths of the Cloquet Valley, a stretch where the deer counts can reach triple digits. Additional highlights include the not-so-subtly-hidden pot farm and the occasional wolf sighting. There’s something peaceful about driving a stunningly empty road south as snow falls softly on the pines and tamaracks. (Can you tell I’ve driven this road often?)
- St. Louis County 39/44 (Jean Duluth and Pequaywan Lake Roads). Basically, a somewhat less scenic Highway 4 and even less of a destination at the end, though this may not be a bad thing. The back road up to the east side of the Range, or perhaps to Ely. Pluses: the Breeze Inn, little-used ski trails.
- I-35 South. Not thrilling, but it keeps you moving, and will forever be redeemed by that view over Thompson Hill that signifies homecoming for any Duluthian.
- Highway 2 East. The Superior slog drags it down, but after that it’s a passably interesting meander over toward the Brule River and eventually on to Ashland, and eventual UP destinations farther east.
- 53 South. Like 35, its most salient trait is moving people quickly, and it does so with little traffic. It does, however, require that long drive through Superior to get there. Was slower but somewhat more interesting in the olden days when it went straight through towns like Solon Springs and Minong. Gets some bonus points for how often I’ve driven it over the years.
- US 53 North. Instead of slow slog through Superior, this route gives the driver a somewhat faster slog through Hermantown, which manages to be more chaotic and tiresome and lacks the occasional harbor view. After that, it is mostly drudgery and crazy signs until one reaches the outskirts of Eveleth. It improves from there, both through history and a scenic new bridge and eventual lake country access, but there’s too much drabness on the front end.
- Wisconsin Highway 35. An endless death march through the strip malls and strewn out neighborhoods of Superior and South Superior, followed by two lanes of absolutely nothing before you finally get to the cabin country between Danbury and St. Croix Falls. Redeemed somewhat by Pattison State Park.
- US Highway 2 West. First, one must endure Proctor. (Or, alternately, Hermantown, if one comes via 194.) Then, a long, mindless plod across peat bogs, every minute spent in desperate hope of a passing lane. Mild pluses: the St. Louis River crossing and the mild improvement that comes in Itasca County when the woods grow thicker around Grand Rapids.
- Minnesota Highway 210 west from Carlton to Aitkin. The great, interminable swamp.
Yeah, this blog will get back to having actual content sometime soon.