By Jim Umhoefer
Lake County. About 12 miles northeast of Two Harbors on Highway 61.
Highway map index: N-9
There are five waterfalls in Gooseberry Falls State Park. Most dramatic are the Upper and Lower Falls near the Highway 61 bridge. The river tumbles 30 feet over the Upper Falls, glides to the two-tiered Lower Falls and plunges 60 feet into the last pool before spilling into Lake Superior. The Fifth falls, though scenic, is not as spectacular as the ones near the highway bridge, but because it's about a 1.5 mile one-way hike, it's not as crowded, either. A footbridge near the Fifth Falls allows hikers to return to the parking lot on the other side of the river.
Because the big waterfalls are so close to the road, sightseeing crowds can be as thick as the riverbank trees. Even so, the falls are a "must see" before heading upriver or into the conifer, aspen and birch forests on the 18-mile trail network. You can hike the length of the park along the Gooseberry River or explore the uplands on trails dotted with overlooks. Small trail shelters are scattered along the main paths.
The Gitchi Gummi Trail is a good place to observe the Lower Falls, and it offers ridge top vistas of Lake Superior as well. On the other side of the gorge, the Lower Rim Trail leads to Agate Beach, at the mouth of the river. Early summer seems to be the prime time to search for agates along the beach. Agates are a type of quartz stone distinguished by bands of color.
Besides beachcombing, shore fishing for trout and salmon is a popular pastime in the park. Brook, brown and rainbow trout are taken farther upstream, but check with the manager about special trout regulations on the North Shore before wetting your line. If you'd like to try some deepwater sport fishing, charter service and boat landings are located in Two Harbors. Swimming is not permitted in the park. Although the Gooseberry is not always the furious, thundering river that it becomes following heavy rains, it deserves respect at all times. More than one swimmer has drowned after underestimating its powerful currents.
The inhospitable shoreline of Lake Superior in Minnesota was born from volcanoes 700 million years ago. Lava flowed over older formations and formed bedrock. You can see hardened lava along the lakeshore (south of the river) and at the Upper and Lower Falls. After the volcanic activity, glaciers advanced and retreated over Minnesota, sculpting Lake Superior's basin and most of the landforms that we see today.
Scuba divers sometimes use Gooseberry Falls State Park as a base of operations for underwater explorations of the lake. Many ships have sunk along the Lake Superior shoreline, though none are in park waters. Some divers just like to snoop around, looking for lost fishing lures and other submerged treasure. Split Rock Lighthouse, a state park and historic site just northeast of the park, was constructed to help ships safely sail along the dangerous coast. Exhibits at the lighthouse give further details about local shipwrecks and how the lighthouse was built.
The 72-site semi-modern campground is close enough to both the lake and river that the water sounds might lull you to sleep. The group camp, along the river above the Upper Falls, is also blessed with a constant chorus of rushing water. The campground is usually full on summer weekends, and it may even be packed on weeknights.
Highway 61 (North Shore Drive) is a nationally famous scenic route and Gooseberry is the first state park along the way, so if you don't have camping reservations, plan to arrive early. Bicyclists and backpackers sometimes like to set up in one of the walk-in sites near the main campground. Fall camping is less crowded here, but the weather is unpredictable.
Interpretive programs range from guided hikes that focus on birds or plants to rock and mineral identification at Agate Beach. One program recalls the lasting work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) at Gooseberry State Park in the 1930s. The Corps built the park's stone buildings and laid out the campground, picnic areas, and trails.
About 14 miles of cross-country ski trails to suit all tastes help to make Gooseberry State Park busy year round. The Two Harbors City Trail provides an additional 9 miles of beginner to intermediate ski trails within a short distance of the park.
Snowshoeing and hiking are permitted throughout the park. Campers have a specially designated winter camping area with drinking water available. A warming house is open for everybody.
Snowmobiling at Gooseberry is limited to a relatively short trail that connects to the North Shore State Trail, which stretches for 150 miles from Duluth to Grand Marais and links with many local Grant-in-Aid trails.