Superior Hiking Trail at-a-glance
- Location: Northern Minnesota’s “Arrowhead”
- Distance: 310 miles
- Difficulty: moderately strenuous
- Best time to go: late summer and fall but is hiked all year round
- Direction: Either
- Permits required: none
- Elevation gain/loss (NOBO): 37,821 feet/37,372 feet
- Highest point: 1,829 feet on Rosebush Ridge
- Lowest: Lake Superior
- Shuttles: various at SHT website
- Maps: available for purchase or with Avenza
- Dogs: must be leashed at all times
- Campsites: 94, first-come-first-served but must be shared
- Type of travel: foot traffic only
If you thought the Midwest of the United States was just flat and boring and that Minnesota specifically can be filed under “flyover country,” think again. The rugged and scenic Superior Hiking Trail (SHT), a 310-mile path starting just south of Duluth and following the North Shore of Lake Superior to Canada, puts all those notions to rest.
I hiked every section of the trail, except for the southern portion south of Two Harbors, over the 15 years that I’ve lived in Minnesota, fitting pieces in here and there between more famous trails. I was shocked this spring when a voice inside me compelled me to walk the SHT as a thru-hike all in one go. What happened surprised me—that this trail would become one of the most soulful backpack trips of my life.
About the SHT
Construction of the trail in what was then very wild country began in the mid-1980s. The plan was to connect some of the most interesting geological formations in the state, including the steep and rocky billion-year-old volcanic ridges of the Sawtooth Mountains consisting of basalt, rhyolite, anorthosite, and gabbro that offer expansive views of the big lake itself, plus copious ponds, lakes, streams, rivers and deep gorges where immense waterfalls race to the lake.
Dipping down into hardwood forests on the very edge of boreal, the trail is surrounded by birch aspen, pine, fir, and cedar. The footpath feels like a living organism, with voices from an abundance of birds and other creatures a daily soundtrack. By 2013, the trail was complete, ending at the Wisconsin border to officially become part of the North Country Trail, a 4,800-mile national and scenic trail that extends from North Dakota to Vermont.
When to Go
I might have chosen the worst time to go (June) – buggy, hot, and humid, and too early for berry picking. The SHT can and is hiked all year long, with fall being a favorite time as the maples and aspen turn brilliant colors.
I’ve backpacked in all seasons, including snowshoeing in winter (skiing is nigh near impossible on this steep terrain), which presents its own set of challenges due to extreme cold and deep snow. Spring can be very muddy and wet, and summer brings humidity and bugs until early to mid-August.
Early summer was the best fit for my schedule, so I packed a head net, permethrined my long-sleeved shirt, long pants, socks, and gloves, and simply went for it.
I should note here that ticks are prevalent at all times of year except during the hard freeze. Both species of blacklegged ticks, primary vectors for Lyme disease and other nasty illnesses, have spread into Minnesota, so every precaution should be taken to manage a bite.
Which Way to Go
I started south of Duluth and walked north. It does help to live in the state and have a driver and friends willing to shuttle me about. For many, having to be retrieved at such a remote, northern location as Otter Tail Road is a hassle. The Superior Hiking Trail Association provides a handy guide with transportation options. I’ve used Superior Shuttle in the past, and it’s doable to arrange a pickup/drop off at nearly any road crossing – for a price.
That being said, which direction you walk is a matter of taste. I found the buildup walking north (technically east) more exciting, moving from a more populous area to a feeling of wilderness. However, the terminus, about eight miles east of Jay Cooke State Park, is fairly remote in and of itself, requiring a short out-and-back to the Wisconsin Border. Remember, though, that when heading north, the sun will mostly be at your back and the wind in your face, which felt ideal in early summer.
I found the Superior Hiking Trail maps a bit wonky. The SHT Association puts out maps, a guidebook, and a databook that provide loads of information plus topography. Still, the maps themselves are small, and I took my own CalTopo map on Gaia so I could zoom in and out to get a better lay of the land.
The mileage also feels a bit clunky, with distances given between road crossings and not campsites. A local backpacker, Mike Ward, has put up a really cool distance calculator for planning. On the trail, signs give mileage to “next campsites” and upcoming roads/landmarks in robin-egg blue letters indented into classic wooden signs. Still, there are so many blue blazes that it’s practically impossible to get lost.
It might not surprise you that a NOBO’s elevation gain over the span of the trail is more than 37,000 feet. In some ways, I find walking this type of terrain, which is rugged underfoot and requires careful placement of the feet, harder than the long ramps of the Pacific Crest Trail. Sure, there are no altitude issues, and the trail is far shorter, with dangers mostly consisting of dramatic electrical storms, disease-carrying insects, and a selfie gone wrong at the edge of a cliff, but constant day-long ups and downs take a toll on the body.
These ups and downs also offer impressively striking changes, from wetlands to a semi-alpine environment within minutes. The inclines are steep and fast but never more than a few hundred feet. Perhaps that’s why I’d wager a fit and experienced thru-hiker can walk the SHT in 2-3 weeks as I did.
Non-waterproof trail runners: Just a note here that I wear trail runners without waterproofing. Experience has proven that the minute water gets inside a waterproofed shoe, I end up carrying that water around most of the day as waterproof shoes are slow to dry. On a related note, definitely take extra socks. You will get wet.
GPS: I should point out that many places on trail are out of cell range and that, even though the trail is close to roads and towns, much of it is very remote. I hiked in high season, but for many hours, sometimes days, I wouldn’t see a soul. If you couldn’t move, not having a communication device could cause difficulties.
Trekking poles: It’s not just going up where sticks help pull the hiker along. Having “four legs” helps stabilize going down on what often seems like a 90° angle, reinforced only with a few well-placed rocks. I saw people without poles, but I save weight by setting up my tent with them and wouldn’t ever venture into this rugged country without them.
A Quick Note About Bears
Just a word here about bears: I have never seen a black bear on the Superior Hiking Trail. While campsites on the Apostle Islands and in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness have sometimes had to be closed due to aggressive bear activity, as far as I know, the SHT has been free of problems.
I believe that’s because campers practice Leave No Trace principles by keeping clean campsites, eating away from their tents, and hanging their food or storing it in a hard-sided container. I personally think a hard-sided container is overkill and bear spray is not necessary, as black bears can usually simply be hazed. But I highly recommend storing your food in an OPsak, Ursack, or similar odor-proof bag and hanging it at night.
I bring a small bag for rocks, 30 feet of 500-pound paracord, and a tiny carabiner. As I moved north, it was harder to find limbs for hanging 10 feet away from the trunk and 10 feet from the ground. Still, keeping the food out of reach and out of sight (bright colors can attract bears, so I use black) kept “mini-bears” or rodents from finding my food.
The point to remember is that if a bear gets your food, it might ruin your trip, but it could also result in the bear becoming habituated, associating humans with food and eventually needing to be destroyed.
Superior Hiking Trail Section by Section
Section 1: MN/WI Border to Duluth, 50.2 miles
The first section offers many challenges, not the least that there is only one free, official SHT campsite along the way, and it’s right at the border.
Strategies to manage this section include camping at Jay Cooke State Park, although that requires a reservation far in advance for sites that are highly competitive to obtain. Another option is Spirit Mountain (about 26 miles from the border), which has numerous (expensive) walk-in sites and Bagley Nature Center Campground (about 45 miles from the border).
Of course, there are also motels and taxis/Lyft that can take you there. I know it sounds like a real pain, but I would not skip this section. Perhaps the most unanticipated part of walking along the St. Louis River towards Lake Superior is how difficult it is. There are lots of challenging ups and downs through maple forests that, while deep in mud in late June, were filled with orchids like lady’s slippers, plus wild roses, red columbine, butterwort, phlox, northern bluebells, and fading trillium.
Jay Cooke itself boasts a stunning swing bridge over the St. Louis River, where water crashes down giant sliced bread-shaped shale popping up from the toaster. The two-tone slide-whistle of veeries followed me through these forests, plus the solar-plexus pressure of a ruffed grouse thumping.
The trail leaves the forest for exposed balds, affording astounding views of the St Louis river valley, the city of Duluth and Gitche Gumee (the Ojibwe name for Lake Superior, meaning “huge water”) itself. Along the way, the trail crosses stream upon stream. There was so much water: beautiful, fresh, and rushing often with rapids or waterfalls, destinations in and of themselves. Duluth has 43 named streams within its city limits. This boded well for a backpacker giving this exposed area a go on one of the hottest days of the summer, with temperatures reaching into the 90s. I filtered and drank ten liters the day I walked through Duluth!
I should mention here that nearly all of the water is brown from tannins left over as leaf litter decays. It’s harmless and did not affect the flavor, but all streams contain giardia, and I recommend carrying a good filter, like a Sawyer Squeeze.
Eventually, the trail heads down to a Lake Walk, about three miles and the only flat part of this section. The trail (on sidewalk here) passes two of my favorite restaurants, Fitger’s Brewhouse and Sir Ben’s, plus a Super One grocery store – not to mention all the stores on Superior Street should you need new shoes, which I, in fact, did. But that’s another story.
Section 2: Duluth to Two Harbors, 57.2 miles
The second section is the beginning of official campsites on trail. I would be lying if I said I’ve never stealth camped on the Superior Hiking Trail, but the association requests that we camp in designated sites and be prepared to share them. Why? Because it concentrates the impact and controls campfires and human waste.
Honestly, the forest is so thick and lumpy that it’s difficult to find a place to pitch a tent. The designated sites are primitive with a few luxuries including vault latrines with seats (!), wooden benches, fire pits, and relatively flat places to pitch a tent. They’re also mostly near a water source, though I was surprised as I moved north that some creeks dry up after the spring melt.
There’s road walking in this section as well as the dreaded North Country Trail, a snowmobile route that is a mosquito-infested swamp in summer. At least the birds were punch drunk here, and I identified seven different warblers and three thrushes.
The lupine was extraordinary (a non-native flower but connected now with the North Shore), as were the wild irises, morning glories, shelf fungi, the secretive Knife River, and the iridescent turquoise and black jewelwings. I camped at my own private waterfall over mossy rock, where a small swarm of damselflies kept the mosquitos at bay but leeches found my bare soaking feet.
Section 3: Two Harbors to Silver Bay, 44.6 miles
Here, the trail actually starts to feel as if you are on the North Shore, with big climbs up (and down) hand-built stairs of rock and logs – or directly on the lichen-covered rock itself. The trail hits two state parks – Gooseberry and Split Rock – both boasting multiple and wondrous falls, superb views, and strenuous walking on rough terrain. I lucked out and nabbed the SE Split Rock site right under falls with a rocky terrace looking straight at the split rock. Another fantastic site is S Beaver River, perched above rushing rapids through a chute in the rocks.
A few issues arise in this otherwise splendid section. Much of the SHT crosses private property, with land-use agreements hammered out over many years. Signs are posted when entering these areas, with requests to not camp or go off trail. But not all hikers heed the warnings, and a number of years back, hikers allegedly harassed an owner when he rode an ATV and hunted on his own property.
The result was his choosing to shut down that section of trail, forcing walkers to use the paved Gitchi Gami bike trail along Highway 61, followed by a road walk up Blueberry Hill. While it’s less than three miles, it’s not ideal to walk in direct sun next to a highway, except for one respite during a tiny dip down to the rocky beach.
In addition, the bridge across Split Rock River was destroyed six winters ago and has yet to be replaced. The state left it to the SHTA, which decided, due to cost, complexity, and ambiguous regulations, to decline replacing it, leaving the hiker to cross at her own risk. After so many very risky crossings in New Zealand, this one felt like a piece of cake and was helped by a fixed rope. That being said, the water was at normal flow, just mid-thigh.
At both the beginning and end of this section, I resupplied my food stores. The Association offers good information on post offices and package hold options here, but I didn’t find them necessary since I planned to carry all I needed after my last stop until Grand Marais, about 110 miles.
It’s a long way into the Super One in Two Harbors down Highway 2, but hitchhiking was pretty straightforward. I was lucky enough to meet people heading in for lunch, then back up again, so we also shared a meal before I returned to the trail!
The drive to Zup’s Food Market in Silver Bay is much closer with a hitch on Penn Avenue, and they’re stocked with almost everything a hiker could want/need except actual backpacking meals.
Section 4: Silver Bay to Caribou Falls, 45.3 miles
When my husband and I first backpacked on the SHT, after hiking in the Sierra, the Rockies, Italy, Chile, and the Karakorum, we realized we needed to buy trekking poles STAT. Nothing emphasizes this need as much as this section, which includes spectacular Bean and Bear Lakes, glacially scoured basins below basalt towers; high, exposed Mount Trudee above the “drainpipe” (which has wisely been reinforced with wooden stairs); the seemingly endless rollercoaster ridge above Wolf Lake to the unbelievable crags at Section 13; plus the long, view-laden Horseshoe Ridge between roiling Manitou and Caribou Rivers.
Even on seemingly “easy” parts along the Baptism River, on the Sawmill Bog, or past gorgeous Sonju Lake with its tiny island of exposed Canadian Shield, poles help move aside overgrown plants to see if a rock or stump is waiting to trip me or help determine the depth of a stream I needed to cross.
It was on this section that I made friends with literally thousands of Arrowhead Spike tail dragonflies, giant black and white aeronautical marvels that stayed close since I had become a food source vector. I would call this section the most difficult yet the most rewarding.
As of this writing, the bridge across the High Falls of the Baptism River in Tettegouche State Park is damaged and uncrossable. This requires the hiker to venture down to the highway to cross the river. The west side of the river is a road and easily hitchable; the east side is a very well-maintained path. Take the extra 0.3 miles to see the falls, the largest within Minnesota’s borders. It’s well worth it.
Section 5: Caribou Falls to Lutsen, 34.5 miles
This section has some of the most gorgeous waterways of all, including precious Alfred’s Pond, where evil-looking pitcher plants seemed to whisper “Feed me!” when I took their picture, and lovely Cross River with a rock patio surrounded by falls at the first campsite. The Temperance River, with its deep pools, rapids, and falls, is one of the best swimming rivers on the North Shore.
This is followed by Carlton Peak, not the highest point on the trail (that is near the Canadian border, deep in a spruce forest with no views) but one that’s electrifying, especially in fall. Then it’s a series of mountains – Britton, Leveaux, Oberg, and Lutsen – all reached by spur trail from deep forest with rolling ups and downs.
Section 6: Lutsen to Grand Marais, 35.2 miles
Most dramatic in this section is stunning Agnes Lake, with one of the best campsites on the trail on its own rock peninsula that catches the prevailing northwesterlies. The view of snaking Poplar River from a high rocky perch feels almost fantastical, as does Lookout Mountain in Cascade River State Park, with its own private basalt tower placed just so for viewing and pictures.
I watched the sunset and sunrise here, not noticing that I was camping in a reservation-only site until I’d already set and it was getting dark. I should have known, since it has a picnic table, a shelter, and a bear-proof locker.
I came across red squirrels and chipmunks, loads of whitetail deer, a beaver who slapped loudly as I approached his pond, garter snakes and toads, and a pack of wolves howling around 2:00 am one quiet night. Mostly, it was a symphony of birdsong (and mosquito whines and deerfly drones). I highly recommend loading the Cornell Merlin Bird app on your phone because you will be overjoyed by the sheer number of creatures living in the north woods – and it’s free.
Section 7: Grand Marais to 270 Degree Overlook, 54.2 miles
Again, a hitch into Grand Marais to Gene’s Foods down the Gunflint Trail is fairly easy from the popular Pincushion Mountain parking lot. I was lucky to nab the superb E Devil Track River site to myself deep in a gorge. It’s the first in a series of beautiful and private creeks – Woods, Durfee, Cliff, Kimball, Crow, Kadunce (technically a river), and Timber Wolf.
White-throated sparrows sang their crystalline falling pentatonic scale as I worked my way to the 1.5-mile beach walk on smoothed stones and up to Judge C.R. Magney State Park, named for the man who lobbied to save this land for public enjoyment. After the wild Devil’s Kettle, the trail begins to move north toward the Pigeon River and Canada rather than east because no agreement could be reached to allow for trail through the lands of the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe.
The ground was damp, as were the overgrown plants, acting as a carwash as they brushed up against me, quickly soaking through everything. Even in the heat, I wished I’d brought rain pants.
Sweeping views along with road walks constitute the last part. I found much to like, including the hidden pools of the Flute Reed River, raucous frog ponds, hundreds of swallowtail butterflies, and squalls passing over the Big Lake at Hellacious Overlook. The highest point at 1,829 feet comes after a series of PUDS through dense forest, and the trail just peters out onto Otter Lake Road, which may be why the builders have the hiker join a mile of the Border Route to a high point that looks towards the Pigeon River, a superhighway for the Voyageurs, and into Canada.
From my perch, I sent a note to my friend near the Kadunce River that I’d finished and was ready for pickup. I needed to send it via my Garmin inReach Mini (many places on trail are out of cell range).
Is it worth it?
I’d say yes, especially with the challenging terrain and splendid variety. There are many loops for day-hiking and sections easily tackled in a weekend. I met two women walking it piece by piece, and the return to trail year after year bonded them to each other and to the land.
As far as thru-hikes, the Superior Hiking Trail is relatively short yet still acts like a thru-hike with resupply and travel challenges, the delight in meeting trail angels (mostly people section hiking who wanted to share food or a beer), extremes in weather that require just marching through, and the transformation that occurs when we’ve lived in an environment for long enough.
The beauty is stunning, enlivening every sense – the touch of your shoe on grippy rock, the smell of balsam fir, the sound of the avian chorus, the taste from rushing streams (and a few tiny strawberries on a sunny ridge), and, of course, the sight of vast forests and ridges and the Big Lake herself – and yet it’s also subtle and requires an openness to embrace. But give this place a chance, and I promise it will grow on you.