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.
During our days on the trail, we could count on two hands (plus a few toes) the number of people we saw. Day hikers usually don't see much more than red squirrels, chipmunks and birds, but white-tail deer are common, and the fortunate few have sighted moose, black bear and beaver. Approximately 100 species of birds migrate to the area during the summer months, including osprey, bald eagles and peregrine falcons. Off the trail, mostly in early evening, we spotted flickers, phoebes, a red-tailed hawk, black and white warblers and an American redstart.
The trees along the trail are impressively diverse, with boreal forests of balsam poplar, pines, spruces and cedar, and regrowth woods of trembling aspen and birch. Sadly, we noticed that many trees, particularly the birch, had been damaged by a recent devastating storm that clobbered the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where some 25 million trees were destroyed. We also saw touches of nature's serendipity, like little red mushrooms that resembled golf tees, and fields of wildflowers, including evening primrose, wild rose and buttercups.
Perhaps the most memorable moments of our trip came the second day out, when we stumbled across the delightful Temperance River waterfall. This is the trail's most-traveled part, but it wasn't the least bit crowded. Climbing up to Carlton Peak--a bald dome made up of huge blocks of white granite rock--we encountered about a half-dozen women who had assembled on the North Shore for a family reunion while their menfolk were off fishing. During this midmorning gorp-and-apples break, we also watched some teenagers practice rappelling on a 50-foot cliff. Later, after 3 1/2 hours of hiking, we arrived at the Temperance River, which roared through narrow gorges in a dark basaltic canyon. The river was so named because, unlike other North Shore waterways, it had no "bar" at its mouth. (A little Minnesota humor there.)
On Day 3, the trail became narrow, overgrown with waist-high vegetation and muddy from the previous night's heavy rain. We again came upon a grouse or two. At the top of Moose Mountain, we ate lunch on a boulder overlooking Lake Superior and the Poplar River Valley, as pesky chipmunks darted near our food.
After passing through a maple forest, we crossed the Poplar River, encountering a scene replete with pines and birches and roiling water, and headed for our car. Again, after five hours, we hadn't seen a soul.
Cliff Terry is a freelance writer in Chicago.
DETAILS: Minnesota's Superior Hiking Trail
The 235-mile Superior Hiking Trail runs just south of Duluth to the Canadian border, generally along a ridge overlooking Lake Superior in northeastern Minnesota.
GETTING THERE: The trail's southern end is at Two Harbors, a half-hour drive northeast of Duluth. Duluth is about a 2 1/2-hour drive northeast of Minneapolis/St. Paul via I-35.
From Washington, Northwest offers connecting service to Duluth for about $360 round trip and direct flights to Minneapolis for $290.
HIKING THE TRAIL: The best months to hit the trail are September and October, when daytime temperatures average around 60; the worst time s are during the first three weeks of November, when deer hunters are out in full force. Other less-desirable times are late May, when the black flies are abuzz, and June to July, mosquito season.
The trail is ideal for day hikers and backpackers, novice and hard-core trekkers. The easier segment runs from Two Harbors to Gooseberry; after Tettegouche, the terrain increases in difficulty and pitch.
Campsites are placed at five-mile intervals along the route, so you can stop and rest your weary feet--or head--at any time. There are also about 20 free parking lots at various trail heads. Except for weekends and some Mondays during holiday weekends, there is no shuttle service, so hikers must bring two cars and park at the beginning and end points; catch a ride with other trekkers or allow time to haul it back to Point A.
The Superior Hiking Trail Association offers free guided hikes once a month during the summer/early fall; the next one is Sept. 23.
LODGING: There are loads of lodging options along the route, including 60 free campsites that are first-come, first-serve. Hikers can also find hotels, cabins, B&Bs and more just a few miles off-trail. For a list of accommodations, check the Minnesota Office of Tourism (see below).
The Lodge to Lodge Hiking program helps visitors map out itineraries that include daily hiking routes and accommodations; contact Boundary Country Trekking, 800-322-8327, www.boundarycountry.com. Rates range from $277 per person (three nights, midweek) to $637 (seven nights). The price includes lodging, breakfast, trail lunch and shuttle service between trail heads and cars.
INFORMATION: Superior Hiking Trail Association, 218-834-2700, www.shta.org. Minnesota Office of Tourism, 800-657-3700, www.exploreminnesota.com.