Superior Hiking Trail

A thru-hikers guide to the Superior Hiking Trail.

January 20, 2022

The Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) is a 310 mile hiking route traversing the rocky ridge lines overlooking the north shore of Lake Superior, with simple logistics, well-marked trail, and world-class trail building, making this an excellent option for new and experienced backpackers alike.

superior hiking trail signage


Trail Overview


superior hiking trail map

Length: 50+260 miles.

Elevation gain: 37,800’

Time to hike: Two to four weeks

Southern Terminus (Total thru hike): Minnesota-Wisconsin Border

Southern Terminus (Traditional thru hike): Martin Rd.

Northern Terminus: 270º Overlook.

Highest Elevation: 1829’

Lowest Elevation: 602’

Beginning in southern Minnesota, the SHT travels 50 miles through the City of Duluth, then 260 miles northward along the north shore of Lake Superior. The trail crosses along rocky ridge lines and cliffs with expansive views of Lake Superior and inland woodlands. Trail construction began in the 1980s, and was completed in 2016.

superior hiking trail ©: Savannah Robinson

There are two routes for the SHT, a “traditional” and “total” thru hike.

A total thru hike begins in Jay Cooke State Park at the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota, and passes 50 miles through the city of Duluth. The trail passes through several nature areas, however this is still an urban hike. There are no overnight camping options in this section, and is best experienced with day hikes. Thru hikers must make arrangements for lodging in town, which increases expense but allows for hikers to “slack pack” this segment, covering the terrain with minimal food and gear in their backpacks.

superior hiking trail

A traditional thru-hike begins from the Martin Road trailhead in northern Duluth, where the Duluth SHT section ends. It continues another 260 miles along the north shore of Lake Superior, past five towns, before terminating at the 270º Overlook near the Minnesota - Canada border. This guide will be written with the expectation that hikers are planning a “traditional” thru-hike, and starting/finishing their hike at the Martin Road terminus.

While the SHT lacks gigantic climbs, hikers regularly head up and down ridges and valleys throughout the day, and it is not uncommon to have stretches with over 3000’ of climbing and descending in a single day. Frequent storms drench the north shore coastline, making the trail muddy and greatly slowing progress.

superior hiking trail marker


Plan Your Thru-Hike

WHEN TO GO

The major environmental challenges hikers can expect to face are lingering winter snows, heavy mosquito pressure, and dry water sources late in the season.

The hiking season begins in the spring after lingering winter snow has fully melted away (May to early June). Although the SHT infrastructure is top-notch, with bridges and a boardwalk easing access in regularly flooded sections of the trail, many sections are still boggy or muddy. Diverting around puddles can lead to increased erosion and widening of the trail, so hikers should tromp straight through the puddles, and embrace the likelihood that their feet will be wet for much of the hike.

superior hiking trail lake view

By June, mosquitoes have hatched and the trail devolves into a free-for-all buffet of blood-sucking vampires. The mosquito may as well be the state bird of Minnesota, and if you aren’t careful they may just carry you away. Black flies will swarm about you, bite any exposed skin, fly into your mouth and eyes, and crawl into your hair. Once you’ve retreated into the safety of your shelter’s bug netting, the whine of their wings will accompany you throughout the night as you drift off to sleep.

hikers in superior hiking trail
© Greta Maloney

By August the bug pressure has subsided somewhat, but biting insects will still persist until the first frost of the year. Daytime temps have begun to cool somewhat but the air is still dense with humidity.

The overall best time to hike the SHT is in mid-September to early October. There is still a reasonable amount of daylight, minimal mosquito pressure, and the green tunnel along the trail explodes into a wall of amber and crimson fall colors shining in the autumn sun. Nighttime temps will be cooler, providing relief from the ever-present humidity of the summer months.

 superior-hiking-trail-path

GETTING THERE, NORTHBOUND vs SOUTHBOUND

Accessing the SHT is relatively simple. The Minneapolis-St. Paul airport is a major hub with affordable flights. From there find transportation to Duluth (direct flight or bus from MSP). Upon arrival in Duluth, take a shuttle, Uber, or taxi to your terminus of choice and begin walking north.

As the trail moves north, it enters increasingly remote areas. The northern terminus is isolated from major roads and cell phone coverage, accessible by sparsely traveled dirt roads. Many northbound hikers opt to arrange a shuttle from the northernmost town, Grand Marais and drive to the northern border before hiking the final 54 miles southbound. This “flip-flop” simplifies planning and the need to accurately predict your finishing time and date three to four days ahead of time.

superior hiking trail path

Southbound hikers have relatively simpler logistical needs. Arrange transportation north to Grand Marais (Taxi or shuttle), then schedule a shuttle out to the northern 270º Overlook terminus. From there, just hike southbound for 260 miles until arriving in Duluth. This allows SHT hikers to conclude their journey in a major city, with easy access to high-quality dining, lodging, and transportation options.

sht west end lakewalk
© Emily M

The SHT passes nearby several towns, namely Two Harbors, Silver Bay, Tofte, Lutsen, and Grand Marais. These towns are accessible within two to five days from each other, allowing for relatively lightweight food carries. The SHT crosses major roads with easy access to these towns, either with a walk of 2-5 miles, by scheduling a shuttle, or by hitchhiking.

sht signage and bridge
© Logan Mclean

Each segment on the SHT is 8-12 miles long, greatly easing logistics when section hiking. Whether setting out to walk the trail end-to-end, town-to-town, or road-to-road, the state highway network and shuttle offerings allow for a highly customized route when on shorter trips.

superior hiking trail camp


PERMITS AND CAMPING

There are no fees, permits, or reservations needed to hike the SHT. Hikers are required to camp in established campsites, which are prominently marked with signage along the trail. Campsites range from .2 to ten miles apart but are typically around three to four miles apart. Each one has a backcountry latrine, fire pit, benches, and space for three to eight tents. Most campsites are located near water sources, providing handy waypoints for midday water breaks and greatly reducing the need to carry extra water for dry camping. Campfires may be forbidden during drought years.

hiker on superior hiking trail

NAVIGATION

The SHT is incredibly well marked, with regular blazes and signage indicating the main trail corridor, spur trails, and scenic viewpoints. The Superior Hiking Trail Association (SHTA) maintains navigational resources, such as a datasheet with a list of the campsites, mile #, and water information, and sells an annotated GPX file that can be used in Avenza maps. SHT overview maps can be found in visitors centers and outdoors stores in towns along the trail corridor.

superior hiking trail hiker

PACKING: Gear and Clothing

Gear

This is an entirely expansive topic that deserves its own guide. You can find one right here. In general, this trail is very approachable to newer hikers and does not require much expensive and specific gear. That said, here are the common challenges along the SHT that hikers are likely to encounter.

superior hiking trail

Rain/Moisture

The climate one can expect to encounter on the SHT is relatively warm, with humid days, and afternoon storms that cool off in the evenings. Adequate rain gear is an absolute must, summer thunderstorms regularly soak the forest, leading to a carwash effect where the undergrowth will quickly soak hikers from head to toe. The trail itself is regularly saturated with standing water and does not always have bridges and a boardwalk to bypass the possibility of wet feet.

superior hiking trail

This is not the trail for heavy, waterproof boots, and hikers should expect to be wet for much of the time they are hiking—whether from sweat or rain. To manage the constant moisture, a clothing strategy that employs lightweight and quick-drying fabrics and footwear are essential.

superior hiking trail fireplace

Blisters

Humid conditions and soggy terrain can quickly lead to extensive maceration and blisters on the feet. Hikers should take care to quickly address hot spots as they appear, regularly air out and dry their feet, and otherwise care for themselves as needed. Waterproof boots will become overwhelmed in the humid environment and sweaty feet, then struggle to dry out. Spare pairs of dry socks and breathable trail runners are recommended, while moleskin and Leukotape can help to treat blistering that may arise.

superior-hiking-trail-path

NATURE AND WILDLIFE

The trail passes through the Black Bear territory, and hikers should take into consideration to protect the bears from their food. By maintaining a clean campsite and diligently protecting their food, hikers can reduce the possibility of encountering bear nuisances along the trail. In the northern reaches of the SHT, hikers will cross through moose and Grey Wolf territory as well. Keep your eyes peeled and you just may spot one of these iconic northern mammals.

superior hiking trail signage
© Mariann Metzer

Midsummer bug pressure in northern Minnesota is nothing short of legendary. Midges, flies, and mosquitos will swarm about you, bite any exposed skin, fly into your mouth and eyes, crawl into your hair, and generally pester you from sunup to sundown. Once you’ve retreated into the safety of your shelter’s bug netting, the wine of their wings will accompany you throughout the night as you drift off to sleep. Shelters with bug netting, a head net, and clothing treated with permethrin are highly recommended. Hikers may want to carry Deet or Picaridin to protect exposed skin.

 superior hiking trail path

The calls of birdsong echoing through the trees are a staple of SHT hiking. They begin shortly before sunrise and continue throughout the day before concluding with an epic chorus at sunset. Keen-eyed hikers may spot a variety of birds, as the north shore of Minnesota is one of the best places to spot migrating raptors, loons and shorebirds, geese, and dozens of species of wood warblers.

superior hiking trail

RESUPPLY

Towns along the SHT can be accessed every two to five days, greatly simplifying resupply considerations. Towns have varying degrees of amenities available, but generally, hikers can expect to encounter a grocery store or general market to buy a resupply, and a handful of restaurants if a hot meal is desired.

sht east end lakewalk


Sectional Overview

Duluth to Two Harbors
Martin Rd. To Reeves Rd. (MN Hwy 2) 47.3 miles
Two Harbors to Silver Bay
Reeves Rd. To Penn Blvd 46.5 miles
Silver Bay to Tofte
Penn Blvd to Temperance River State Park 62.5 miles
Tofte to Lutsen
Temperance River State Park to Lutsen Mountains Recreation Area 12.3 miles
Duluth Segment
WI - MN border to Martin Rd. 50.2 miles
Lutsen To Grand Marais
Lutsen Mountains Recreation area to Gunflint Trail 30.5 miles
Grand Marais to SHT Northern Terminus
Gunflint Trail to 270º Overlook 54.5 miles

superior hiking trail path© Neil Dunham II

Southern Section - Duluth to Silver Bay

The trail begins at the Wisconsin/ Minnesota border, in Jay Cooke state park and threads through hills and forests through the northern outskirts of the city of Duluth. At the northern reaches of the city, the trail passes through active logging areas, with signage indicating the type of trees and the date of harvest. Despite the relative proximity to Lake Superior, the trail stays inland and takes hikers through rolling hills and rocky terrain. As the SHT nears Two Harbors, the daily climbs and descents increase in intensity, as you move ever closer to the jagged ridges of the sawtooth range.

superior hiking trail lake

Central Section - Silver Bay to Lutsen

From Silver Bay, the trail climbs up into Tettegouche State Park, reaching one of the most iconic views of the entire hike. Bean and Bear lake are reported to be some of the best campsites along the SHT, however small sites make access on weekends difficult. The trail is rugged, often choked with slick granite and cedar roots sprawling across the trail. Boardwalk and bridges ease access over raging waterfalls, expansive beaver ponds, and swampy inland low-lying areas. High ridgelines offer views of the Lake Superior coastline and offer a respite from the persistent mosquito presence.

 hiker and superior hiking trail sign

Northern Section - Lutsen to 270º Overlook

After days of inland hiking, the trail emerges from the woods and travels across the shoreline of Lake Superior. The loose pebbles on the shoreline make for tough hiking, but the clear and cold (40º year-round) water invites tired hikers to take a dip and skip some rocks. It is not uncommon to encounter larger wildlife in this stretch of trail, like moose, bears, and wolves. Water is absolutely everywhere up here, collecting in puddles, pools, ponds, streams, and lakes. Mosquitoes will greet you at every opportunity, but the natural beauty more than compensates for this challenge. The trail culminates .5 miles from the Canadian Border at 270º Overlook, with views of the Swamp River to the south, Boundary Waters Canoe Area to the west, and Canada stretching off into the north.

superior hiking trail sea


Resources

Superior Hiking Trail Association

SHT Facebook group (excellent trail, and resupply information available under ‘files’)

North shore shuttle service

Alexander Berger (aka “Jenga”) photo

About Alexander Berger (aka “Jenga”)

Jenga is a Nevada-based thru hiker, adventurer, and photographer. He can be found hunched over a sewing machine, wandering about on long trails muttering about “the light”, and generally seeking out new flavors of Type 2 fun.

About Greenbelly

After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.

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