Work your way up Minnesota’s spectacular Lake Superior North Shore, past numerous rivers and waterfalls, state parks and the Superior National Forest. Once in Ontario, you’ll see thick boreal forests, lakes and bogland spreading across valleys between hills. The density of residences surrounding the highway rapidly decreases as you travel westward out of Thunder Bay.
MN-61 is among the state’s roadway jewels. Although well traveled, the Trans-Canada Hwy/ON-11W crosses remote regions of Ontario. There are several settlements along the route, but the distance between gas stations can exceed more than 100 miles. From International Falls, US-53 is two-lane to Virginia, then turns into a four-lane expressway to Duluth.
Closest motorcycle dealerships include North Country Cycle & Sports, Excalibur Motorcycle Works and Thunder Bay Harley-Davidson, Five Seasons Sports Center in Eveleth and RJ Sport & Cycle in Hermantown. Much of this route traverses desolate country. Bikes with smaller fuel tanks may need an extra jerry can.
Leave Duluth (pop. 86,125), the gateway to the North Shore, via MN-61N and pass Gooseberry Falls State Park, Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, Tettegouche State Park, Temperance River State Park, Cascade River State Park, and Grand Portage State Park and its High Falls of the Pigeon River (on the Canadian border).
The Duluth–Superior seaport, a major transportation center for the shipment of coal, taconite, agricultural products, steel, limestone and cement, is the largest and farthest-inland freshwater seaport in North America – a distinction that became possible with the 1855 opening of the Sault Ste. Marie Canal and the 1959 opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Thunder Bay & Dawson’s Trail
Thunder Bay (pop. 108,360) takes its name from the French term “Baie du Tonnerre” (Bay of Thunder). As the largest city in Northwestern Ontario, it is the region’s commercial, administrative and medical center.
You’ll be leaving Thunder Bay on Dawson Rd., also known as the Old Dawson Trail and a remnant of the first all-Canadian route that linked the Great Lakes with the Canadian prairie. While you’ll be motoring along various sections of the trail that are now a part of the Trans-Canada Highway, much of it was abandoned in the 1880s after the completion of the railroad.
A transcontinental federal-provincial highway system that travels through all ten provinces of Canada between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, the 4,990-mile Trans-Canada Highway is claimed to be one of the world’s longest national highways. The system, recognizable by its distinctive white-on-green maple leaf route markers, was approved by the Trans-Canada Highway Act of 1949 and completed in 1971.
Located about 20 miles northwest of Thunder Bay, Sistonens Corners (also called Shabaqua Corners) is a dispersed rural community at the intersection of ON-11 & ON-17. It is located on the northeast bank of the Shebandowan River (which flows to Lake Superior) as well as on the Canadian National Railway – originally called the Canadian Northern Railway, established in 1899 to connect the western prairies with Lake Superior.
A Hudson’s Bay Company trading post between 1894 and 1911, the unincorporated settlement of English River is located at the English River’s confluence with the Scotch River – just south of where ON-11 & ON-17 split.
Located 129 miles west of Thunder Bay, Atikokan (pop. 2,785) grew through the 1900s on mining and forestry, but today serves as one of the main entry points into Quetico Provincial Park and promotes itself as the “Canoeing Capital of Canada”.
Located on the U.S./Canada border, Fort Frances (pop. 7,950) is connected to International Falls, MN, by the International Bridge – a toll bridge.
Ft. Frances was established in 1731 with the creation of Fort Saint Pierre as support for the fur trade with native peoples. In 1817, following the War of 1812 and a redefinition of borders between Canada and the U.S. the Hudson’s Bay Company built a fort here and named it after Lady Frances Simpson, wife of then Hudson’s Bay Company leader.
Promoted as the “Icebox of the Nation,” International Falls (pop. 6,420) has a temperature below 32°F. for more than 100 days per year.
Although the International Falls area was known to explorers and missionaries as early as the 17th century, it was not until 1895 the community was platted by a representative of the Koochiching Company who named the community Koochiching. The village was incorporated in 1901 and two years later underwent a name change to International Falls in recognition of the river’s role as a border between the United States and Canada.
The history of Virginia (pop. 8,715) began in 1890 with the arrival of the first settlers lured by the uncovering of iron deposits. The settlement was incorporated into a city in 1895 – at which time it already had 3,000 inhabitants.
By the 1930s, with mining activity in full mode, Virginia was ranked the 5th largest city in Minnesota and labeled “The Queen City of the Iron Range.”
Want to play the part of tourist? The “Mineview in the Sky” – located along Hwy 53 – gives visitors a panoramic view of the area’s mining history and the city. It is open May-October.
As in Virginia, the economy of Eveleth (pop. 3,720) has always been tied to the iron ore mining and processing that occurs in the area. This economic activity peaked during WWII but declined through the second half of the 20th Century. If you’re a hockey fan, you’ll already be thinking about a stop at the United States Hockey Hall of Fame.
On the bank of the Whiteface River, Cotton is an unincorporated community generally considered the halfway point between the cities of Virginia and Duluth.