Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Occasional Trails: Stomping Along Gichigami

  • Name : The Superior Hiking Trail (SHT)
  • Location : Northeastern Minnesota
  • Length : 205 miles
  • Best season : Probably not winter
  • Features : Runs along ridges above Lake Superior, crossing state, county, national forest, and private properties
  • Permits : Not required
  • Info at : Superior Hiking Trail Association (

About 1100 million years ago, as you recall, the center of North American began to shudder and bulge the way it does sometimes. After many unpleasant events involving stretching, thinning, heaving, tilting, molten rock leaking out here and there, erosion, and massive glaciers banging around and scraping things almost forever, there came to be a big dent in the ground. After a while the glaciers gave up and melted, filling the dent with water.

This became known as Gichigami (big water), Lac-Supérieur ("My lake, she is bigger to yours, eh?"), or as most of us now know it, Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area, and the third largest by volume.

The restless earth left tilted layers of rock around the lake's edge. These are the Sawtooth Mountains of Superior's northwest side. This is where you will find the 205-mile Superior Hiking Trail.

Conceived in the middle 1980s specifically as a long distance foot path, the Superior Hiking Trail has one end anchored in Two Harbors, Minnesota, and the other on the Canadian border. An additional 39 miles of trail wind through the City of Duluth, for a total of 244 miles. Access is via Minnesota Highway 61 or on spur trails associated with it, or along many smaller roads. Seven state parks also connect to the trail and provide their own access points.

Hikers out to bag the most miles can start at Two Harbors, hike to the eastern end of the trail, and then continue along the Border Route Trail, which in turn links to the Kekekabic Trail. These last two trails traverse the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA). Permits are not required for the Superior Hiking Trail but are needed for the BWCA. By combining trails a thru-hiker can put together a trip of over 300 miles.

One nice feature of the Superior Hiking Trail is that it is truly for hiking only. No motorized vehicles, bicycles or horses are allowed. It is steep and narrow in parts and there are frequent rocky ascents followed by descents into deep valleys, but bridges facilitate stream crossings.

For those used to tramping well above treeline in high mountains, this trail is a different experience. It generally hugs the ridge above Lake Superior, but at its lowest point it does skim the lake's shore, which is barely 600 feet above sea level. The trail's highest point is 1750 feet, more than 1000 feet above the lake's surface.

Panoramic views of Lake Superior, the Sawtooth Mountains, woodlands, and various other lakes and rivers are frequent all along the trail. And because there are so many streams, and the land is so rugged, there is no shortage of gorges, foaming rapids and waterfalls.

But one peculiarity of this trail is varied land ownership. National Forest, state parks, county holdings, and parcels of private land form a patchwork. Because of this camping is allowed only in designated sites, and extra restrictions apply in some areas. Cooperation and mutual respect keep the trail a viable route.

Speaking of back country campsites, the trail has 81 of these, an average of one every two and a half miles. There are no fees, reservations, or permits required, either to hike or to camp. Leashed dogs are allowed.

Backpackers will see hardwood forests of oak, maple and basswood, stands of balsam, pine, spruce, cedar and tamarack, and groves of aspen and birch. Wildflowers are common in spring, and some persist through the growing season. Blueberries and raspberries show up in mid-summer. Deer are frequent sights and a traveler might also find moose, beaver, black bear, grouse and even eagles.

But what is really distinctive about this trail is one massive, omnipresent feature. Lake Superior. With a surface area close to 32,000 square miles (larger than South Carolina!), this body of water sets its own rules. Three hundred fifty miles long and 160 miles wide, it is not only too big to spit across, it is too big to even see across. It is a freshwater inland sea averaging almost 500 deep. To give another sense of scale, Isle Royale, the largest island in Lake Superior, has several of its own lakes, and some of them have islands of their own.

Drain this lake and you could walk to the lowest point in North America, 733 feet below sea level. But up on top storms routinely generate waves over 20 feet, and some over 30 feet have been recorded. And there is enough water in this lake to cover both North and South America a foot deep. Think about that. This is a different world.

With its length, easy access, cooperative landowners, and varied landscape, no wonder the Superior Hiking Trail is thought of as one of the best trails in the country. And then there's that lake too.