After three days of significant mileage on the Duluth section of the SHT, today is a deliberately light day of hiking, only 7.4 miles from the downtown Rose Garden to the Martin Road Trailhead parking lot. This is an opportunity to rest our feet a bit, but we also need to end early because we have a lot of other work to get done. When we are finished hiking today, we need to shuttle our car to the northern terminus and then drop off our three resupply boxes in towns along the way back so that we can begin the true backpacking portion of the SHT tomorrow.
We shuttle our cars per usual and get started at the Rose Garden by crossing Highway 61 and paying a brief homage to honorary Bob Dylan Way. We carry only small day packs and are sporting light runners today, hoping the change in footwear will feel good to our tender feet.
It’s strange to follow city sidewalks as we climb the hill up toward Chester Creek. Just before joining the Chester Creek Trail, the SHT passes dangerously close to Burrito Union, another of our favorite Duluth eateries, with great Mexican-inspired food and, of course, Fitger’s beer on tap. Sadly they are not open for breakfast, so we’ll have to treat ourselves another day.
The hike alongside Chester Creek is green and gorgeous and especially quiet on a weekday. We pass one guy who looks like he is hiking to work, carrying his coffee mug and what looks like leftovers for lunch. If I lived in Duluth, this would be how I would want to commute.
We cross beneath several bridges that allow cars across the creek. How many people drive by oblivious to the beauty right below them?, I wonder. At one point, we find tons of tiny round iron ore pellets that are used for trail fill, a useful byproduct of the nearby Iron Range.
As we reach the top of Chester Creek, we enter the open area of the park and immediately see a tent pitched. Ironically, after making a wrong turn yesterday and walking through an urban tent community, we heard a story about this on NPR this morning. It reported on how cities in Minnesota are trying to regulate the issue of people camping in city parks during these difficult economic times. The compromise seems to be a 10-tent limit per city park with the caveat that all tents must be removed by September 1. Given the current economic situation, it’s hard to not feel sympathy.
Soon we cross a few city streets into Bagley Nature Area, which has a beautiful platform overlook, and then, after following city streets again for a brief bit, we wander into Hartley Nature Center. This feels like we have come full circle.
Our first two days in Duluth several weeks ago were spent wandering the trails of Hartley in search of warblers and other birds to photograph. I even explored several of the trails on a mountain bike adventure with my friend, Chris.
This time, however, the SHT cleverly takes its hikers on a different path from ones frequently used by Hartley’s visitors, so we get to see yet another side of this astonishingly pleasant park located within the city limits.
The path we take today ascends through an atmospheric forest to a point in elevation that is actually slightly higher than Ely’s Peak but with no view before descending back to the pond and on to the Nature Center and its butterfly garden.
The Duluth section of the SHT presents a challenge to thru-hikers because of the lack of convenient, free campsites like you find elsewhere on the trail. But beautiful nature walks in urban environments like this are why it is important to us to hike the SHT from terminus to terminus—to appreciate how special Duluth is as a city for preserving and maintaining access to so many extensive natural areas within its boundaries. These are truly spaces for the people.
At this point, the trail crosses Woodland Avenue and then follows Vermillion Road through a quiet neighborhood and onto a gravel road for about a mile as it passes between two city cemeteries. We go past a small beaver pond and then off the road and on to a proper trail which follows a small wooded ravine. As we turn a corner we surprise a small Ring-necked snake who slithers quickly out of our way.
About 10 minutes before we reach the parking lot at Martin Road, we cross paths with two backpackers, Joe and Hannah, who are fully loaded and just starting out on Day 1 of their thru-hike. We ask them if they are heading south to tag the southern terminus before heading north, but they indicate they are heading north to Canada. They look at us in surprise when we inform them that they are, in fact, headed in the wrong direction!
We all walk to Martin Road together exchanging hiking plans before saying goodbye. At the pace they intend to go, we are not likely to catch up to them, so we wish them good luck on their journey. We feel we have earned a little trail karma just before we are about to set out on our own adventure.
We drive back to the Chill-Inn and treat ourselves to a solid, home-cooked breakfast and finish packing up all of our resupply boxes before heading north on Highway 61. We drive two cars three hours north all the way to the Otter Lake Road Trailhead, which is the northernmost place we can leave a car, only 1.2 miles from the terminus. It’s a long drive on a gravel road to the small parking lot, and we run into a red fox cleaning its paws on the road.
On the way back to Duluth, we stop at Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply in Grand Marais and meet the owner, Jack, who graciously helps thru-hikers by holding resupply boxes. Next stop is the Community Center in Finland to drop off resupply box #2, and then finally Camp 61 Motel in Beaver Bay to drop off our last package but first resupply of the hike. We will be staying there seven nights from now on our only rest night off trail and out of a tent! Finally it’s back to Duluth to share a growler of Superior Trail IPA with our friends before hitting the trail northbound tomorrow!
Day 4 Stats
Starting Point: Rose Garden Trailhead
Ending Point: Martin Road Trailhead
Miles Hiked: 7.4
Miles to Canada: 249.5