Hiking (and eating) in northern Minnesota

I’ve been hiking on the Superior Hiking Trail on the North Shore of Lake Superior for 10 years now. The first time, I went with my friend Teri, and we hiked “lodge to lodge.” It was a pretty cool deal: We spent the night at a resort; then the next morning we ate breakfast, they gave us a sack lunch, we drove our car to one end of a hiking trail, they dumped us off at the other end, and we hiked back to our car. Then we drove to the next lodge and repeated the whole thing. After three days of hiking up mountains and over boulders, we could barely walk, but it was a blast.

The next year (2001), I went alone. The lodge-to-lodge experience had been great because it allowed me to explore the area, stay in very different kinds of lodging (from lakeside resort to rustic cabin), and gain some confidence in my ability to follow a hiking trail. But I didn’t want to do lodge to lodge again because, frankly, I didn’t want the hassle of packing and moving to a new place every night. The area Teri and I traveled only amounted to about 30 miles, so it seemed silly to stay in more than one place.

I had heard that Cascade Lodge was a good place to stay. It’s a traditional lodge with standard rooms, plus several private log cabins. Teri and I hadn’t stayed there on our trip because it was full, but we ate breakfast at the restaurant there one morning.

I booked Cabin 2 for four nights in fall 2001. That was probably the best trip I ever took, because for the first time in my life I was completely independent – I’d never even driven that far on my own. I had to maneuver through the Twin Cities and Duluth, find remote trailheads, hike alone, eat alone, and hang out in the cabin alone.

I loved it. I built fires in the fireplace, drank wine, hiked my ass off, got really dirty, saw amazing fall color, ate wild rice pizza at Sven and Ole’s in Grand Marais, and came back to the cabin so tired one night that I fell asleep with my hiking boots on.

In the next five years, I hiked on most of the trail sections on the Superior Hiking Trail (about 240 miles, end to end, from Two Harbors to Canada). I hiked there a couple of times each year, in the fall and late spring, to experience the peak of the fall color and spring flowers. I developed a routine: I always stopped at the first rest stop in Minnesota to pee, stopped in St. Paul at Whole Foods for trail snacks, marveled (when I popped up over the big hill in Duluth) at the first glimpse of Lake Superior – as big as an ocean. Heading north on Hwy. 61 after I-35 ends in Duluth, I usually stopped at a park and sat on the rocks and tried not to get attacked by seagulls. Even if it was hot when I left Ames, by the time I got to the Lake, it was always jacket weather.

From Duluth, you can take the expressway to Two Harbors. And then once you get past Two Harbors, it’s all just magical. The air is fresher, the trees are taller, and the sky is bigger. It even smells different. And there’s the Lake, sometimes just out of sight as you’re driving along hilly, curvy, wonderful Hwy. 61, but always there.

Sometime around 2006 I started getting old and out of shape, and I skipped a couple of my northern hiking trips. By the time I reestablished my routine in fall 2008, I was so out of shape that hiking sort of became secondary to just BEING in northern Minnesota.

So I embraced that. Now I still hike, and I still love the trail and the seasons more than just about anything, but I stay away from the really strenuous and treacherous trails that I used to do — because god forbid I should fall and break a hip alone in the wilderness, right? And the days of 15-20 mile hikes are gone. I’m happy if I do a short hike in the morning and another short hike in the afternoon. I sleep in, take long showers, eat that yummy pizza at Sven and Ole’s, drink beer at the Gunflint Tavern in Grand Marais, drink wine and read good novels in my cabin, build fires every night in the fireplace, and eat pie on the way home at Betty’s Pies in Two Harbors. It’s become a gastronomical adventure!

This fall, I booked Cabin 2 at Cascade Lodge for Oct. 1-3. The first weekend in October is usually the peak of the fall color. This year I missed it by at least a week – maybe two. All of the pretty maple leaves were on the ground. I guess fall came early this year.

I still had a great time. The weather was perfect for hiking: 52 degrees and sunny.

If you like to hike, or just enjoy the outdoors, I highly recommend a trip to the north shore. The trail is widely varied, with intimate birch, maple, and pine forests; wide meadows; deep canyons; high peaks; spectacular overlooks of Lake Superior and inland lakes; waterfalls; and rivers. It’s perfect for day hikes, serious through-hikers, and backcountry camping.

It takes me about 8-9 hours to drive from Ames to my lodge – and you can stay further south if you want. There is plenty of lodging along Hwy. 61.

I would not hike this trail without buying the book Guide to the Superior Hiking Trail. The book, now in its sixth edition, gives a blow-by-blow description of each trail and (sometimes more importantly) helps you find the trailheads. I’ve sometimes been frustrated by the book because it doesn’t warn you about some of the more treacherous sections (the author calls them “challenging” and mentions “ascents” and “descents” when I would use much stronger – sometimes unprintable — words), but it’s a good mile-by-mile description nonetheless. And it offers a lot of interesting information about the geography, history, flora, and fauna of the trail.

The trail runs through seven state parks – themselves worth a trip north — and now features a section in Duluth that will eventually be connected to the rest of the trail.

Check out these links!
Superior Hiking Trail Association (i.e., everything you ever wanted to know about the Superior Hiking Trail): http://www.shta.org/
Cascade Lodge (my favorite place to stay): http://www.cascadelodgemn.com/
Lodge-to-lodge Hiking: http://www.boundarycountry.com/hiking.html

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