The Superior Hiking Trail
A 310 mile long distance hike in Minnesota following the North Shore of Lake Superior. Traveling from the Canadian border south across the state, terminating near Duluth at the border of Wisconsin.
The trail passes by cute little coastal towns, serene inland lakes, dense forests, and large waterfalls. Hiking along ridges with views of Lake Superior, and through deep gorges following the ancient rivers that helped to carve them.
The SHT has a little bit of everything for anyone. It’s a great first thru hike in so many different ways, or a fun trail to do even for the most experienced. In autumn you’ll see some of the best fall foliage in the entire country, and I felt very fortunate to have been there for weeks on end experiencing that as we hiked south.
Some Stats & Overview
- Length – 310 miles / 500 kilometers
- Duration – 16 days, 20 hours
- Start – September 22nd, 3pm
- End – October 9th, 11am
- Average – 19 miles per day
- Zeros – 1 day off in Two Harbors
- Rain – 6 days with rain, mostly not bad
- Cold – 3 days below freezing
- Heat – Highs in the 50s and 60s
- Highest Point – 1,829 ft at Rosebush Ridge
- Lowest Point – 602 ft at Lake Superior
- Favorite Towns – Grand Marais, Two Harbors, Duluth
The Lake – It is worth noting that although this trail is named after Lake Superior, and it is roughly following the contour of Lake Superior… you are hardly ever going to be actually hiking on the shore of that lake. And by hardly ever, I mean there is only one very small section of less than two miles out of this entire trail, where you are hiking on the beach of the lake. This hike has a lot of really great and beautiful trail, but I would not consider it a hike directly on the lake. So what is the true appeal?
Autumn – We wound up hiking this trail in autumn, and I cannot recommend that timeframe enough. We never had a problem with mosquitoes or bugs, the weather was wonderful and crisp every day, and the trees were just exploding with color! I’ve done the Long Trail, Appalachian Trail, and Pinhoti Trail in the fall… and the Superior Hiking Trail in my opinion was the best of them all when it came to color. Every second of every day, every mile, every step, we were walking through incredible orange, yellow, and red tunnels of leaves. It was spectacular to say the least.
The Trail – Sometimes you are hiking around big and beautiful inland lakes, sometimes walking ridgelines or on sheer rock faces, sometimes walking extensive boardwalk systems through lowlands. Reminiscent of the Appalachian Trail in many ways, you will often be hiking through ‘the green tunnel’ taking in the scenery of the small. The moss, the fallen leaves, the dense forests. The great variety of trees and plants, the beaver ponds and dams. The climbing back up again to look down on these forests, off to the great lake, and often interesting views of cute coastal towns. The SHT has no shortage of beauty in a multitude of different ways, from the small to the big.
Difficulty – Most of this trail is going up and over rolling hills with some very short punchy climbs, a view of Lake Superior, and then back down an equally steep path. The high point is after all not that high, so rejoice in that you will never be climbing for too long, or never descending for too long. Compared to a similar hike like the Long Trail, this is much easier and less technical in nearly every way. For those who are experienced you could really get some miles in, and for those just getting going it’s a great place to get some legs underneath you.
Weather – For the most part we had great weather, with only a couple nights getting below freezing at night, and only a handful of days where it rained. Only one day of rain was extensive, from about 10am all the way until sunset it rained very hard while all the other times were brief. As we got closer to the end of our hike the days were noticeably colder, where both of us would wear our fleece sweaters for the entire day. All in all, great weather and I think late September and October is known for it. Cool and crisp daily with a healthy amount of humidity 🙂
This is a fantastic first thru hike
I don’t think it gets much better than the Superior Hiking Trail when it comes to doing your first thru hike, dipping your toes into the long distance hiking world, or learning and training before taking on a much larger hike like the Appalachian Trail. With a robust community, frequent towns, and easy navigation the SHT is really as good as it gets. Even if you are experienced, these things just mean that it’s a great place to try new gear, push big miles, or have a fun and relaxing time with friends.
- This trail has more than 90 established campsites along it’s entire length. That means for the entire duration of your hike there is a campsite roughly every 3.5 miles. They all have benches, a privy, fire ring, and are near water. You don’t need permits or reservations to stay at any of these, but they do ask that you never camp at anything but these. No stealth camping, no wild camping, you must stay at the designated campsites. Fortunately there are so many this is never a problem. Spend some time each day looking ahead and planning where you will camp, as sometimes there will be two camps within a mile, and other times there are no camps for more than 12 miles. These are great places to meet other hikers, and in general just incredible to have such amenities so frequently. You may never have to dig a hole for your entire hike.
- This trail is impeccably maintained and well marked. We never even sort of had trouble navigating or finding our way, we never had to bushwhack, and in general found it to be incredibly hard to get lost. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but that the SHT is about as good as it gets when it comes to maintenance and signage.
- Towns are never more than 50 miles apart. The frequency of towns is a wonderful thing, both to have some extra fun, but also for the safety it provides. Big storm coming in? Cool, there’s probably a town nearby with lodging available. Running out of food? No worries, town. Feeling like a fancy coffee or pizza? Great! Let’s go to town. At times it felt like there were too many towns and that it took away from the wilderness experience, but it’s still a great benefit for so many other reasons.
- Cell service will be available every single day. I remember hiking through what is considered the most remote sections of this trail in the north, and every time I checked my phone I had cell service. The rest of the trail is not much different. If you don’t have cell service now, check again in 15 minutes and you probably will. This is wonderful when it comes to safety and comfort. Being able to check in with family or friends just about whenever you want.
- There is a large and friendly community surrounding this trail. The SHT is well loved and well used by locals who are hiking, running, backpacking, or thru hiking. This trail is well known, and it is popular. So even others from out of state coming to do it is not surprising to run into daily. This community has some great benefits in comradery, sharing of information, as well as safety in numbers.
- No permits are required. The best thing about this trail is that there are no permits required, you can just show up and start hiking! So while many other trails require permits for national parks, permits for campsites, permits for when you can start… the SHT is great in that it offers flexibility in timing or direction. Your plans can change, and that is ok.
My partner got the guidebook for this hike, and would definitely recommend it to others as it offers a lot of extensive information about campsites, the upcoming trail, and history of where you are. They offer it as an ebook so no added weight! Another great resource for someone just starting out, and another reason the SHT is at the top of the list when it comes to first thru hikes to do.
Everything about the SHT is trying to give you the best possible chance of success, add to your confidence, help you learn, and experience this new and beautiful place.
Resupply & Towns
The SHT is king when it comes to frequent and wonderful little towns. On average towns on this trail are less than 50 miles apart, making planning easy as there is always an option nearby.
You won’t ever need to hitch hike into towns if you don’t want to (as is common on most thru hikes) as every town is either on trail or just a couple miles away from trail, allowing for an easy hike in or out. There is no need to send yourself resupply boxes given the plethora of options. Everything about this trail just wants you to have fun, and the towns are no different.
- 0mi – Start SOBO
- 52mi – Grand Marais
- 86mi – Lutsen
- 99mi – Tofte
- 138mi – Finland
- 164mi – Silver Bay
- 170mi – Beaver Bay
- 210mi – Two Harbors
- 260-280mi – Duluth
- 310mi – End
Some of these towns are large and some have no more than a convenience store. Given the frequency in which you will be able to go into them for food we never found the lack of options in some to be a problem. Choosing to do most of our shopping in the big towns, and then only going into the smaller ones if we felt like a break or wanted some extra food.
By far the best (and biggest) towns along this trail are Grand Marais, Silver Bay, Two Harbors, and Duluth. All complete with grocery stores, hotels, restaurants, gear stores, and just about anything else you could ever want. Beyond those, Beaver Bay and Finland are pretty good, while Tofte and Lutsen are both tiny and I wouldn’t expect much.
Some people who hike this trail will go into every single one of these, while others will choose to skip a town here or there to spend more time immersed in the woods or add more challenge to their hike.
It is worth mentioning that because you could be in a town nearly every day of this hike… I often felt far removed from the wilderness experience you’ll find on many other thru hikes. I don’t think this would be a problem for most, but coming off of two other extremely remote trails prior to this one, I couldn’t help but think about it often. A positive thing for most, could be a negative for some.
The SHT has Two Southern Terminus
- 310 miles – The New Terminus is at the Wisconsin / Minnesota border south of Jay Cooke State Park
- 260 miles – The traditional terminus is just north of Duluth at Martin Road
The vast majority of people we met were doing the shorter version and ending their hike just north of the city of Duluth. I think this is because south of there camping becomes a little tricky as you are hiking through urban sprawl for a little over 20 miles, and then through a popular state park where camping reservations are required. We didn’t find any of this to be a problem, and I highly recommend going all the way.
There are two potential camps on the outskirts of Duluth which the trail passes right by, and within the city there are endless opportunities for hotels should you want one or find the distance between those mentioned camps to be too far for a single push. If you want to go from one campsite to the other it would be about a 20 mile hike. The town of Duluth is great though, and I recommend staying in a lake side hotel if you can and exploring the city a little bit more.
- Bagley Nature Area Campground – On the north end of the University of Minnesota Duluth is a group campground you can stay at. It’s just an open grassy field with some tables surrounded by nature trails and a public park, it’s actually a pretty nice spot. I did not see bathrooms or electrical outlets here, but there is water available.
- Spirit Mountain Campground – Just south west of Duluth this is another campground you will pass. It is essentially paid car camping spots with a few backpacker site available. Bathrooms, electrical outlets, water, and trash cans are all available.
South of Duluth is the other issue, passing through Jay Cooke State Park you will need reservations in advance to camp there. It seems like quite the popular place so these camping permits may be hard to acquire, and again probably why people stop just short of all of this. I still think it’s absolutely worthwhile as both the city walk is super cool, all of the nature, valleys, rivers, and scenery south of town is great as well. If you don’t have the time, or don’t feel like it, I get it. When you’ve spent 260 miles hiking without a single need for a campsite reservation, permits, or really anything ever the southern portion feels annoying.
The Superior Hiking Trail in general is pretty great and devoid of a lot of major challenges other trails pose. The navigation is simple, the water is plentiful, the towns are frequent, and the mountains are relatively small and well covered. There are some things worth considering though when planning your hike.
- Weather can be unpredictable. I would say coming into this hike, your biggest concern should be weather. Afterall this is not a desert hike, so while most everything else is great weather is the one aspect where you could run into problems. Most of the trail is well sheltered by trees which makes things a lot better. Still I would recommend a nice tent and rain jacket.
- Bugs in the summer could be quite bad. Traveling through a lot of lowlands and bogs, walking along rivers and lakes, living outdoors in such a lush place for a few weeks comes with a hurdle in the summer months, bugs! Mosquitoes and ticks mostly. We did not experience either of these pests in the fall, but when the temperatures are warmer you want to come prepared.
- Logistics of beginning and ending your hike aren’t straight forward. There is a bus that drives from Minneapolis to Duluth which will at least get you on the trail, or get you home after your hike. But from Duluth how do you get to either end, or from either end back to Duluth? The Superior Hiking Trail facebook group with more than 57,000 members might be able to help in some way, and I would probably start there looking for info. We were lucky enough to have a friend drive us from the Twin Cities to the northern terminus, then after finishing we hitch hiked back to Duluth easily, and took the bus mentioned back to Minneapolis.
- There is no Farout or Guthook for the Superior Hiking Trail. For most trails out there all you really need is Farout when it comes to maps and navigation, town information, reroutes, or current trail conditions… Farout is the answer! It’s an invaluable tool offered by most trail organizations, but unfortunately isn’t available for the SHT. Instead the organization sells paper maps, a guidebook, and has their own app through Avenza Maps. I list this as a challenge because Farout at this point is ubiquitous with thru hiking. This isn’t that big of a deal, but considering how convenient Farout is on most hikes, I would definitely classify this as a minor hurdle.
From the Rain to the bugs, to bad campsites or fun with friends, I definitely have some gear recommendations for the SHT! These items will make your life better out there in regards to comfort and enjoyment.
- Umbrella – Regardless of season, I think an umbrella is a great piece of gear for the SHT. Rain is an inevitability on this hike (as is humidity) so why not prepare a little extra for it. There is no option more breathable when it comes to rain gear than an umbrella! So rejoice and hike happily in the rain while others are hunkered down, head down, sweating it out in their rain jacket. You’ll be having fun with a really cool and unique piece of gear. And since most of the trail is pretty well covered by trees, there is no worries of wind destroying it. I recommend the Lightrek Hiking Umbrella by Gossamer Gear or the Lightweight Umbrella by no/W
- Inflatable sleeping pad – To hike the SHT you are required to stay at the 90+ designated campsites along the way, no stealth camping allowed. This is great and fine, but one problem is how well used these sites are. The ground is compact and stiff, and thus a foam sleeping pad is going to be quite uncomfortible if you choose to go that route. Instead I recommend an inflatable sleeping pad, something that will allow you to really get a good nights sleep, no matter how hard the ground is underneath you. The NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad by Thermarest is my pad of choice, what I would recommend, and what most thru hikers have been using since it first came out.
- Stove – A stove seems like a funny thing to recommend, but keep in mind the popularity of this trail. It’s a very social hike where everyone is forced to stay at these 90 designated campsites together. A stove is simply a fun time with friends, a fun activity to do around the campfire together, and a nice way to hang out with other hikers you meet. The BRS-3000T Ultralight Burner is the stove I have been using now for the past four years and have really loved it. Extremely lightweight and packs down incredibly small. I would pair this with a Titanium 750ml Pot by Toaks as it’s the perfect size for backpacking food, and also very ultralight.
- Tent – We used a tarp on our thru hike but I don’t think I would recommend it. Considering the mosquitoes and potential for ticks, the much safer option is to have a tent with a full bug net. We had a few nights of heavy rain as well, so it’s nice to have a place you can go back to for shelter and safety to hang out in. A long time staple in the thru hiking world is the tents made by Zpacks, which are some of the most used and highest regarded on any trail. I recommend the Zpacks Duplex Tent, or for those traveling solo and wanting something lighter the Zpacks Plex Solo Tent is as good as it gets. If you want something more budget friendly for a bit more weight the 3f UL Lanshan 1 Tent is a great option.
- Bug Headnet – We didn’t have much trouble with mosquitoes on our hike fortunately, which is definitely because of when we hiked. But when traversing lowlands, bogs, hiking around lakes and along rivers for a couple weeks on end… it’s good to be prepared even if you are hiking in the fall, and definitely in the summer! A bug headnet could save your sanity and I definitely recommend one for this hike given all of the swampy bits you’ll be going through. We both carried one, and they’re so light weight you won’t even notice you have it. I’ve been using the same Sea to Summit Ultra-Fine Mesh Mosquito Head Net for literally 10 years now and it’s still going strong.
- Permethrin – Remember the bugs? The ticks in particular are the real problem. Mosquitoes are annoying, but ticks can have long last effects should someone get bit and contract Lyme Disease. The best way to prepare for this is to wear clothing that has been treated with Permethrin. Those little bugs hate the stuff, and will literally be screaming away from those who are wearing this. I personally use permethrin on all my hikes in tick country and swear by it. It’s super easy to treat your clothes before you leave and then you can hike happy.
Thank you for reading, and thank you for coming along! The SHT really is a great little trail. Incredibly well maintained, well built, well routed and fun regardless of who you are or what your past experience level is. I enjoyed it immensely and really had a special time hiking through the autumn colors of Minnesota for two weeks. It is an experience I will never forget, and maybe someday I’ll even come back to do it again!
I hope this guide has been of some help to you. I know it’s a bit shorter than what I normally do but I think that is again a testament to how well done this trail is. There just isn’t that much information needed! I tried to address all the topics I personally was wondering about before my hike, and decided to leave out any faff. I did want to make a great point about how nice of a trail this is for beginners, just because while out there that was something I found myself thinking about often.
The SHT is worthy of your time, and especially so in the fall months 🙂 Cheers and thank you
- Snorkels SHT Guide – https://www.treelinereview.com/where-to-go/superior-hiking-trail
- Superior Hiking Trail Facebook Group – https://www.facebook.com/groups/suphike
- Superior Hiking Trail Association – https://superiorhiking.org/
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