Today is the day! Today we start hiking the Superior Hiking Trail, a 306-mile long trail that stretches along the Arrowhead of northeastern Minnesota from the Minnesota/Wisconsin border at its southern terminus to just shy of the Canadian border at its northern terminus, and we are quite eager to get started.
But this trek is beginning a bit differently than most of our other treks. For the first four days of the trail, we will be section hiking each day and returning to our friends’ carriage house in Duluth for the night. There are no wilderness campsites for almost 50 miles through the Duluth section of the SHT which makes completing this part of the trail a little challenging. Most backpackers skip it entirely.
Lucky for us, Chris and Kim are incredible trail angels, and, in addition to giving us a place to sleep each night, they are also loaning us their car so that we can shuttle ourselves from trailhead to trailhead as we tackle this section. In some ways the logistics of the SHT are much more simple than other trails. No permits are required to hike the trail, and there is an impressive network of free backcountry campsites comfortably spaced all along the trail once you get north of Duluth.
With the logistics worked out, we are eager to hit the trail, knowing that we have our work cut out for us. With Covid-19, many of our best training grounds in Chicago have been closed to us this spring, and we have three and a half days to cover these fifty miles. Since we are slackpacking and only carrying what we need for the day, we are hoping to go a little faster than our typical pace and crank out 14-16 mile days for the three full days, leaving the final seven miles for our last morning. On that day we will also need to shuttle our car three hours north past Grand Marais to the northern terminus (where we hope to hike to in three weeks) and drop three resupply boxes off at strategic spots on the way back to Duluth.
After shuttling one car at the Grand Portage trailhead in Jay Cooke State Park, we drive 15 minutes to Wild Valley Road where we will hike in 1.9 miles, tag the southern terminus and officially start the trail. We instinctively go to the trunk to grab our backpacks before we remember that we are coming right back to this spot and can hike without any extra weight for this short segment. We are somewhat purists as far as walking the entire trail, but that doesn’t mean we have to do so with a backpack. That being said, when we can get a break, we are going to take it.
Unencumbered, we hike quickly toward the state line, stopping to check out the one SHT campsite that is located a stone’s throw from the starting point. A short spur trail leads us to Red River Valley Campsite, and we are anxious to get a sneak peak at what we have in store for us over the next few weeks.
We find a small, tidy campsite with three tent pads, a group seating area with a fire pit, a trail to a latrine, and a trail leading down to a water source. It’s a nice set up, but, after being spoiled with private islands and water views in the Boundary Waters for the past nine days, it will be somewhat of an adjustment.
From there, it’s .4 miles to the terminus, where we find a wooden portal marking the state line. Coming from this side, we are welcomed to Wisconsin, stepping through, we see the word “MINNESOTA” carved and painted in trail blaze sky blue into the sign. Caution: the border is heavily guarded by mosquitoes.
Perhaps if we were a little more adventurous, we could walk south into Wisconsin on the North Country National Scenic Trail, a trail that stretches for over 5000 miles from North Dakota to Vermont. Imagine that!
There is a trail register here that we take out of the bright blue box that it is housed in to protect it from the elements. We take a moment to peruse the entries ahead of us and find that many of the people signing it are out doing a day hike rather than attempting the entire trail. We do find an entry from one southbounder who just finished a few days before, who is quite excited to be finished. There is also an entry from a northbounder who set out the week before headed to the Canadian border. There is little chance that our paths will cross.
Once we have signed the book ourselves, we turn around and begin retracing our steps back to the car. We are hiking in a beautiful mixed deciduous forest near the train tracks. Off in the distance, we can hear the sound of the trains intermingled with distinctive zipper-like call of the Northern parula.
The flora along the trail is lush and green, despite the drought that has plagued Minnesota this spring. That will mean that finding water may be a challenge, but the payoff is that the insects are way down, too. Surprisingly, there are lots of toads hopping about on the trail. We really have to watch our footing to make sure that we don’t accidentally step on one.
Back at the car, we eat a quick snack, grab our packs and start walking down the gravel road.
Before too long, a woman in a red Cobra drives up beside us and rolls her window down. She tells us that her name is “Sassy Sandee,” and she is so excited when she learns that we are attempting a thru-hike of the entire trail. She has section hiked it all herself over the years, but she really wants to do it again in one fell swoop sometime in the future. She points us in the right direction and tells us to look out for the pink Showy Ladyslippers under a cedar grove that are in full bloom. We are thrilled!
At the end of the gravel road, we cross the busy road and turn right, looking for the blue blaze that will lead us down into the woods and into Jay Cooke State Park. We turn a little too early, double back and then run into a local couple, Jenny and Greg, who are dayhiking in specifically to see the ladyslippers.
They are avid hikers, and we chat away about the different trails we have all done as we make our way to the cedar grove where apparently the ladyslippers have an affinity for the acidic soil. I am the first in our little group to spot them, and I yell out excitedly, “They’re here!” Everyone stops dead in their tracks, and we begin noticing all of the beautiful blooms scattered along the hillside.
Matt and I immediately drop our packs and grab the cameras. I am getting way too much of the background in my frame with my trusty wide angle lens, so I switch to my 55-210 mm zoom. It’s not the best lens, but it does a much better job at handling the large pink and white bulbs than anything else I have. Matt switches between his mirrorless and his iPhone with a new Macro lens attachment that we picked up for this trip. Flowers seem like a foreign subject for us after photographing birds alll spring, but we have fun and are happy with the results given all of the challenges.
By the time we are finally ready to leave, Jenny and Greg are long gone, and we continue on on our own. We stop for lunch on a spur trail that leads to the Lost Lake Lookout. We sit on a picnic bench high above the St. Louis River and watch the Swallowtail butterflies visit the tiny orange and yellow flowers that are in bloom around us.
From there, we continue on, following the SHT trailblazes as we turn onto the various trails that criss-cross this popular state park. This area is extremely popular in the winter with cross-country skiers, and, from the maps posted at every intersection, it looks like one could ski for an entire season without doing the same trail twice.
In the summertime, the ski trails are grassy paths, some a little overgrown with vegetation like the shoulder-high ferns we encountered in one spot. We pass an impressive beaver lodge where the trail dips to a pond with water and then head uphill on a steady incline on our way to the edge of the St. Louis River.
The closer to the river we get, the more people we encounter. There are many families and people out with their dogs here on this warm and sunny Sunday in June. We skip most of the overlooks, waiting to get the prime view near the famous Hanging Bridge that spans the river.
With social distancing being on everyone’s minds, there is a bit of a lineup to get across the bridge, and it’s hard to figure out when is the right time to go. We seize an opportunity and make our way across, barely stopping to take in the amazing view of the impressive rock formations, not wanting to hold anyone up behind or ahead waiting to get across.
We cross the parking lot to follow the SHT through the north side of the park. This section is covered in trails, and we pay close attention to make sure that we don’t mess up at one of the numerous intersections and get off track.
Before long, we cross paths with a young couple from the Twin Cities who are new to backpacking and here section hiking as much of the Duluth section as they can get done with the time that they have. They are camping tonight in one of the paid backcountry sites in Jay Cooke. It’s fun to finally see some other backpackers and to share what little knowledge we have gained so far with each other.
There are lots of ups and downs along the trail today. They are on the steeper side but never more than a few hundred feet in elevation as we go. One long set of wooden steps leads us down to Gill Creek, a pretty little cove with running water where a family is taking a rest in the cool shade, which seems like a smart idea.
From there it’s a big climb up to a ridge. Just before the top, we are stopped dead in our tracks by a gorgeous Scarlet Tanager singing from a nearby tree. He’s close enough to attempt a shot with our rather unimpressive long lens, but we can’t help ourselves.
The bird life here in Minnesota in the early summer is so impressive. Warblers are calling from the trees, and there are plenty of flycatchers perched in the trees. Earlier, we caught a brief glimpse of a Pileated Woodpecker flying by and now a nice encounter with this beautiful bird. In all, we have seen 17 different species, which is pretty good considering that our primary focus is on hiking.
We finally come back down to the river, which we follow until we arrive at the Grand Portage Trailhead parking lot. We have a cooler of cold drinks in the car, and we grab some ice cubes to cool down the back of our necks and arms after this long, hot day. We jump in the car and drive it back to our starting point to collect our friends’ car.
On our way back to the Chill-Inn carriage house, we stop for dinner at our favorite restaurant in Duluth, Fitger’s Brewhouse. We take a seat at one of the outdoor tables and, appropriately, order a cold Superior Trail IPA to celebrate an excellent first day out on the trail in Minnesota. This is our first time eating out at a restaurant since celebrating Matt’s birthday back on March 6, and we couldn’t have picked a better spot. Cheers to a great start to the SHT!
Day 1 Stats
Starting Point: Southern Terminus Minnesota/Wisconsin State Line
Ending Point: Grand Portage Trailhead
Miles Hiked: 13.7 (+1.9 bonus miles)
Miles to Canada: 284.1
Bird of the Day: Scarlet Tanager