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Happy Trails: Waterfall hike hidden at North Shore rest area

The quiet, out-and-back Onion River Trail in Tofte offers solitude and stunning views.

People swim in a river
People swim and walk through the shallow Onion River in Tofte on Saturday, Aug. 20.
Katie Rohman / Duluth News Tribune
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TOFTE — State Highway 61 on the North Shore has so many hidden treasures. I found this one while riding my bike a couple years ago along the highway.

Happy Trails logo.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Northeast of Tofte, on your way to Lutsen, is the Ray Berglund State Wayside, named after a St. Paul businessman whose family foundation cared about conservation and often donated to the 54-acre site. Opened in 2014, it’s a basic rest area: a large paved parking lot and a building with vault toilets. Steep wooden stairs lead to a bluff, where three picnic tables overlook the highway and Lake Superior. This is where the Onion River Trail begins.

My husband, Derrick, and I returned to the trail Aug. 20. The quiet, 2.2-mile, out-and-back hike offers solitude and stunning views of Onion River Falls under a canopy of trees.

Gravel trail next to wooden fence and tall plants
The Onion River Trail in Tofte begins as a gravel path winding among wildflowers.
Katie Rohman / Duluth News Tribune
Tree roots grow troughout dirt trail in forest
Hikers should take care on the root-covered Onion River Trail.
Katie Rohman / Duluth News Tribune

A chorus of very active grasshoppers greeted us at the start of the gravel trail, which winds through tall grasses, goldenrod, daisies and numerous varieties of colorful berries.

The trail soon turns into a narrow dirt path and follows the root beer-colored Onion River, a 6.1-mile stream that flows under Highway 61 into Lake Superior. The Onion River Falls , also known as Stair Step Falls, is where the shallow river cascades over boulders as it approaches the lake.

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Roots, rocks and downed trees pose obstacles for hikers along much of the trail, so wear closed-toed footwear with good tread. We spotted several kinds of mushrooms growing in the mossy forest floor. The trail slightly increases in elevation until the end, where a wooden bridge crosses the river.

Large white-capped mushroom grows on forest floor
A variety of mushrooms grow on the forest floor along the Onion River Trail, including this one at least 6 inches wide.
Katie Rohman / Duluth News Tribune

The hike to the bridge could easily be done in a half-hour, but give yourself more time to take in the many vistas, where you can peer over sharp bluffs at the rushing water. There are several very steep, rough paths that lead down to the river. There, relax on the boulders or hop to the middle of the river if the water is shallow enough. Some hikers even jumped into the deeper areas of the river that day to cool off.

Man stands on wooden bridge
A wooden bridge marks the end of the Onion River Trail in Tofte.
Katie Rohman / Duluth News Tribune

Hikers on the AllTrails app reported the Onion River Trail is traversable in the winter, with or without snowshoes.

The Onion River Trail is a must-hike if you’re in the Tofte area or want a break while driving up the North Shore. Avoid the crowds of tourists, get some exercise and chill by the roaring river.

Root beer-colored water flows on Onion River
Root-beer-colored water flows down the Onion River to Lake Superior on Aug. 20.
Katie Rohman / Duluth News Tribune
Sign at the Ray Berglund State Wayside
The Ray Berglund State Wayside is located on Minnesota Highway 61 in Tofte.
Katie Rohman / Duluth News Tribune
Picnic table overlooking Minnesota Highway 61 and Lake Superior
A picnic table overlooks Minnesota Highway 61 and Lake Superior at the start of the Onion River Trail in Tofte.
Katie Rohman / Duluth News Tribune
Red thimbleberries grow surrounded by large green leaves
Thimbleberries grow along the Onion River Trail in Tofte.
Katie Rohman / Duluth News Tribune
Dark-blue berries grow near a forest floor
Clintonia borealis, also known as bluebead, grows near the forest floor along the Onion River Trail.
Katie Rohman / Duluth News Tribune
MORE "HAPPY TRAILS"
The Superior Hiking Trail spur is a great escape for people who like a lot of scenery — and just enough challenge to justify a treat afterward.

Katie Rohman has served as the managing editor of the Duluth News Tribune since 2019. She started with Duluth Media Group in 2017 as regional editor of the Superior Telegram, Pine Journal, Lake County News-Chronicle, Eastern Observer and Western Weekly. She has worked in newspapers around the Midwest since 2004.
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