Guide to North Shore Peak Fall Colors

When do the fall colors peak on the North Shore, MN?

Maples with their bright reds and oranges are the first leaves to peak from about September 17 – 27. Birch and Aspen’s glowing yellow peak from about late September 28 – October 8. Tamarack’s golden needles glow from mid to late October brightening up an otherwise brown and leafless forest.
The timing of the North Shore peak fall colors is mostly dependent on the amount of daylight. Factors like temperature, rain, and wind do have some effect, but the overall timing of when the leaves change is fairly reliable according to the length of daylight. So, you can count on the leaves changing at about the same time every year, giving some wiggle room for other factors like extra dry or wet conditions, wind blowing the leaves off, etc.
early fall color on the North Shore MN

Early fall color – August 28


Where to see peak fall colors on the North Shore

The key to seeing the best fall colors is to be in the right place at the right time. The Minnesota DNR Fall Color Finder is a great resource. 

Different tree species peak at different times of the season. Find out the tree species and when they peak on the North Shore below.

Maple and mixed forest

Peak fall colors on the North Shore MN - maple

Bright reds of the maple ridge in Lutsen (from the Summit Express Gondola). September 28

The Tofte-Lutsen area is the best place to see the bright red maples from about September 17 – 27. This area has a maple ridge that runs inland from Lake Superior in the Superior National Forest. 

The peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains are the defining feature of this area and boast many wonderful hiking trails and driving routes through the maple forest. 

Popular hiking trails that lead to mountaintop vistas include the Oberg Mountain Loop, Britton Peak, Carlton Peak, and White Sky Rock. Read more about the best hiking trails in Lutsen

fall colors on the Honeymoon Trail, Lutsen

Fall colors on the Honeymoon Trail, Lutsen. September 15

Take a drive through the brilliant maple canopy on backwood loops such as the Honeymoon Trail in Lutsen and Hearbreak Ridge in Tofte. 

For a unique adventure, take Lutsen Mountains’ Gondola to the top of Moose Mountain for incredible views of Lake Superior and the Superior National Forest. Ride the gondola both ways, or take a one-way ride and hike back along the Superior Hiking Trail.

Birch, Aspen, and mixed forest

fall color on the North Shore MN - Gunflint Trail

birch, aspen and conifer as seen from the Gunflint Trail – September 30

Aspen and birch trees are abundant on Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake  Superior. Their bright yellows can really light up a hillside! You can enjoy these leaves nearly all season, but the peak is normally from the end of September through about October 8. See them by Lake Superior and just about everywhere in the woods. 

Drive along Highway 61, the North Shore Scenic Drive, for a display of yellow leaves against the backdrop of a big blue Lake Superior. The area between Split Rock Lighthouse, Tettegouche State Park, and Little Marais, as well as the stretch of highway from Grand Marais to Grand Portage, have particularly lovely views. 

Palisade Head fall color North Shore MN

Fall color from Palisade Head, Tettegouche State Park. Photo Credit Lovin Lake County and Ed Lee

Inland drives including backwoods roads through Silver Bay to Finland to Little Marais, as well as the Gunflint Trail Scenic Byway in Grand Marais offer remote, easy-to-access views of peak fall colors on the North Shore. 

Hiking in the North Shore’s eight State Parks or The Superior Hiking Trail offers fall color beauty around every corner. 

Tamarack and late season understory

yello Tamarack trees on the Gunflint Trail

Tamarack trees on the Gunflint Trail, before peak, October 11

The golden glow of tamarack needles and the deep reds, purples, and yellows of understory shrubs and grasses close out the season in late October. This part of the fall color season can feel like it’s all over except for these colorful delights. The days are much shorter and grayer, most of the leaves are gone, and there could be a light layer of snow. 

That’s what is so remarkable about the glowing tamarack. They stand out so beautifully against the otherwise dark and brown boreal forest. Drive along the Gunflint Trail Scenic Byway for roadside views of tamarack lighting up the forest. 

fall color understory, Gunflint Trail, Boreal forest

fall color understory, Gunflint Trail, October 6

Understory shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers hold their color through late fall and into winter. Take a hike along almost any hiking trail and notice the late fall colors on the ground. 

Will the North Shore peak fall colors be good this year?

North Shore peak fall colors Britton Peak

Peak maples from Britton Peak, Lutsen. September 23

In short, yes! There always seems to be a lot of worry about whether the North Shore peak fall colors will be good or not. 

Technically speaking, according to the College of Environmental Science and Forestry, “Temperature, light, and water supply have an influence on the degree and the duration of fall color. Low temperatures above freezing will favor anthocyanin formation producing bright reds in maples. However, early frost will weaken the brilliant red color.” 

black eyed Susan in the fall

Fall wildflowers, October 6

However, after observing and documenting peak fall on the North Shore for about 20 years, I say with great confidence that they are always pretty spectacular! In my opinion, the environmental factors cited above should never be a factor in whether or not the fall colors are “good enough” to plan a trip to see them! You’ll just want to make sure you time it right. 

Tips for planning a getaway for North Shore peak fall colors

  • Choose your timing and location according to when and where the leaves are changing
  • A superb fall color getaway doesn’t necessarily have to be during peak times. The season runs from the beginning of September through mid-October and there are aspects of fall to enjoy throughout the entire season.
  • Weather conditions like fog can cover up the view from a mountain vista, or a big windy storm can blow vulnerable leaves off.
  • Plan to visit a diverse group of locations.
  • Be prepared for crowds! Remote side roads, hiking trail parking lots, and State Parks can become quite crowded with enthusiastic leaf peepers. Weekends obviously see the most visitors, but weekdays can be almost as busy.
  • No matter what conditions you encounter, find gratitude and beauty in Mother Nature’s splendor, and you’ll never be disappointed.

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4 thoughts on “Guide to North Shore Peak Fall Colors

  1. Bill says:

    Don’t forget the Mic Mac hike on the northwest end of Lax Lake, west of Silver Bay on the Lax Lake Road. Veer right at the “Y” for vivid color color and great views looking down over Lax Lake.

  2. Rose FRANDEEN says:

    Please send north shore info.

  3. Thomas Newell says:

    Thank you

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