Welcome to Paria's “Hike of the Week” series. Each week we aim to inspire you to get out there and experience the best trails the world has to offer!
For many, the Midwest might not be the first place you think of when it comes to great backpacking opportunities. With tons of trails and even long-distance thru-hikes over varied terrain, we hope the trail we're highlighting today convinces you to not overlook this area of the country when it comes to rewarding backpacking trips.
This week's hike takes us to the Superior National Forest in northeast Minnesota to a section of the Superior Hiking Trail.
Featured Photo: Superior Hiking Trail (photo by Tony Webster)
Why this Hike?
With plentiful views of the largest of the Great Lakes, deep river gorges, waterfalls, secluded pine forests, and more, this section of the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) offers a little bit of all the natural beauty the state of Minnesota has to offer.
- 54-miles point-to-point
- 5-day, 4-night trip is recommended
- This section begins near Grand Marais, MN and ends at a 270-degree overlook, which is also the northern terminus of the SHT.
- 6,200 feet of cumulative elevation gain (net gain around 450 feet)
- This section is rated as difficult. There are many steep ascents and descents and exposed roots and rocks on the trail which provide an extra challenge in areas.
- The best time to go is from April to October, though early spring and late fall might be pushing it as far as the weather goes. September is said to be best for avoiding the majority of the summer bugs and thunderstorms, though the weather can deteriorate quickly any time along the lake. Autumn, of course, is also a beautiful time due to the changing colors.
- Section 6 of the SHT is broken down into 8 smaller sections, making it easier to bail if you need to for whatever reason.
- You can find 18 campsites along this route. Each has several tent pads and a shared latrine and fire pit.
- The trail ends near the Canadian border with views of the Pigeon River from the 270-degree overlook.
- You'll come across numerous streams, rivers, and waterfalls along the route, making it easy to fill up on fresh water.
- If you enjoy seeing wildlife on your hikes, you can hope to see beaver, black bears, deer, moose, and eagles along the way.
- In case you're wondering, the entire Superior Hiking Trail is around 300-miles in length and begins near Duluth, MN.
Before you pack your bags, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Storms can pop up quickly, especially during the summertime.
- Some parts of the trail travel through private property. Be sure to stay on the trail.
- Camping is only allowed at designated sites and the fire ring must be shared with fellow campers.
- Be sure to bring a bear bag or canister to keep critters out of your food at night.
How do I get there?
Duluth International Airport is the closest major airport and it takes a little over 3 hours to get to the BRT Trailhead East. Once you park your vehicle, you'll need to get shuttled to the Pincushion Mountain area outside of Grand Marais. After making your way east through Duluth, head northeast on MN-61 N. This travels along the edge of Lake Superior, so you'll have some great views before you even reach the trailhead! Follow this for 124 miles before turning north onto County Road 16/Arrowhead Trail in Hovland. Continue 11.5 miles, then turn right onto Otter Lake Road and drive 4 more miles. The parking area will be on your left.
The following map outlines our recommended route. For more detailed mapping, including being able to print a copy for yourself, we recommend opening the map in CalTopo.
We recommend a 5-day, 4-night trip to enjoy all that the area has to offer.
- Day 1: Pincushion Mountain Trailhead to Kimball Creek Camp (10.9 miles)
- Day 2: Kimball Creek Camp to Northwest Little Brule River Camp (7 miles)
- Day 3: NW Little Brule River Camp to Hazel Camp (11.7 miles)
- Day 4: Hazel Camp to Jackson Creek Camp (11.7 miles)
- Day 5: Jackson Creek Camp to Border Route Trailhead East (8.7 miles)
Starting from the Pincushion Mountain Trailhead a few miles outside of Grand Marais, it won't take you long to reach the first of many great views of Lake Superior. A little less than 2-miles in, take a short (about 850 feet), but steep, side trail to the summit of Pincushion Mountain. Although only 1,582 feet high, it affords some nice views of the lake and surrounding forest from its rocky summit. Continuing on the main trail, you'll head down into the deep Devil Track River canyon. This is a favorite area of many hikers with the cascading waters of the river, rocky canyon walls, and a great view looking down on the river. You'll begin climbing up again after Woods Creek and come to an open field that provides more sweeping views of the lake. You'll find more views here and there on your way to the heavily forested Kimball Creek Camp.
After about 1.5 miles in on your second day, you'll reach the picturesque Kadunce Creek, another favorite area of the trail for many. After a short 2.25-miles through a younger part of the forest, you'll reach another highlight of the trail: “The Lakewalk”. Although it can provide its own set of challenges along the sand and slippery rocks, this 1.5-mile shoreline hike is one of the best parts of Section 6 with its awe-inspiring views of Lake Superior. After another 1.8-miles back inland, you'll reach your campsite for the night. There are several in the Little Brule River area, so if one is full, there are a couple of others nearby.
If you love waterfalls (and really, who doesn't?), you'll love day 3! Head over to Judge Magney State Park and start off with a look at the Upper Falls of the Brule River and Devil's Kettle Falls, which plunges 50ft over a tiered rock face, half of which disappears into the “kettle”. (If you have some time, you can find side trails to get an even closer look at the latter.) You'll follow along the Brule River for much of the rest of your hike today before heading over and up towards Hazel Camp, your destination for the third night.
Keep an eye out for wildlife, such as beaver, as you pass by Carlson Pond 2.5-miles in on your fourth morning. You'll find more nice views of the lake, ponds, and surrounding woods on the ridgelines and a place aptly called Hellacious Overlook today as well. The Jackson Creek area, where you'll be spending the night, can be a bit boggy and has some small boardwalks in place.
You'll be afforded some views of Jackson Lake through the trees as you head out on your final morning. Continue north, passing Andy Creek Camp and traversing some more meadowed areas before reaching the parking area where your vehicle should be off of Otter Lake Road. Continue a little less than a mile up the Border Route Trail to the 270-degree overlook, which looks out over the Pigeon River and Canadian border. Head back the way you came to the parking area.
What will I need?
Average highs range between mid-40's °F m in April to low 70's °F in July/August, with the lows between 30°F and 54°F. Needless to say, it can get on the chilly side at nighttime. You'll want a tent that is lightweight, but will keep you toasty and protected from the elements too.
The Zion 2P Backpacking Tent makes a great 2-person shelter for the Superior Hiking Trail's cooler weather.
If you haven't already figured it out for yourself, skimping on sleeping gear is not something that usually ends well. Down quilts are popular right now and for good reason due to their versatility. One of these or even a down sleeping bag should suit you well on this trip. And, of course, don't forget a UL sleeping pad with a good R-value too!
Some lightweight trekking poles may come in handy for creek crossings and make ascents easier.
If you don't already have one, a titanium mug is nice to have for any length of trip. They last much longer than other camp mugs and are super lightweight. Plus, you'll likely want to drink something warm on those chilly mornings!
Being in bear country, you will need some form of protection for your food and scented items at night. (Small rodents, such as pika, are a real concern too!) Be sure to acquire a bear bag or canister before your trip.
For a comprehensive list of what to pack for your trip, be sure to check out our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List. It even includes a convenient printable checklist!
Do I need a permit?
No fees or reservations need to be made for campsites and there are no backcountry fees to obtain.
If you're looking for a secluded, challenging, longer-distance trail in the Midwest with plenty to see along the way, the Superior Hiking Trail is a great place to start. Have you done this, or any other sections, of the trail? We'd love to hear about your experience in the comments below!