Correction to This Article
In the Sept. 3 Travel section, a box accompanying an article on Minnesota's Superior Hiking Trail should have said the trail begins north of Duluth, not south.

A Superior Trail

By Cliff Terry
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 3, 2000

On the first of our three days along Minnesota's Superior Hiking Trail, my wife and I had yet to see another human being after several hours on the footpath. A set of fresh footprints in the intermittent gobs of mud was the only proof that someone else had been there. Our only encounter was with a shrieking ruffed grouse who rose out of some bushes, protecting her young.

Sound lonely? Well, yeah. That's the point.

The Superior Hiking Trail, which runs north of Duluth along Lake Superior's North Shore, is the upper Midwest's version of the Appalachian Trail--only without the hype and traffic. It's one of the country's most overlooked and underappreciated outdoor marvels--indeed, Backpacker magazine has named it one of the country's "10 trails that leave others in the dust" and among the world's top 25.

With just a few small gaps, the SHT stretches 235 miles from the town of Two Harbors on the southwestern end to the Canadian border in the northeast. More than 50,000 people hike it each year. Compare that with the estimated 3 million to 4 million who annually tread upon at least part of its much lengthier East Coast cousin.

"The Appalachian Trail obviously gets the publicity," says Nancy Odden, executive director of the Superior Hiking Trail Association, which is dedicated to completing and protecting the trail. "People call us a lot and ask what we are. 'Are you a bike trail?' No. 'Can we ski on your trail?' No. Then I tell them, 'We're like the Appalachian,' and suddenly the light bulb goes on."

But it's not just the absence of crowds that makes the Superior trail so, well, superior. What distinguishes the trail from other forest footpaths is Lake Superior itself, celebrated by Native Americans--and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow--as "Gitche Gumme." You can climb to cliff tops rising more than 1,000 feet above the lake, where panoramas include overlooks of smaller lakes and the Sawtooth Mountains. In other spots, there are wondrous waterfalls and rapids, bends and deep gorges where the water cuts into layers of volcanic bedrock.

The SHT is not for those looking for a quarter-mile "nature trail" on a paved surface. Much of the hiking is "up and down," with ascents leading to rock outcroppings and cliffs and sharp descents plunging into river valleys.

Depending on the weather, the hiking season runs from early May to late October, after which the snowshoe crowd takes over. Odden says each year 10 to 12 backpackers cover the whole length of the SHT in one crack; the most light-footed took 11 days, with the average time about three weeks.

When complete--plans call for another three to five years of construction--the SHT will extend about 300 miles from the Canadian border down to the Minnesota/Wisconsin boundary south of Duluth. Eventually, it will become a segment of the North Country National Scenic Trail, which will run from New York to North Dakota.

There are dozens of campsites along the SHT, but my wife and I opted for the Lodge to Lodge program, in which we hiked during the day and bunked each night at a different B&B or inn. Our main reason for going indoors: the M word. Stopping at a tourist center, we had inquired about the mosquito situation. The diplomatic response: "Well, they are pretty frisky at the moment."

With Lodge to Lodge, we could select our accommodations and, in the process, the distance we wanted to cover each day. We began our journey with a 6.8-mile hike from the Stone Hearth Inn, a B&B near Little Marais. That was followed by treks of 4.3 and 6.8 miles, from the Lutsen Resort, a Scandinavian lodge in Lutsen, and the trendy Bluefin Bay Resort in Tofte.

The 15 participating lodges provide free shuttle service between parking lots and trail heads. In the morning, we would park our luggage-packed car at the lot closest to the day's final trail head, then catch a ride back to the starting point. After each hike, we'd hop in our waiting vehicle and set off to the lodge for dinner and well-deserved sleep. The price (we paid $280 apiece) includes plentiful breakfasts and a bagged lunch.

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