About High Falls of the Pigeon River
High Falls of the Pigeon River was one of the lesser known trans-national waterfalls in the world, which was amazing since we’re talking about a waterfall shared between the USA and Canada! Yet even given its relative obscurity, we noticed that it was still quite popular given its close proximity to the border patrol station between the two countries (see directions below). Julie and I thought what really set this waterfall apart was its multi-segmented and multi-tiered characteristic as the Pigeon River rushed its way through a deep gorge that added to the drama of the scene. It also didn’t hurt that this was said to be the highest waterfall in Minnesota at about 120ft.
Another surprising aspect about this waterfall from an administrative standpoint was that the Grand Portage State Park was on land owned by the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa as opposed to the state of Minnesota. The land was said to be leased to the state of Minnesota to be administered as a state park. I’m not sure whether the Pigeon River Provincial Park on the Canadian side has a similar arrangement with the Native Americans or First Nations People here. The area was known as Grand Portage because the Pigeon River was known to be a key river for navigation. However, the lower 20 miles consisted of rapids and cascades that could not be canoed or kayaked and thus would require an extensive portage to reach calmer waters further upstream. High Falls was a dramatic example of such a navigation barrier.
This impressive waterfall yielded very different experiences from either side. So I’ll go into these different ways of doing this falls below…
The American Side (Difficulty: 2)In our observation, this was clearly the busier side. There was a very large welcome center and car park by the USA side of the international border (see directions below). From the back side of the welcome center building (think visitor center), it was a mere 0.6-0.7 miles to the overlooks. The trail was wide and well-developed with interpretive signs about the flora, geology, and history of this “great carrying place.” The entire path was lined with trees, which were in the midst of starting to exhibit the peak of Autumn colors.
In the steeper parts of the trail, there was a boardwalk with stairs that got us up to the bluffs with a direct look at the High Falls of the Pigeon River. Near the boardwalk, there was an outhouse (for pit toilet) as well as the start of a 3.5-mile (round-trip) trail leading to the Middle Falls of the Pigeon River. Since I didn’t do this detour from the American side, I can’t say more about this way of doing it.
Looking across the river, we were also able to clearly see the lookouts on the Canadian side. In fact, during our visit, we even saw some visitors on the other side get precariously close to the brink of the waterfall. While the viewing angle was quite satisfying from the American side, the unseasonably foggy weather kind of kept the viewing experience from being as optimal as we would have liked. That said, while we were able to see most of the falls from the pair of viewing decks, there was a cliff that tended to obstruct the far left segment of the falls.
Overall, Julie, Tahia, and I had spent about an hour away from the car at a very leisurely pace.
The Canadian Side (Difficulty: 2.5)This side was much quieter than the American side. The reason why was because I had to hike a 2.4-mile loop trail that involved a bit of climbing and descending. The trail surface was mostly direct and much narrower than the well-developed American side. While one of the lookouts had railings to keep me from getting too close to the edge of the cliffs, the brink of the High Falls was completely unguarded. So given these factors, I tended to think of the Canadian side as a much more back-to-Nature experience. But it was also for this reason that I solo’ed the hike and left Julie and Tahia to do the much easier boardwalk to Pigeon Bay Lookout as well as the playground by the Pigeon River Provincial Park trailhead (see directions below).
From the car park, I started on the signposted stairs leading down to a boardwalk that would ultimately lead to the Pigeon Bay Lookout in less than 15 minutes of walking. However, just a short distance after descending the stairs, there was a signposted spur leading to High Falls as well as the Finger Hill Lookout. This was where I deviated from the boardwalk and went onto the much more primitive and narrower tree-lined dirt trail that would go by the junction with the Finger Hill Lookout spur (which I didn’t do; it was 0.3 miles from the boardwalk) as well as swinging back around to the road bridge, where the trail went beneath.
Just before the bridge (about another 0.3 miles from the Finger Hill spur), there was a trail that returned 0.5km back to the trailhead, which led me to believe that I could’ve taken this more direct trail to get from the car park to here. However, given that the signage was more obvious going in the other direction, I suspect that this was more of a direct trail on the return hike.
Anyways after going underneath the bridge, the trail then widened but continued to be flanked by trees. After another 1/4-mile or so, I reached a junction. I opted to go right from here since the signage indicated that this led to the falls, but I knew this would be a loop so I could’ve gone either way. The path on the right immediately started to ascend, and as the climb reached its apex, I was able to look back towards the Pigeon River below.
When the trail descended, I then reached a junction (roughly 1/4-mile from the previous junction). Going right at this junction led to the unprotected brink of the High Falls of the Pigeon River. I dared not get near the water so I had to settle for standing on a precarious bluff, where I managed to get partial profile views of the falls from here. I was also able to get decent upstream as well as downstream (against the sun) views from here.
Back at the junction, a short distance further led me to another spur trail deviating from the main trail on the right. This then crossed a bridge (might have been a rock sluice during the logging heyday), where interpretive signs told of how logs could make it past High Falls and eventually to the waiting tug boats at Pigeon Bay in Lake Superior given the wooden slides that were constructed here.
This former location of the sluice was where I encountered the protected lookout for perhaps the most unobstructed views of the High Falls of the Pigeon River. That said, the view of the falls were a bit on the angled side (i.e. it wasn’t as direct as on the American side), but the clean view from here kind of made it a toss up in my mind about which side was better. One thing was for certain, I wouldn’t recommend bringing a kid on this side until they become comfortable with the distance, the ruggedness, and their sense of judgment especially around the cliff exposure.
Once I had my fill of this lookout, I then completed the loop, which descended several steps leading me down to the banks of the Pigeon River. At roughly 0.4 miles from the lookout, there was another spur trail leading to some historical plaque. I didn’t investigate that spur trail further so I can’t comment more about it. Eventually, in another 0.1-mile I returned to the original junction, where I then returned the way I came at least to the bridge, then I took the 0.5km trail alongside the road back to the Provincial Park Center and the parked car.
Overall, I had spent about 90 minutes away from the car, which included the optional 15-minute out-and-back boardwalk to the Pigeon Bay lookout. That lookout wasn’t anything dramatic from a photographic standpoint, but it did provide us the ability to get close to a calm and protected part of the Lake Superior shoreline.
The High Falls of the Pigeon River was a waterfall that we stopped for as we drove in both directions from Duluth to Thunder Bay and back. With each visit, we toured the different sides of the falls. So I’ll describe the driving directions from these endpoints.
From Duluth, I basically took the I-35 north as it eventually transitioned to the state highway 61. It was about a 96-mile drive from Duluth to the international border in Grand Portage State Park. The large welcome center was the last left turn before the border station. We had to be careful about passing slower drivers as almost the entire drive on the route 61 was two-lane highway going in opposite directions with seemingly few (if any) dedicated passing lanes. This drive took me a little over three hours though this included a gas and restroom break.
Note that had I headed south from the international border, the Grand Portage Welcome Center would be the first right turn.
From Thunder Bay, I basically headed south on the route 61 for roughly 40 miles. This drive would require about an hour give or take. The Pigeon Bay Provincial Park was on the left side of the road right in front of the international border. Coming up from the other direction, the small car park and visitor center would be on the right immediately after crossing the border.
Finally, for geographical context, Duluth, Minnesota was 154 miles (about 2.5 hours drive) north of Minneapolis, Minnesota, 189 miles (about 4 hours drive) southwest of Thunder Bay, Canada, and 397 miles (6 hours drive) northwest of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
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