Peaks and Valleys of an Outstanding Hiking Trail – Part 1
It’s weird, I thought as I turned off my alarm on the sixth morning of my trip on the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT). I felt a sharp pain in my ankle but I was sure I hadn’t done anything to injure it. As I went about my morning routine, my anxiety increased as the pain worsened with every step.
I finished my coffee, packed my bags, and completed my morning stretching routine. Then I laced up my shoes, strapped on my bag, and stood, feeling immediate relief as the pain in my ankle seemed to subside. I chalked it up to simple tightness from the long miles I’d logged in the past five days.
The sun was just rising as I hit the road for another long day. It was a beautiful morning. The past five days have been hot and humid. Low temperatures throughout the night covered the tall grass and wildflowers with dew that sparkled like sparkles in the morning sun. Despite the worrying start to my day, it turned out to be a wonderful morning.
As I approached mile seven, the pain in my ankle returned, much more severe now. Each step was more painful than the last. I knew there was a campsite a mile away, so I promised myself I would stop to rest and stretch when I got there.
I stopped to filter some water from the river just outside the campsite. Then I found a nice grassy spot in the shade to lie down and stretch. I repeated the same stretching routine I had done every morning and evening during my trip so far. But when I stood up this time, I didn’t feel better. I could barely stand to put weight on my ankle and my mind went straight to the worst case scenario. I thought I was done. I was sure I had failed and it was only day six.
In a panic, I called my wife. With his naturally calm demeanor, he went out of his way to assure me that I simply needed to rest. He reassured me that I had enough time to reduce my speed and mileage and that everything would be fine. But my mind was busy thinking about all the questions.
After we hung up, I tried to reassure myself that he was right and that I just needed to rest. I pitched my tent for the night and spent the rest of the day lying in the shade with my legs up on a felled log. I ran through every scenario I could think of to see what it would take to get back on track. I was about 12 miles in but felt like 100 on day 6 of 23.
At about 4:30 that afternoon I heard thunder in the distance. As the sky grew dark, I thought this was my last chance to dine inside. As soon as I put my pot of water on the stove, huge drops started falling from the sky. I ran to my tent, put on my rain gear, and ate dinner under a big old spruce tree. It poured and raged all night, soaking the heavily used tent pads. But I stayed mostly dry as I lay there with my legs up on my bag, praying that I would feel better in the morning.
To my surprise, my ankle felt better the next day. For good measure, I strapped on two strips of KT tape and hit the road. It rained and rained most of the day. But getting to our target campsite made day 7 a very good day.
This is part one of a two-part story about my journey to complete the hike on the Ultra Hiking Trail. Through this story, I hope to share with you what it was like to plan and attempt my first trip. I’ll share the lessons I’ve learned along the way. But more than anything, my goal is to inspire you to challenge yourself by getting out and trying something new. You won’t want to miss what’s happening in Part 2, so be sure to subscribe at the bottom of the page and get Quetico Superior Wilderness News straight to your inbox.
What is a superior hiking trail through hiking?
“You mean you walk everything? No cycling?” I read a text message from one of my close friends when he checked in to see how my ride was going. “No walking,” I replied. “Hiking,” I replied, attaching photos of the challenging part that I was currently enjoying. “I have no idea how to do it,” he replied. “My body hurts.”
Two decades of friendship means we have a lot in common, like our love of the outdoors. However, he prefers the outdoor experience from the solarium, float, and pool – making him a great companion. We are both amazed and terrified when we share stories about our outdoor adventures. Since he has no experience with such activities, he doesn’t quite understand what I mean when I tell him about things like plans to hike a marked hiking trail. This is what I should have explained to him before I started.
The SHT is a 310-mile footpath that begins (or ends) at the Wisconsin border and ends (or begins) at the Canadian border, depending on which direction you’re heading. It is part of the North Country National Scenic Trail that extends more than 4,800 miles from Middlebury, VT to Lake Sakakawea State Park in North Dakota. It is the longest trail in the National Trails System.
As the name and slogan suggest, the Superior Hiking Trail follows the hills and shoreline of Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world. First-time visitors are often surprised by the dramatic changes in elevation and rugged terrain. With challenging terrain comes countless miles of stunning scenery and an amazing level of isolation.
There are many ways to experience SHT. Most people enjoy the trail while hiking popular loops like the Twin Lakes Trail and Ely’s Peak. SHT backpacks are also very popular.
Many users enjoy round-trip backpacking trips during long weekends. This is an easy way to test the trail by parking at the trailhead, hiking for a few nights, then heading back the way you came. All SHT camp sites must be shared. So, if you’re looking for more solitude, consider hiking during the week and choosing lesser-known trails.
The hiking section is another great way to experience the trail. A backpack for hikers from trail to trail. This requires an extra step to find transportation. I like to leave my car where I plan to end my trip. Some people commute by storing a bike while others get a ride from a friend or shuttle service.
A distinct hiking trail is when backpackers walk from one stop to another. “End” is a fancy word for an end point. I hiked from the southern terminus on the Wisconsin border to the northern terminus overlooking Canada. The route is said to be 310 miles long, but with rerouting, resupplying, and all the great spurs, I would suggest planning your trip to be a little longer.
Important considerations when planning a picnic
This is strange, I thought as I looked at the ominous cloud that seemed to appear out of nowhere. I checked the weather before leaving camp that morning and was eager to get some big miles in with the overcast skies and cool weather. I checked the weather again and found that strong thunderstorms were forecast for that afternoon. Disappointed that I might need to cut my day short, I picked up my pace, hoping to get as many miles in as possible.
Only ten minutes later, the sky opened up and it started raining. It came down so hard and fast that I was soaked from head to toe before I could put on my rain gear. The flow continued like this for two and a half hours and I was miles away from the campsite with nowhere to hide. Everything was wet – my rain gear, my waterproof bag, and my dry bag where I kept everything I might need for the day. Everything, except my clothes and my sleeping system which were packed in nylon bags.
Whether you’re planning a hike or just spending a few nights in the SHT, it’s important to think about how to stay warm and dry. Hugging the shore of the world’s largest freshwater lake, it’s not uncommon to experience several seasons in one day. I started my walk during an excessive heat warning. Which was followed by heavy rains that led to flooding in the city of Duluth. Then, freeze warnings had me hugging all my layers inside my tent just after sunset. So, for me, planning for the weather in SHT is just as important as planning for nutrition and water.
This is the perfect opportunity to point out that every hiker has a different experience on this premium hiking trail. Many of my conversations with other hikers touched on how harsh the weather was. While many hikers that day were stuck in the pouring rain for hours with nowhere to take shelter as I did, I spoke to others where we were able to set up camp before the rain came. I even met someone who stayed warm and cozy at a luxury resort on a pre-planned rest day.
When planning a trip like this, it’s easy to create expectations based on the pictures we see online. We envision beautiful sunny days cooled by gentle breezes. But that’s rarely the case, especially if you’ve been hiking day in and day out for three to four weeks while on the road. Rain and cold are never guaranteed on the Superior Hiking Trail, but I’ve had rain on every overnight hike I’ve taken. So, I think we’d better be prepared.
What it’s like to hike a super hiking trail
“Are you through hiking?” the southbound hiker asked after we exchanged the usual pleasantries. “I am,” I answered. He continued, “Can I ask you a question, if you have a minute?” After noting that I had time, he asked, “Does it get easier down south?” I told him about some of the difficult elevation changes between the trail at Tettegouche State Park and the Split Rock River, but other than that, I told him the trail wasn’t too difficult. “It’s not the elevation changes that are killing me,” he shouted. “It’s all these rocks and roots.” “Oh,” she smiled. “This is where I started hiking, so this is normal for me. I just assumed every trail was like this.”
I have met many hikers over the years who have been amazed by the terrain of this outstanding hiking trail. The trail is said to gain and lose more than 41,000 feet over 310 miles. Many of those miles are rocky and full of roots. The only time it’s flat is during the miles of walking on roads and sections that share the North Shore State Trail — a multi-use recreational trail best known for snowmobiling in the winter months.
Although I logged hundreds – if not thousands – of miles on this terrain, there were a few days when rocks and roots weighed me down as well. I met another hiker who had to switch to sturdier shoes after developing plantar fasciitis. Another was unable to complete the daily distance she had planned and was unable to finish the route in the time she had allocated. This seemed to be the norm with all the other hikers I spoke to. So it may make sense to plan for fewer miles and a slower pace, especially if you’re new to backpacking or aren’t used to using an SHT.
This concludes the first part of my hiking trip on this outstanding hiking trail. If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to be the first to read part two. You’ll find out if you’re done and find out if hiking the SHT is right for you.
Holly Scherer is a writer, photographer, outdoorswoman, and guide based in Minnesota. She feels most at home outdoors; Camping, hiking, canoeing, biking and gardening. When she’s not adventuring, she and her husband live in the Twin Cities where they like to say, “Home is where we store our outdoor gear.”