Hugging the ridgelines above Lake Superior along northeastern Minnesota’s North Shore, the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) is the hottest long-distance footpath in the cool Northwoods. The SHT links two state forests, eight state parks and a national forest, plus it offers some 296 miles of continuous trail from Jay Cooke State Park near Duluth, Minn., to the Canadian border.
Ever changing, the SHT meanders through deciduous and boreal forests; past babbling brooks, swift rivers and waterfalls; and atop the windswept rocky escarpments of the appropriately named Sawtooth Mountains. No matter where you are on this hilly and sometimes-rugged trail, you’re never far from the sprawling, spectacular expanse of Gitche-Gumee (Lake Superior), the world’s largest freshwater lake in surface area.
Backpacker magazine ranks the SHT as “one of the most scenic trails in the nation.” National Geographic claims it is the “best long hike in the country between the Continental Divide and the Appalachian Trail.” Superlatives, indeed, but these are not exaggerations. Even hard-core wanderers are blown away by the dramatic scenery to be found here.
Trail Details: Built, maintained and managed by the all-volunteer Superior Hiking Trail Association, the SHT offers a genuine opportunity to get away from the crowds. With 53 trailheads along nearly 300 miles of trail — all of which is restricted to foot travel only — your options are plentiful, from a simple overnighter to an epic three-week thru-hike. Elevations range from Lake Superior at 602 feet above sea level to various ridge tops at more than 1,800 feet.
At times, you will be tromping through sheltered valleys where rivers and creeks have cut deep gorges on their way to the “Big Lake.” At other times, you’ll be standing high atop rock outcroppings that offer panoramic views of the surrounding highlands and coastline, including 50-mile vistas across Lake Superior. To provide dry paths for all those water crossings, volunteers have constructed dozens of stout footbridges, including a single-cable suspension bridge over the Baptism River, plus dozens of split-log bridges.
Where to Go: There’s no such thing as a bad hike on the SHT. But to kick-start your search, here’s a trio of primo backpack trips to consider. Each takes from three to five days, and all are located in the northern realm of the trail.
Judge C.R. Magney State Park to Pincushion Mountain: 24 miles. Begin your trip on the only part of the SHT directly on the Lake Superior shoreline. Head south, following several classic North Shore river gorges. End your trip with sweeping vistas of Grand Marais, the Sawtooth Mountains and Lake Superior from the summit of Pincushion Mountain.
Cascade River State Park to Oberg Mountain: 27 miles. Provides stellar views of Lake Superior and the Sawtooth Range. Stretches of trail parallel the winding Poplar River and stunning Lake Agnes. Climb Lookout, Moose, Mystery and Oberg mountains.
George H. Crosby Manitou State Park to Silver Bay: 38 miles. You’ll pass through a bit of everything along this highly acclaimed section: cliffs, canyons, rivers, bogs, giant glacial erratics, an enchanting old forest, wildflowers (including plentiful orchids) and an impressive boardwalk that crosses over Sawmill Creek.
Camping Details: There are 93 established backcountry campsites spaced every 7 to 8 miles along the trail. Reservations or permits are not required. Each campsite has a latrine and a fire ring with benches, and water sources are typically nearby. For a change of pace, you can also step out of the wilderness for a night at a lodge or rustic cabin along the lakeshore. There are 13 lodges or inns between Silver Bay and Grand Marais, all offering warm beds and hot meals.
When to Go: Northwoods veterans prefer August through September, marked by lower humidity, almost no bugs, intense fall colors, and the migration of hawks and eagles.
Of Interest: Look for moose, black bear, whitetail deer, beaver, coyote, red fox, ruffed grouse, loons and bald eagles. Lucky hikers might also catch a glimpse of the elusive timber wolf or hear its mournful howls. Wild blueberries and raspberries provide a special midsummer treat at many points along the trail.
Find More: Superior Hiking Trail Association: shta.org