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A Great Family Road Trip

Explore the Great Lakes All in One Place

Located about two and a half hours from Minneapolis, Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth is a perfect destination for a road trip. With its 32,000 square feet of amazing lake, ocean and land animals, the Aquarium had a record 190,000 visitors last year alone.

“Duluth itself is a small city, but it’s a pretty popular tourist destination because of its position on Lake Superior,” says the Director of Operations, Jay Walker. “A lot of people love to come visit the North Shore and then hang out in Duluth.”

Visitors to the Aquarium come from all over, including Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and even from Canada, but a majority, he says, are from the Twin Cities. There’s so much to see, and while some people may spend an hour or two walking around, others stay for the day and take advantage of the different experiences and tours offered throughout.

“We focus our energy on using Lake Superior as our lens to the world,” says Jay. “We have a 9,000 gallon exhibit called Unsalted Seas, which is a gallery all about large lakes, the animals that live in and around them, and their importance as a global freshwater resource. There are sturgeons from around the Caspian Sea region as well as sturgeons from the Great Lakes themselves.” It’s actually the largest sturgeon touch pool in North America.”

Another popular exhibit, H2O: Watersheds at Work, just opened last year. It’s a hands-on, splash zone, showcasing the properties of water, how it moves through a community, and how it connects us to the world.

“We've always had a Great Lakes water table, but it was over 20 years old,” he says. “We completely redid it and made it more accessible by putting it a little bit lower to the ground so younger kids and people in wheelchairs can interact with it.”

The water table is in the shape of all five of the Great Lakes and features working lock and dam systems operating to the St. Lawrence Seaway. Children and adults alike, can navigate boats and view other interactive displays on the water.

“We also redid our Raptor Ridge exhibit, where we have two birds of prey - a bald eagle named Bogey and a turkey vulture named Horus. They're both very connected to Lake Superior.” The two birds, after being rehabilitated, were not able to be released back into the wild. At the Aquarium, they get the enrichment and care they need to thrive.

Another big hit at the Aquarium is Otter Cove, which is modeled after the real Otter Cove on the Eastern shore of Lake Superior in Canada’s Pukaskwa Provincial Park. All visitors, young and old, love watching the antics of otters Agate and Ore. Since North American river otters tend to sleep twelve to sixteen hours a day, the best time to see them is usually around 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Yet a different exhibit, Critter Corner, showcases the diversity of the animal kingdom from turtles to moon jellies. This exhibit has two touch pools housing marine invertebrates – jellies, anemones, sea stars, and much more. Reptiles living in this exhibit often come out and say hello during the hands-on interpretive programs.

“People really enjoy the jellyfish,” says Jay. “Although they are not found in Lake Superior today, they were many, many years ago. Jellyfish were some of the first structured organisms in this region.”

Over the last 10 years, he explains, they’ve really focused on trying to do more interactive hands-on type of displays where visitors can manipulate something and touch a living creature. “It's just so much more fun to learn when you can have that physical connection.”

They’ve also been working on making the aquarium more inclusive, such as lowering the water table for wheelchairs, having tactile exhibits for those with visual impairments, and having sensory-friendly days for those who find bright lights and loud noises upsetting.

“We want to make sure that we can engage everybody and that means trying to remove as many barriers as possible,” says Jay. “We want to connect people to this lake and to the world and we want to make sure it's accessible.”

Great Lakes Aquarium also offers camps over the summer, which are very popular. “We have animal care camps where children can help and learn all about what it takes to care for our animals,” he says. “They prep food and feed some of the fish and other animals. We also have a SCUBA camp so students can learn how to dive, which is super fun.”

For adults, they also have a beer garden which usually opens in June. “We have an open courtyard next to the Aquarium where we do a lot of events, and every Thursday throughout the summer, we partner with Earth Rider Brewery, which is in Superior, Wisconsin, and sell their beer. We also partner with the Duluth Symphony Orchestra and have a quartet that comes and plays. We have food trucks as well - it's a lot of fun.”

No ticket is needed for the beer garden, so everyone can come and enjoy the waterfront view, the music, and some great food and beverages. This was something the Aquarium started during the pandemic. “We were closed and people were looking for outdoor things to do,” says Jay. “It was such a hit that we are continuing to offer it.”

People can also host their own personal events at the aquarium. “Anything from a meeting to a wedding to birthday parties and class reunions,” he says. “We have one space in particular that's part of the aquarium that we rent out during the day.”

They also host evening events once the museum closes, and people can rent the whole space to enjoy with their guests. It’s really a unique venue in which to hold a party. “We even have overnight stays, and experiencing the aquarium in the evening is really different,” he says.  

To find out more and to plan your trip, go to https://glaquarium.org/.

353 Harbor Drive #100, Duluth, MN. (218) 740-3474.

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