Pigeon River High Falls

One short day trip starting at East Bay Suites in Grand Marais can take you a long way into the past.

Grand Portage is about 40 miles from Grand Marais. After Grand Marais, there are few shops and no gas stations until you reach Grand Portage. At some point, you will cross into Grand Portage Reservation.

The original inhabitants of this area have kept this northeastern tip of Minnesota largely undeveloped as the ruggedly beautiful wilderness it is. The topography of this last portion of the US North Shore is particularly scenic.

Grand Portage National Monument is a spectacular look into the history of the area. It consists of the Heritage Center which is open year-round and the Historic Depot which is open from June 4 to October 10.

Grand Portage National Monument by Mark Goebel
Vegetable garden at the Grand Portage National Monument by Mark Goebel.

The Heritage Center has displays related to life here before and after the fur traders arrived. Watching the center’s film is worth the trip alone.

You sit in a room overlooking the cool blueness of the lake. Then panels slide over the windows, leaving the room in darkness.

Then you see an image of the lake’s crashing waves appear and a man’s voice comes in. The narrator starts by talking about how his people enjoyed this lake long ago.

He says, for the most part, the natives got along well with the Frenchmen who were interested in trading more than settlement. This area became a major fur trading post with goods flowing between here and Europe.

The film is authentic and has many native and non-native actors setting the mood for the times while telling the story. The film ends telling how the fur trading here stopped when the US took over. It tells how the reservation seeks to preserve its identity as a sovereign nation while also being part of America.

If it is summer, you can get a good view of the historic depot after viewing the film. This building was modeled after the original depot on the spot the old fur trading post was. From the dock on the pristine bay, you can look up at the post, surrounded by a country that has changed little from the fur trading days. From a dock on this spot, people would unload boats with supplies and load boats with furs.

Outside the buildings with their historical demonstrations is the 8.5-mile trail that gave Grand Portage its name. Fur traders had to carry supplies up and furs down the trail to bypass the falls and rapids in the Pigeon River and connect with a vast network of lakes and rivers going deep into the interior.

A mile or so further up Highway 61 is what has to be one of the most spectacular lookouts on all of Minnesota’s North Shore. From up high you can see far across the lake. On one side is the high pointed peninsula cutting its way into the water. On the other side, a broader peninsula appears to have exploded and fragmented islands form stepping stones for giants going far into the water. People for hundreds if not thousands of years have been amazed by this site.
A few miles up the highway, at the very edge of Minnesota and the US, there is one last wonder. A paved accessible trail leads along the Pigeon River, right across from Canada.

At High Falls you will see one big reason the Grand Portage was necessary. At 120 feet, this is the highest waterfall in Minnesota. Here you can just throw a rock into Canada. This particular export is duty-free.

On Pigeon River there are more rapids and falls that would have required a portage but this is the biggest one. A further hike leads to Middle Falls. If you have your passport with you, you can visit this fall the easy way, by driving to it on the Canadian side. After all, borders are largely made up. This border would have meant nothing to those here a few centuries in the past.

Above the Falls by Sharon Mollerus
Chaos by Sharon Mollerus

Photos

Vegetable Garden at Grand Portage National Monument by Mark Goebel. Licensed under CC-BY-2.0.

Pigeon River High Falls, Above the Falls and Chaos by Sharon Molleros. Licensed under CC-BY-2.0.