High Falls of the Pigeon River

Grand Portage State Park / Pigeon River Provincial Park, Minnesota / Ontario, USA / Canada

About High Falls of the Pigeon River


Hiking Distance: 1.4 miles round trip (US side); 2.4 miles loop (Canada side)
Suggested Time: 60-90 minutes

Date first visited: 2015-09-26
Date last visited: 2015-09-26

Waterfall Latitude: 48.00488
Waterfall Longitude: -89.59807

High Falls of the Pigeon River was one of the lesser known trans-national waterfalls in the world.

I found this to be pretty amazing considering that we’re talking about a waterfall shared between the USA and Canada!

High_Falls_Grand_Portage_038_09262015 - High Falls of the Pigeon River
High Falls of the Pigeon River

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 landscape.

It also didn’t hurt that this was said to be the highest waterfall in Minnesota at about 120ft.

The High Falls of the Pigeon River yielded very different experiences from either side of the Pigeon River.

So I’ll break down what it was like for both of the ways that we did our visit in the sections below.

Experiencing High Falls of the Pigeon River from the USA Side (Difficulty: 2)

High_Falls_Grand_Portage_075_09262015 - The view from one of the lookouts on the USA side for the High Falls of the Pigeon River
The view from one of the lookouts on the USA side for the High Falls of the Pigeon River

In our observation, the Minnesota, USA side was clearly the busier side.

There was a very large welcome center and parking lot 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 (each way) 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 during our late September 2015 visit.

High_Falls_Grand_Portage_081_09262015 - Julie and Tahia on the well-established paved walkway leading to the High Falls of the Pigeon River on the Minnesota side
Julie and Tahia on the well-established paved walkway leading to the High Falls of the Pigeon River on the Minnesota side

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.

High_Falls_Grand_Portage_027_09262015 - Julie and Tahia going past the paved walkway and onto the boardwalk near the end of the trail to the USA side for the High Falls of the Pigeon River
Julie and Tahia going past the paved walkway and onto the boardwalk near the end of the trail to the USA side for the High Falls of the Pigeon River

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.

Experiencing High Falls of the Pigeon River from the Canada Side (Difficulty: 2.5)

High_Falls_Pigeon_River_046_09272015 - The view of the High Falls of the Pigeon River on the Canadian side
The view of the High Falls of the Pigeon River on the Canadian side

The Canada 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.

High_Falls_Pigeon_River_133_09272015 - The Pigeon Bay Lookout at the end of the short 15-minute return boardwalk from the Pigeon River Provincial Park Center
The Pigeon Bay Lookout at the end of the short 15-minute return boardwalk from the Pigeon River Provincial Park Center

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 the Pigeon Bay Lookout.

There was also a playground by the Pigeon River Provincial Park trailhead (see directions below).

Trail Description from the Canada Side

From the trailhead parking, 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.

High_Falls_Pigeon_River_017_09272015 - Shortly after leaving the initial boardwalk (that went to the Pigeon Bay Lookout), I found myself on this dense dirt trail leading me towards the High Falls of the Pigeon River on the Canadian side
Shortly after leaving the initial boardwalk (that went to the Pigeon Bay Lookout), I found myself on this dense dirt trail leading me towards the High Falls of the Pigeon River on the Canadian side

This was where I deviated from the boardwalk and went onto the much more primitive and narrower tree-lined dirt trail.

This trail would go by the junction with the Finger Hill Lookout spur (which I didn’t do; it was 0.3 miles from the boardwalk) before 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 (about 3/4-mile) back to the trailhead, which led me to believe that I could’ve taken this more direct trail to get from the trailhead to here.

That said, 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.

High_Falls_Pigeon_River_021_09272015 - Going underneath a road bridge to continue the hike to the Canada side for the High Falls of the Pigeon River
Going underneath a road bridge to continue the hike to the Canada side for the High Falls of the Pigeon River

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).

High_Falls_Pigeon_River_036_09272015 - Distant views towards the Pigeon River from the apex of the climb on the Canadian side
Distant views towards the Pigeon River from the apex of the climb on the Canadian side

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.

High_Falls_Pigeon_River_041_09272015 - Approaching one of the lookouts for the High Falls of the Pigeon River on the Canadian side
Approaching one of the lookouts for the High Falls of the Pigeon River on the Canadian side

This then crossed a bridge, where there might have been a rock sluice during the logging heyday here.

Indeed, 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.

High_Falls_Pigeon_River_105_09272015 - Standing at the brink of the High Falls of the Pigeon River on the Canadian side
Standing at the brink of the High Falls of the Pigeon River on the Canadian side

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.

High_Falls_Pigeon_River_123_09272015 - On the return hike, I took a more direct trail that followed the road back to the Provincial Park Center on the Canadian side of the Pigeon River
On the return hike, I took a more direct trail that followed the road back to the Provincial Park Center on the Canadian side of the Pigeon River

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 direct 0.5km trail alongside the road back (that I had skipped earlier) 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.

Administration and Some Heritage of the Pigeon River

High_Falls_Grand_Portage_001_09262015 - The Grand Portage State Park Welcome Center, which was also the trailhead for the High Falls of the Pigeon River on the Canadian side
The Grand Portage State Park Welcome Center, which was also the trailhead for the High Falls of the Pigeon River on the Canadian side

Finally, a 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.

High_Falls_Pigeon_River_004_09272015 - The trailhead for the High Falls of the Pigeon River on the Canadian side
The trailhead for the High Falls of the Pigeon River on the Canadian side

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.

Authorities

The High Falls Falls of the Pigeon River resides in Grand Portage State Park on the USA side near Grand Marais in Cook County, Minnesota, and the Pigeon River Provincial Park on the Canada side near Thunder Bay, Ontario. On the USA side, it is jointly administered by the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. On the Canada side, it is administered by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation, and Parks.

For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit the Grand Portage State Park website or the Pigeon River Provincial Park.

High_Falls_Grand_Portage_007_09262015 - Julie and Tahia on the paved walkway leading from the Grand Portage State Park Welcome Center to the High Falls of the Pigeon River on the Minnesota side
High_Falls_Grand_Portage_009_09262015 - Julie and Tahia continuing on the easy paved trail on the American side to High Falls while briefly checking out interpretive signs along the way
High_Falls_Grand_Portage_012_09262015 - Hints of Autumn colors were showing up as Julie and Tahia continued on the paved walkway leading to the High Falls of the Pigeon River on the Minnesota side
High_Falls_Grand_Portage_015_09262015 - Some Autumn colors were really showing themselves during our hike to High Falls of the Pigeon River on the American side, despite the overcast and foggy weather
High_Falls_Grand_Portage_017_09262015 - Some benches were placed along this easy trail to the High Falls of the Pigeon River on the American side in case one needed a breather
High_Falls_Grand_Portage_030_09262015 - First look through the fog at High Falls of the Pigeon River from the American side
High_Falls_Grand_Portage_042_09262015 - This was probably as direct of a view as we were going to get for the High Falls of the Pigeon River on the Minnesota side
High_Falls_Grand_Portage_048_09262015 - Taking advantage of the fog blocking out the early afternoon sun to take some long exposure photos of the High Falls of the Pigeon River on the Minnesota side
High_Falls_Grand_Portage_064_09262015 - Focused partial look at the upper drop of the High Falls of the Pigeon River on the Minnesota side
High_Falls_Pigeon_River_009_09272015 - On the next day, the weather was vastly improved when we returned to High Falls of the Pigeon River, but this time we were on the Canadian side at the Pigeon River Provincial Park. At first, the trail followed this well-developed boardwalk towards Pigeon Bay
High_Falls_Pigeon_River_013_09272015 - The trail to High Falls of the Pigeon River on the Canadian side then branched off of the boardwalk and went into this primitive path flanked by trees with leaves turning color
High_Falls_Pigeon_River_018_09272015 - Between Finger Hill and the road bridge on the Canadian side, there were some parts containing boardwalk where the surface was a bit on the marshy side
High_Falls_Pigeon_River_019_09272015 - When I saw this sign near the junction by the road bridge, I knew that I could've shortened my walk by taking this path on the way here as well as on the way back to the Pigeon Bay Provincial Park car park
High_Falls_Pigeon_River_023_09272015 - Greeted on the other side of the bridge by signs telling me where I was as well as offering an additional trail to my right (which I didn't take) leading to the Middle Falls of the Pigeon River on the Canadian side
High_Falls_Pigeon_River_026_09272015 - The gorgeous Fall colors continued on the trail to the High Falls of the Pigeon River on the Canadian side
High_Falls_Pigeon_River_028_09272015 - At this junction, I opted to take the blue-diamond-labeled trail on the right, which ascended immediately towards the High Falls of the Pigeon River on the Canadian side. Eventually, the trail would loop back to this junction
High_Falls_Pigeon_River_029_09272015 - The trail on the Canadian side continuing to climb as the trees were thinning out and I was able to see more blue skies
High_Falls_Pigeon_River_050_09272015 - Angled view of the High Falls of the Pigeon River on the Canadian side from the lookout with the railings
High_Falls_Pigeon_River_065_09272015 - This was the unobstructed view of High Falls of the Pigeon River from the Canadian side with a slight rainbow showing up during the morning of my visit
High_Falls_Pigeon_River_106_09272015 - Looking downstream at the Pigeon River from the brink of High Falls on the Canadian side
High_Falls_Pigeon_River_112_09272015 - While completing the loop hike on the Canadian side, I had to descend these stairs which brought me closer to the banks of the Pigeon River
High_Falls_Pigeon_River_114_09272015 - Sometimes I had to pause and take in the nice panoramas of the Pigeon River from the Canadian side, especially given the dramatically improved weather over yesterday
High_Falls_Pigeon_River_116_09272015 - Looking back upstream along part of the Canadian side of the Pigeon River, where it appeared that there were more small cascades and waterfalls hidden within the deep gorge
High_Falls_Pigeon_River_117_09272015 - The Canadian trail was now skirting the banks of the wide Pigeon River
High_Falls_Pigeon_River_118_09272015 - Traversing through this boardwalk with lots of overgrowth on the Canadian side as I continued my return from the High Falls of the Pigeon River
High_Falls_Pigeon_River_127_09272015 - After finishing the High Falls of the Pigeon River loop hike on the Canadian side, I then decided to go out to the Pigeon Bay Lookout along the well-defined boardwalk before returning to the car

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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.

Driving from Duluth to the High Falls of the Pigeon River at Grand Portage State Park

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.

High_Falls_Grand_Portage_082_09262015 - Looking back at the parking lot at the Grand Portage State Park Welcome Center on the USA side of the international border crossing
Looking back at the parking lot at the Grand Portage State Park Welcome Center on the USA side of the international border crossing

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.

Driving from Thunder Bay to the High Falls of the Pigeon River at Pigeon Bay Provincial Park

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.

High_Falls_Pigeon_River_001_09272015 - The parking lot and Pigeon Bay Provincial Park building on the Canadian side of the international border crossing
The parking lot and Pigeon Bay Provincial Park building on the Canadian side of the international border crossing

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 parking lot 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.

Checking out the High Falls of the Pigeon River from the American side at a couple of different lookout spots


Checking out the High Falls of the Pigeon River from the Canadian side at an overlook providing perhaps the most unobstructed view you can get


Sweep from the brink of the High Falls of the Pigeon River on the Canadian side

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Tagged with: cook county, grand portage, state park, minnesota, usa, pigeon river, provincial park, thunder bay, ontario, canada, waterfall, chippewa, lake superior, great lakes



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Johnny Cheng

About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
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