Part one of my Superior Hiking Trail adventure did not disappoint. Full of forest views, mountain vistas, and challenges, it was an exciting journey.
After a two-day drive from Michigan to Minnesota, I was ready to start the SHT. My cousin, Sarah, lives in Duluth, not far from the trailhead which made for an easy start. Because of her location, I would be able to slack-pack (hike sans backpack), for my first two days on trail. I gave myself two weeks to complete the trail, meaning I had to maintain a pace of about 22 miles per day. After hiking the Appalachian Trail and New Zealand’s Te Araroa, I didn’t think it would be much of a challenge. I couldn’t have been more wrong!
To kick off the trail, Sarah and I drove to the trailhead 20 minutes south of Duluth. We actually weren’t sure where the trail started as every app I checked showed a different trailhead. Eventually I realized it was simply the Wisconsin/Minnesota border and we found our way to a small parking lot alongside a dirt road with a sign indicating the southern terminus was 1.9 miles down the trail. And so we set off on our out-and-back hike to the terminus. We soon reached a very nice gateway indicating the state line of Wisconsin and Minnesota. An adjacent sign marked the Southern Terminus of the SHT. The trail is actually part of the longer North Country Trail which travels 4,800 miles fro Vermont to North Dakota.
From the terminus we hiked back 1.9 miles to Sarah’s car we she left me to the wilderness and headed off to work. For late August, the weather was unseasonably warm and I hiked into Jay Cook State Park. The trail was pleasant with a few overlooks that were obscured by trees. I supposed it would be better in winter without the leaves.
Eventually I reached the Saint Louis River with a beautiful suspension bridge to cross. Sitting along the river seemed the perfect place to have lunch until I realized I had forgotten to pack any food—I was really trying to slack-pack ultralight, apparently. Crossing the bridge, I reached the state park visitor center, where I stopped inside, hoping to find snacks. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much in the way of food so I settled on an ice cream bar. Just to clarify, I asked the state park staff if they knew where the southern terminus of the SHT was, but they had no clue.
The trail continued and began following the river. Along the way, a woman stopped me as I peered over some reddish orange mushrooms. “You found them first,” she said. I was confused and asked her what they were. She was out foraging for mushrooms and explained that these are lobster mushrooms and they’re edible. They can be cooked and eaten, tasting like fish. Now that she mentioned it, I did smell seafood. I let her have the cache and carried on, happy to have learned something.
Eventually the trail became tedious with rocks and my feet began to hurt. I hadn’t brought my trekking poles, thinking I didn’t need them for a day of slack-packing. That was a mistake. I climbed up Ely Peak for a nice view of railroad tracks and a landfill. Finally, I reached a road crossing where Sarah came to pick me up. I hobbled to her car and she whisked me home where I soaked my sore feet in Epsom salts.
Daily Mileage: 23 miles
After a good rest, Sarah returned me to the trail and I continued where I left off. My feet were still in pain but I brought my trekking poles this time. After some rocky terrain I reached the ski resort of Spirit Mountain where I had a rest on a stationary ski lift. Afterward, the day became quite hot as I climbed the bluffs surrounding Duluth with Superior, Wisconsin just across the river.
Eventually I hiked down from the bluffs into downtown Duluth, crossing over the highway and toward the water. This would be my first contact with Lake Superior on the hike. At this point, my feet were extremely sore from pushing myself too far these first two days. The next section included nearly 4 miles of pounding pavement along the shoreline. With my foot pain, I decided to do something unconventional for a thru-hike: I spotted an electric scooter on the side of the road and decided to take it for a spin. Those 4 miles zoomed by in a flash and my feet were thankful—it only cost $12.
Back on my feet, I climbed the steep hillside streets of Duluth (scooters aren’t allowed on the steep hill) and hiked through some parks before Sarah picked me up for one last night in a real bed.
Daily Mileage: 22.6 miles
Total Mileage: 45.6 miles
I stopped at Walmart to pick up some insoles to help support the arches of my sore feet. I had never had issues like this on my other thru-hikes. Nevertheless, it was time to throw my pack on and finally enter the wilderness. See here for my complete gear list. The next section included 4.5 miles of road walking and hiking through farms and backyards. I felt no guilt asking Sarah to drop me off after this section. With my heavy pack, I headed down a long and grassy snowmobile track. The morning dew on the grass immediately soaked my shoes while I hoped there were no ticks.
Just in time for a break, I found a random folding chair sitting along the trail and had a rest. The trail soon became buggy and I doused myself in bug spray. My feet seemed to enjoy the insoles but the trail continued with rocks or high brush, no in-between.
I stopped for a long lunch break when I encountered a hiker named Mark. He was section-hiking the trail and loaded me up with tips and advice. Thankful for the wisdom, I felt more prepared for the terrain to come and what to expect. The rest of the day became quite miserable in the extreme heat with rocks and roots galore.
My day ended along the shores of a picturesque beaver pond. It was in camp that I realized I had forgotten my Crocs at Sarah’s house and had no camp shoes. My sore feet had to remain in my sweaty shoes and socks until bedtime. Here I met Jesse, a thru-hiker who had been hiking the trail trying to sort out his thoughts for the last 96 days! He had left his wife and kids behind to work on his mental health in the woods. I shared some of the wisdom I’d gained from my thru-hikes and wished him the best.
Daily Mileage: 20 miles
Total Mileage: 65.6 miles
The morning was pleasant and I felt somewhat rested. My feet and legs had healed and I was ready for the day. I cruised along until it became warm and buggy. In the heat, the bug spray lasted only two hours before I sweat it away.
There were scant views but more rocks and roots and ups and downs. I stopped at a campsite for lunch and a much needed break. The camps on the SHT were all fairly similar with benches surrounding a fire pit and a trail to a latrine. Unlike the privies on the AT, the SHT toilets had no walls and were essentially a seat over a hole.
The rest of the day was hot and humid…and then the mosquitoes from hell descended. With only an hour of hiking left, I stopped to apply DEET. The repellent didn’t even last an hour before I had sweat it off. I clambered over fallen trees and through marshes in a miserable march to camp. There was only one other camper at Stewart River Camp. I skinny dipped in the brisk river for a much needed bath. Feeling refreshed, I built a fire before dinner to dry the sweat off my clothes.
Daily Mileage: 19.8 miles
Total Mileage: 85.4 miles
In the morning I added a blister protection bandage to my right foot. My left foot, however, had been feeling a lot of pain and I had to stop mid-morning to remove the insoles from my shoes and add more blister bandages to both feet. At least there were no bugs.
The trail became marshy until I reached a road crossing that ran parallel to the trail. I decided to keep to the road to avoid the marsh. Excited to cruise along the road, I soon regretted it as I walked in the hot sun. There was a small trail reroute where I met a woman who didn’t know which way to go. The reroute sign was confusing and I helped her find her bearings.
The end of the day brought me up on ridge in high winds. Finally the trail presented me with views and a breeze! I enjoyed following the ridge, as this was the trail experience I had hoped for. Eventually I came down from the ridge and followed a river before making camp. I bathed in the river once more, feeling a bit more content, though sore.
Daily Mileage: 22.8 miles
Total Mileage: 108.2 miles
I hiked into Gooseberry State Park early in the morning. The visitor center wasn’t open yet but I could still access the restrooms inside where I brushed my teeth, filled up my water, and enjoyed flush toilets. I sat on the floor, charging my phone and battery pack, waiting for the center to open. I ate Cheetos for breakfast, after determining that they were the highest caloric option from the vending machine. Once the visitor center opened, I entered, only to find their food options quite limited. I grabbed an ice cream sandwich and proceeded outside to enjoy Gooseberry Falls.
Next I followed the Gitchi-Gami multi-use path for three miles until Split Rock River. The paved path was easy but sunny, following the shore of Lake Superior and the highway. The trail continued up the Split Rock River for a mile or so to a crossing where the bridge was out. Instead of this diversion, I simply crossed the river on the Gitchi-Gami path and headed up to meet the trail on a ridge.
The views were scenic and the temperatures finally cooled. The sunshine dried out the mud on the trail and made for a pleasant hike. I spied a Jimmy John’s on my phone up ahead and decided to push to a road crossing, eager to have some food in town. As I got closer, I checked again, only to realize it was a local restaurant called Jimmy’s Pizza. I tried calling but there was no answer.
In the end, I hiked to Beaver River and made camp, deciding against pushing 5 miles into town. The river was beautiful and I washed myself in the water. My knees were sore and my feet blistered. A woman named Heidi, from Madison, Wisconsin, joined me in camp with her dogs. She told me Jimmy’s had been closed for some time and offered to drive me in to town in the morning.
Daily Mileage: 18.6 miles
Total Mileage: 126.8 miles
I backtracked one mile on the trail to a parking lot where Heidi and her dogs drove me to the dying mining town of Silver Bay. The road trip shaved five miles off my day and I was able to resupply at a grocery store. Luckily it was the day before Labor Day and the store was still open. Before Heidi left, she gave me some instant potatoes and snacks! From Silver Bay I hiked up a spur trail to a ridge and rejoined the SHT.
The day was full of great views but steep ascents and descents. I enjoyed a bluff overlooking Bean and Bear Lake and was joined by weekend warriors. After many ups and downs, I entered Tettegouche State Park at the top of High Falls, Minnesota’s highest waterfall. The bridge was closed and I was nervous to cross the river on foot. I decided to hike a quarter mile downstream and ford the river at Two Step Falls which was quite shallow.
The rest of the day was exhausting with climbs and drops but great views. Finally, I climbed up to a peak mysteriously named Section 13 at 1,600ft above sea level. It doesn’t sound high but it was decent for the SHT. I arrived at the summit for sunset and had dinner under a glowing sky. That night, I inventoried my food for the remainder of my hike. Each day I could have 3 Clif bars, 4 mini Kit Kats, a tortilla wrap with cheese and tomato paste, and one dehydrated dinner. But my aunt and uncle lived in Grand Marais, so hopefully I could luck out for another resupply in town.
Daily Mileage: 17.8 miles
Total Mileage: 144.6 miles
My rickety body felt sore and feeble. The morning was mostly flat as I hiked through a fog. I crossed an enormous beaver pond, amazed at their ability to create wetlands. A beaver flapped its tail, seeming to say either “you can do it” or “suck it.”
Sonju Lake was beautiful and I enjoyed lunch with a father and daughter. Next I entered George Crosby Manitou State Park full of crazy climbs and steep descents.
I followed a ridge and eventually made it to the Caribou River where I bathed in the freezing water. I met two other thru-hikers named Licorice and Freckles. They were astounded at my pace, to which I replied that it was too aggressive and killing my body. This had been my longest day on trail.
Daily Mileage: 24.1 miles
Total Mileage: 168.7 miles
The morning was easy but I was very slow and sore…and hungry. I followed the Cross River and eventually crossed it before doing the same over the Temperance River. The gorge was very cool but my blisters were ruining my mood.
Carlton Peak was a difficult climb and I felt too sore to detour to the summit. I made it to camp later on and played cards and talked with a mother and daughter duo, section hiking the SHT.
Daily Mileage: 22.1 miles
Total Mileage: 190.8 miles
The morning was pleasant with a few inclines but nothing too bad. I reached Lutsen and Mystery Mountain ski resorts but the burger bar was closed on Wednesdays—just my luck. I climbed over a ridge to Lake Agnes and rested a long while. My body was falling apart and these little breaks were divine.
By the end of the day I was dying, with blisters on almost every toe. I really wanted to quit as the night’s temperatures descended.
Daily Mileage: 23.2 miles
Total Mileage: 214 miles
The morning had some views but my body was on the verge of imploding. The terrain was easy but a mist began to wet everything. I just had to make it to Grand Marais where my uncle would pick me up for a much needed night off. I followed grassy snowmobile trails which had me worrying about ticks.
At long last I spotted views of Grand Marais. I limped the last mile, with my feet ready to give up at any moment. My uncle rescued me from the parking lot of Pincuhsion Mountain and whisked me away to a brewery. Salvation at last. But I had some big decisions to make.
Daily Mileage: 18.7 miles
Total Mileage: 232.7 miles
It rained the entire next day. I decided a zero day was in my best interest and I enjoyed time with my aunt and uncle. Unfortunately, I received news of a family health emergency back in Michigan. This helped make the decision easy for me. With my ailing body and the need to get home, I decided to leave the trail to finish it another time. While I only had about 50 miles left to hike, I didn’t think my body would make it. I had underestimated the difficulty of the terrain and set a pace that was too aggressive.
However, the SHT had not broken me yet. A year later, I would return to the trail to finish where I left off. So stay tuned for part two!
From apparel to prints, grab some awesome trail merch at the A Stray Life Shop!
To follow along with my adventures, sign up via email below or like/follow on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube: