Superior Hiking Trail: The Brutal Beauty

Superior Hiking Trail

We had five extra days in Minnesota with no plans. After seeing familiar sites and familiar faces for the past 8 weeks, we decided to go someplace new – we decided to hike part of the Superior Hiking Trail.

The Superior Hiking Trail is 310 miles long along the north shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota. About a hundred people thru-hike the trail every year, but many others do section hikes. 

On Monday morning we awoke in Duluth with nothing packed for our 4-day hike. By Noon, we were ready to hit the trail. We drove up to Two Harbors, called a shuttle service, and were on the trail by 2:30 p.m. In hindsight, a few more hours packing probably would have helped us reduce our pack weight by a pound or two…

The recent rain had flooded most of the trail.

We found ourselves balancing on rocks and fallen branches to avoid encasing our shoes in thick mud. Sometimes we had to trudge off trail to get through the wet spots.

Since we started so late, we only hiked four miles to the Fault Line Campsite. The weather was glorious.The sun was warm, the sky was a bright blue, the trees were just starting to turn colors. I hiked with joy in my heart. Martin practically pranced down the trail. 

Superior Hiking Trail

Superior Hiking Trail

Superior Hiking Trail

The sun went down, and we crawled into our tent. The temperature fell and fell and fell. Our meager sleeping bags are comfortable in 55 degrees, but the temperature was colder than that. We put on more clothes. We covered ourselves with a blanket. We covered ourselves with an emergency blanket. We tossed and turned all night, getting only a couple of hours of sleep. 

Martin suggested we hike to Split Rock State Park and catch a ride back to our car. I suggested we not make any decisions until after breakfast and coffee.

By the time we started hiking, our moods were bright, and we had a spring on our steps again. (Coffee really is amazing, isn’t it.) I loved feeling the cool autumn air in my lungs, seeing the myriad of mushrooms, glimpsing the majestic Lake Superior. This walk in the woods was exactly what I needed. Let’s keep going, we decided when we got to the state park. Perhaps it will be warmer tonight…

As we hiked along the Split Rock River, we passed many day hikers who provided us with encouraging words.

Superior Hiking Trail

Superior Hiking Trail

We arrived at our campsite to see another camper was also spending the night there! Dave, we learned, was 65 and on a 6-day hike. He had a sweet set up. Ultralight tent. Warm sleeping bag. Clever minimalist stove. Simple water purification system. Our packs were ridiculous. We had a lot to learn.

Our hope for warmer weather quickly disappeared as the temperature that evening plunged even further than the night before. We zipped our sleeping bags together and put on all of our clothes. The temperature kept dropping. We tossed and turned, trying to stay warm. By morning, our sleeping bags were wet from condensation formed by the emergency blanket. We were chilled. We could not camp again. Not only was this not fun, but it was dangerous. We needed warmer sleeping bags.

Unfortunately, we were 15 miles from our car.

While we had hiked 8 miles the day before, we hadn’t slept in two nights and our bodies were sore. Gooseberry Falls State Park was halfway to our car. Maybe we could find a solution there. 

The first 2.5 miles of our hike on the third day were delightful. The trail kept up the trend of being a muddy mess, but we got to see beautiful trees and a glorious waterfall. 

Superior Hiking Trail

Superior Hiking Trail

The next section of the trail was closed, so we followed the detour along the Gitchi-Gami paved bike path. While we were taking a break on this trail, we saw a woman nearby push a dolly from her car down the path and out of sight. A few minutes later, we saw her return to her car without the dolly. How strange, we thought. Then she walked over to us.

She and her husband were visiting the north shore for a few days before heading back to Rochester, MN. Her favorite place up here was the nearby beach. She had found some rocks to take back to her garden. The last rock was too big to carry alone. Would we mind helping her? 

Of course we helped her.

The rock was maybe 75 pounds, and Martin and I had little trouble getting it to the dolly and back to her car. She was so thankful for our help that she gave us some peaches, crackers, and cheese in return. In hindsight, I should have asked for a ride to our car…

While eating our lunch at Gooseberry Falls State Park, we studied the map, as if that would make our car magically appear.

It was eight trail miles to our car, or about six to eight hours of hiking for us. It was five road miles to our car, or about three hours of hiking. The latter was the only feasible option. 

As the cars whizzed by us on busy Highway 61, I began to rethink our choice. The joy in my heart had evaporated out of me into a cloud of exhaust. We trudged as fast as we could back to our car.

We spent the remaining three days exploring Grand Marais and going on a 10 mile day hike. Those miles were a breeze without our heavy packs weighing us down. 

Superior Hiking Trail

Superior Hiking Trail

Superior Hiking Trail

The trail still calls to me, despite its unpleasantness. I know someday I won’t be able to ignore it, and I will find myself spending months in the wilderness loving and hating it at the same time.

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