“Don’t get cocky. It’s going to get rocky.” These are lyrics from an old school rap video game Dylan used to play. I think it is a pretty good summary of our trip up to the Superior Hiking Trail in northern Minnesota.
With Dr. Fitz leaving Madison, WI soon now that he has his PhD (congrats, Dylan!) and a baby on the way for me in August, this seemed like the perfect time for a long hiking adventure. I was going to be in Chicago for business on Thursday, so I was able to pop up to Duluth after my meeting and a nice visit with Mom and Dad Lewellen. Mom made me a huge batch of amazing Chex Mix for the trip, and Dad took me out to a great Italian dinner, so I was fueled up and feeling ready for our leisurely hike up north.
Now Dylan and I like to think of ourselves as pretty fit individuals. We have hiked many trails and run our share of marathons. We are ultramarathoners. We were quite confident in our abilities to cover lots of ground over two full days of hiking. 60 to 70 miles would be no problem, right?
Thursday night I landed in Duluth close to 11pm, and we hit the trailhead a little after midnight. It was a beautiful, clear night with countless stars and the Milky Way clearly visible. We quickly got settled in and threw the tent up in the parking lot (before the trip I bought a 2 lb 9 oz lightweight Slater 2+ tent – it was awesome!). It was close to 1am when we got settled in with wake-up call coming soon at 5:30am. Dylan and I are men of luxury, so we were starting our trip out well rested in luxurious conditions.
We hit the trail at 6:30am, and man we were pumped! Right away we hit the ridge line and were treated to stunning views of Lake Superior and the surrounding forest. The Superior Hiking Trail was unlike anywhere I have ever been. It seems obvious, but it was just so far north! The hike felt very remote and like you were truly out in the wilderness.
We felt great and soon hit Gooseberry State Park, the first of 3 State Parks we would hit. There are few places in the US where you can hit 3 state parks in a weekend of hiking. Gooseberry had some most excellent waterfalls, the first of many we would see on the hike. The trail generally alternated between being close to the shore with lake views from the ridgleline to moving further inland to hike along rivers and near backcountry lakes. It made for fantastic variety.
13 miles in we hit Split Rock State Park. Here we hiked 2.5 miles up the river away from the lake, crossed over the river and then back down the river on the other side. We were treated to rapids and waterfalls all along this 5 mile stretch. We finished up this stretch around 1:15 and took our first break of any kind with a quick 10 minute lunch up on the ridge with nice lake views. Ahhh, life is good.
Somewhere during the interminable 12 mile next stretch we began to realize that we are but mortal men and that this hike was in fact very difficult. Our packs were heavier than we expected, the terrain was tough, the miles seemed long, and we were not all that well trained going into this. Hard to believe, but it actually is not that easy to cover 40 miles in one day in the back country with heavy packs. Who knew?
We wrapped up this stretch around 5:30pm and had some light showers. We did our first major water refill from a stream and kept pushing on. Towards the end of this next part we had some tough, steep climbs and descents. But we also had more great views as the sun was setting and shining off the trees and the lake.
We were wrapping up this section a little after 8pm with the sun going down and had ~ 2.5 miles to go until our campsite. The race was on to see if we could get to camp in daylight. We did make it, but it certainly was not because of our pace. Hooray for long northern summer days!
We hit camp around 9:15 after 37 miles and almost 15 hours of basically nonstop hiking. Dylan and I were very excited but had some difficult decisions to make. We had so many basic needs to take care of that we didn’t know where to start. Should we go to the bathroom first? Eat first? Just fall asleep? Fall asleep while going to the bathroom? We were overwhelmed.
We got camp quickly set up while we had a bit of light still left. Dylan opted for bathroom, a bit of eating, and then sleep. I waged an internal struggle between eating and sleeping and tried to stuff as much food in as I could before passing out and faceplanting in the campsite. We were in bed around 10:15.
That night we had some major thunderstorms, and it was drizzling when we woke up at 5:30am. We managed to pack up camp just before it started to really pour again. We started day 2 of hiking at about 6:30am in the rain.
Luckily it cleared up quickly. Dylan and I both felt pretty beat up but better than we expected. Call it a win! This morning was one of our favorite stretches of trail. We were up on a ridge for a while with incredible views of Bear Lake and Bond Lake, two very large backcountry lakes surrounded by sheer cliffs on each side.
We spent some time going through a nice birch tree grove and then descended down “the drainpipe”, several hundred feet of sheer rock to get off the ridge. Pretty soon we came to Tettegouche, our third and final state park.
There were two major falls in the park, High Falls and Two Step Falls. We hit High Falls first and then thought the trail went on to Two Step Falls. As it happens we were lost and off the Superior Trail. Lucky for us, we got to see Two Step Falls, get a second view of High Falls once we were back on track, and get in almost 2 extra miles. Win. Win. Win?
Dylan and I were rapidly getting wrecked. Problems were becoming numerous and included beat up feet, sore back, exhausted legs, blisters, sore shoulders, and so on. We had planned to cover two more stages of 6.8 and 8 miles. The 6.8 stage was looooong and tough. By the end we figured that we could make the whole thing but it would be extremely difficult, we would not finish by the anticipated 6:30pm time, and we would be risking injury and damage.
Luckily we had a flexible cab driver and were able to call him at the end of 6.8 stage. We happily called it. That put us at close to 20 for the day and 57ish for the total. We made our way back to Duluth to hang out for the evening and recover. It was great to get some hot food and some beer, though it was not easy to get it down with our bodies still in a bit of shock. We walked along the shoreline for a bit on what happened to also be part of the Superior Hiking trail. We didn’t cover enough ground and needed a bit of extra distance!
It was great to hang out with Dylan and spending time together out in the North Woods. We saw a lot of great trail, and I had tons of fun exploring a completely new place. We certainly got our money’s worth and really beat ourselves up, but I guess you only live once.
Thanks for the good time, Fitz!
The start of the madness
Dylan was pumped!
In the first 15 minutes we were treated to this amazing early morning view of the Lake Superior and the forest
Lots of lush green trail
Coming into Gooseberry State Park with some nice waterfalls
After leaving Gooseberry. Dylan surveying his property.
Heading into Split Rock State Park
Lots more waterfalls in Split Rock
After following the river away from the lake for 2.5 miles we crossed the bridge to head back down
Heading down the other side of Split Rock
We saw many beaver dams but sadly no beavers
View of Beaver Pond from above
Looking away from the Lake Superior out into the endless forest
Up on the ridge line and starting to get dark
The sun was just setting. We had been hiking for about 14 hours at this point with another hour of hiking left.
The next morning the rain stopped quickly. We ascended the ridge and saw low lying clouds down in the valley.
I was waterlogged and sad
Nah, just kidding. This was too much fun!
Amazing view of Bear Lake from up on the ridge
We couldn't get enough of Bear Lake and tried to soak it in for a while
Coming up to Bond Lake
Looking north towards the rocky section we were about to hike
This was the "drainpipe", a 150 foot sheer rock descent
High Falls in our third and final state park, Tettegouche (yes you read that correctly)
Two Step Falls in Tettegouche
This is the rickety bridge we were about to cross
Close up of High Falls
High Falls from the other side
We went through lots of birch groves
Toward the middle of the picture is the road we were hiking towards to get picked up. It looks close but took a lot of meandering to get there.