Looking to take your first crack at thru-hiking? This 310-mile long trail in Minnesota might be your best bet.
Pros and cons
If the Superior Hiking Trail isn’t on your list of long trails to complete, it should be. Winding its way from just south of Duluth, Minnesota up to the Canadian border, it’s a few hundred miles of trekking through rugged midwestern terrain. Taking you along the spine of the famous Sawtooth Mountains, it has enough trial vistas to keep you pushing on, and plenty of spots along the way to take in views of the epic Lake Superior.
A brief overview of the Superior Trail
The Superior Trail (SHT) runs 310 miles along a ridge overlooking Lake Superior through eight state parks in Minnesota. The trail kicks off at Jay Cooke State Park, about three hours from Minneapolis, and ends at the Canadian border. The southernmost segment, which is a 52.8-mile stretch along the Minnesota/Wisconsin border to Duluth, is only open to day hikers, while the northern portion, from Duluth to the top of the trail at the Canadian border, offers 269 miles of main trail and spur trails along which you can hike and camp.
The trails vistas are plentiful and rewarding: rushing rivers, deep gorges, rock outcroppings, waterfalls, views of the Sawtooths and more, not to mention the frequent overlook of Lake Superior. The elevation gain is where the challenge lies: it fluctuates between 602 feet and 1829 feet and climbs a total of 37,821 feet over the course of the 269 mile section. Downhills are just as frequent, so the net gain is actually only 449 feet.
How long does it take to hike the Superior Trail?
Most hikers take between 2-4 weeks to complete the SHT and traditionally start at the northern Duluth Martin Road Trailhead and head north for 260 miles (without spur trails). Hiking from south to north is recommended as cell phone service is limited at the most northern end, making it difficult to change your plans should something go awry at the beginning. The trail connects at its northern end to the Border Route Trail (65 miles), and then later to the Kekekabic Trail (41 miles), which takes ambitious hikers all the way into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, providing lush, birch-covered scenery every step of the way. This Superior Hiking Trail map from Superior Hiking Trail Association shows you a brief overview of the entire 310-miles, with state parks also marked.
Accessibility and camping along the Superior Trail
Trailheads are accessible every 3 to 11 miles along the rail, so it’s easy to pop in and out by using the main trail’s network of spur trails. Ninety-four free backcountry campsites dot the trail every 5-10 miles with 2-6 tent pads at each from the northern end of Duluth to the Otter Lake Road Trailhead, where the trail ends, at the Canadian border.
Once hikers leave Duluth, they pass nine towns with post offices, grocery stores, lodging, and sometimes outfitters. The towns range anywhere from 1.3 to 6 miles off the nearest trailhead, which means you’ll need to account for a few extra miles on foot or catch a ride. The only towns under two miles from the trail are Beaver Bay and Finland. This chart from SuperiorHiking.org has the best info on points for re-supplying.
Highlights of the Superior Trail
The Superior Trail is broken up into two main sections.
The first section includes the 52.8 miles south of Duluth along the Minnesota/Wisconsin border, which only has day-hike access.
The second section includes the traditional thru-hike of the SHT including everything north of Duluth to the Canadian border — 260 miles (+ 9 miles in spur trails) of backpacking and day-hiking access. This portion can be broken into six sections, and then further broken into four to eight sections within those six. Summaries of the six sections are detailed below. Overall, there are 36 sections that range from 4.8 to 11.8 miles in length from Duluth to the Canadian border. Breaking the six sections into micro-sections means you’ll be achieving goals left and right — a mental trick that many long-distance hikers use when trying to tackle a lengthy trail.
Six sections of the Superior Hiking Trail Thru-Hike
1. Duluth to Two Harbors
This 57.5-mile section, broken down into eight micro-sections of trail, kicks off the thru-hike from the northern border of Duluth at the Martin Road Trailhead to the town of Two Harbors. There are 93 campsites near the trailhead for those looking to start their journey. Expect to travel through mixed forest with large white pines and old-growth maple trees, past occasional ponds, and get views of the west branch of the Knife River, McCarthy Creek, and cross the Stewart River. The last five miles of this section include a descent from a steep cliff with rock stairs and a meandering hike for two miles along Silver Creek.
2. Two Harbors to Silver Bay
The next 44.6 miles of trail spans from Two Harbors to Silver Bay, in a chain of six micro-sections. The first six miles pass through mostly private land so there is no camping here. But there is a lot to do: take in rolling valleys dotted with pines and cross the stepping stones on Encampment River. Then the trail leads up a short steep climb to deliver views of Lake Superior. Stop at Mike’s Rock for more views, follow the Gooseberry River for four miles before arriving at Gooseberry Falls State Park, and enjoy the towering waterfalls. “Gooseberry State Park is an easy favorite [spot],” says Jacob Stern, an assistant editor at Powder magazine who used to lead trips on the Superior Hiking Trail in college, “It will be the most crowded, but the falls are worth the hassle — they are a gorgeous series of cascades that lead down to the lake.”
From here, the next 8.5 miles present a full mile of trail overlooking Lake Superior under aspen and birch forests. There are more waterfalls and the impressive Split Rocks to take in before hitting a challenging 11.3-mile stretch with steep ascents and descents, and stunning views of Lake Superior. This section ends at Silver Bay after hiking through beautiful pine forest.
3. Silver Bay to Caribou Falls State Wayside
Five sections of trail over 45.3 miles take you from Silver Bay to Caribou Falls State Wayside. The first 11 miles offer views of Lake Superior, Bean and Bear Lakes, three epic viewpoints atop Round Mountain, Mount Trudee and Raven Rock, a series of rock steps down “the Drainpipe” and a bridge crossing over the highest falls in Minnesota, High Falls of the Baptism River. This is also where it gets challenging. “Section 13 offers the most strenuous hiking, but rewards with a beautiful overlook,” says Stern, “The lakes all offer good swimming and are gorgeous when the colors turn.”
It also has a hidden bonus: “Tettegouche State Park has must-see features,” says Stern, of this section, “It has natural rhyolite rock arches and cliffs over the lake, that not only make for beautiful scenery for hikers, but are home to some of the best rock climbing in MN, with the most stringent traditional ethics to boot.”
The next two micro-sections — a total of 14.4 miles — include lake views, open ledges, panoramic vistas over valleys from high cliffs, a 440-foot boardwalk stretch over a beaver dam, and a 20-foot tall glacial rock.
“My favorite section of the trail is a small and concentrated patch of numerous lakes,” says Stern of this section, “It runs past Tettegouche from Sawmill Dome through Sonju Lake.”
Walk to Lily Island on Sonju Lake in this 11.8-mile section before coming to the final portion, where you’ll get more stunning views of Lake Superior, the Caribou River and the Manitou River.
4. Caribou Falls State Wayside to Lutsen
This section — 34.5 miles across 5 micro-sections — kicks off with a dramatic ascent of Caribou River Gorge then moves onto old-growth maple forests with views from Tower Overlook. Climb through Temperance River Gorge and take in the views at Carlton Peak. A 5.7-mile section rolls through maple and birch that are particularly spectacular in the fall before ending at a couple of tough ascents of Moose and Mystery Mountains.
5. Lutsen to Grand Marais
Four micro-sections make up this 35.2-mile stretch of trail — the second to last of the six stretches that make up the SHT. Lake and river views, peeks into stunning valleys, maple ridgelines, waterfalls, and a panoramic view of Lookout Mountain await. You can also see Eagle Mountain, the highest point in the state. Eventually you’ll hit a red pine patch before descending towards Lake Superior.
6. Grand Marais to 270 Degree Overlook
The final section of the Superior Hiking Trail is 54.2 miles long and broken down into eight micro-sections. Start by descending into the Devil Track River gorge and cross several bridges over the river. A 1.6-mile stretch travels along Lake Superior’s sandy beach shore before following several creeks and rivers that are perfect for viewing wildlife. Finally, you’ll arrive on the road for a mile before joining the Border Route Trail, which leads to the 270 Degree Overlook, the final point on the Superior Hiking Trail.
Tips for hiking the Superior Trail
- Head south to north in order to give yourself better opportunity to bail out if things aren’t going as planned. Cell phone service is spotty, and the trail is more remote up north, making a bail out less possible.
- Late summer means bugs and thunderstorms. There is a small window in September when you’ll have the best luck with both.
- Be prepared to dive into your tent between 7-8pm before the mosquitos carry you off. However, if you want to stay up later or do star gazing, you can wait them out in your tent until the temp drops and they become significantly less active, usually around 10pm.
- Load up on local smoked cheese and fish for the hike, which are easy to find in Two Harbors and other towns along the way.
- Be sure to check the dates on the Superior Fall Trail Race, otherwise you’ll have hundreds of ultra-marathoners passing you day in and day out.
- For day hikes, book a shuttle so you can hike a section end-to-end.
- Detour into Grand Marais for the World’s Best Donuts.
- In October 2019, The Superior Hiking Trail Association launched the SHT End-to-Ender Program, which recognizes individuals that complete the entire Superior Hiking Trail. And it doesn’t have to be in one go; it can be done in shorter sections over many years — as long as you do it, you’re eligible to receive a certificate.