backroads knife river trail

Like bees to honey, the summer travelers come from all over the country. Cars in the parking area have license plates from Arizona, Nebraska and Colorado. To practice social distancing, the line of customers waits to enter Russ Kendall’s Smoke House — a main attraction in Knife River, Minn.

Knife River is a quiet village located a few miles north of Duluth. While motorists whiz by on the four lane highway a couple of blocks away, Knife River languishes on the shore of Lake Superior. Even at the height of the summer tourist season, the atmosphere is friendly and relaxed.

Like many towns along the north shore, Knife River got its start in the 1850s. But the area had already gained notoriety long before. The first recorded American total-loss shipwreck on Lake Superior occurred at the mouth of the Knife River in 1838. The village began as a copper mining settlement. Because of the low grade of ore, industry switched to logging and the railroad came through town. When logging died out, the village turned to commercial fishing.

Knife River today has an interesting mixture of the old days with the more modern look favored by tourists. A classic example is the newly-refurbished train depot which will serve as the town’s heritage and cultural center. Almost as a reminder of the depot’s previous condition sits its time-worn neighboring structure.

Among the scattering of modest houses, the town features a candy store, yarn shop, church, post office and a resort. Kendall’s Smoke House sits on the “outskirts” of Knife River. Two large neon fish signs hang in the store’s front plate glass windows. One says “smoked” and the other “fresh.” When the “fresh” sign is lit, Kendall’s has fresh fish. There is also a recreation center which serves as the town’s meeting hall. But the jewel of Knife River is the marina.

Naturally sheltered from the turbulence of Lake Superior, the Knife River marina is packed with sailboats. A few larger boats are dry-docked as well. Amicus Adventure Sailing is a red charter sailboat which books daily cruises out of the marina. Adjacent to the marina is a parking area and access to a quiet beach on the lake. Agate hunters can be found combing the beach along with children collecting their private treasures.

But Lake Superior isn’t the only water feature worth exploring. The Knife River winds through town before emptying into the lake and features a waterfall area accessible by a short (1.4 mile) hiking trail.

There is a spacious campground for tents and RVs located across the railroad tracks from the marina and walking distance to the lakeshore.

Actually, pretty much everything in Knife River is in walking distance — allowing visitors a leisurely pace to take it all in.