The peaks and valleys of a Superior Hiking Trail thru-hike – Part II

This is Part II of a two-part series of my attempt to thru-hike the Superior Hiking Trail. If you haven’t read Part I, you’ll want to read that first here.

Is thru-hiking the SHT right for you

“Would you still consider attempting a thru-hike after seeing what I’ve gone through?” I asked my spouse as we moved my vehicle to the Northern Terminus on day 16 of my thru-hike. “Absolutely,” he responded without hesitation. I had plenty of tough days over those first 16 and he got to hear everything about them, so I asked him why. He went on to tell me how it feels good to challenge himself and achieve lofty goals. He also emphasized how he’s always happy to spend time in nature.

One of those tough days was when I woke up with a head cold on the morning following the big storms that flooded the city of Duluth. That cold hung on for most of my remaining days. It left me feeling weak and tired making the difficult days ahead even more challenging. Quitting wasn’t an option, but I definitely questioned my sanity.

Foggy mornings on a Superior Hiking Trail thru-hike.
Foggy mornings on a Superior Hiking Trail thru-hike.

To redirect my focus from how miserable I felt, I started a new section in the back of my journal about all of the things I was enjoying. Even on the most wet and dreary days, I found myself stopping at overlooks—where I could barely see anything through the thick fog—and saying to myself out loud, “Wow, that’s so beautiful.” The next day, when the sun came out—which it always did—I’d stop on the top of ridges and let it warm my skin until I started to feel hot. I always stopped for a minute or two while walking through cedar forests to take deep breaths of the richly scented air that smelled even better after a day of rain. I always slowed my pace while walking on the soft ground of pine forests, giving my feet a break from the rocks and roots the trail is known for. I savored every opportunity to be fully present while filtering water next to a rushing creek or river. And I know this isn’t for everyone, but I loved walking alone in the woods for eight to ten hours every day.

More than anything though, I exceedingly enjoyed the surprises I wouldn’t have experienced had I not decided to complete a Superior Hiking Trail thru-hike. Before starting my thru-hike, I’d already hiked most of the SHT, including all of the loops and spurs to every overlook. I knew well the beauty of Ely’s Peak, Wolf Rock, Carlton Peak, and the dramatic waterfalls. But nearly every day of my hike I was rewarded with unexpected delights you’ve never heard of like wildflowers, prairies, rugged rivers, and epic ridge walks.

My most important piece of advice

“Are you thru-hiking?” a young woman asked enthusiastically late one afternoon on one of my more challenging days. “I am,” I replied. “I’m thru-hiking in two weeks,” she continued gleefully. “I’m so excited. Has it been amazing?” she asked. Not quite sure how to respond, I sort of grunted as she joyfully hopped down the trail. Ugh, you should say something more encouraging I thought to myself. So, I shouted back, “It’ll be the adventure of a lifetime.” “I can’t wait!” she exclaimed.

I thought about that interaction a lot as I made my way to camp just as the sun was beginning to set. I worried that I came off negatively and beaten down. It really is the adventure of a lifetime and I would never want to discourage anyone from doing it. So, I wondered, if I could give prospective thru-hikers one piece of advice, what would I say?

For the next hour and a half, I pondered that question as I made my way to camp. I reviewed my joys and struggles, the things I did right, and things I would have done differently. I also thought about all the experiences that were within my realm of control and those that were not. Aside from staying warm and dry, the next piece of advice for a successful and enjoyable Superior Hiking Trail thru-hike would be this. Let go of any expectations of what you think it should be.

It’s not that I necessarily had a lot of expectations for what my thru-hike should have been. But I was certainly disappointed in the way some things shook out. I knew I’d have unfavorable weather. I expected and prepared for it. I’ve experienced rain, cold, and strong storms on previous backpacking trips. For me, though, it’s a very different experience when you’re on a three to five-night hike versus a 23-day thru-hike.

When it rained for two and a half days straight on a previous section hike, I made the best of it. I reassured myself that I’d be done on Friday and at least I had the trail and all the campsites to myself. Being cold, wet, and uncertain whether or not your gear will ever be fully dry, while having nearly two weeks of hiking left, is a different experience.

Before my hike, I envisioned having time to journal and take notes about the trail and my experience at the end of the day. But when I was on the trail, I had just enough energy to set up my tent and get some calories in me before I crashed at the end of the day. As someone who is more introverted, I counted on having more campsites to myself so I could quietly process the day’s events. Even though I targeted less popular sites, I was rarely alone. I thought I’d listen to a lot more audiobooks and have countless ah-ha moments of clarity. But I was mostly focused on putting one foot in front of the other. As I look back, I realize that if I were more open to allowing the experience to be what it was, I would have enjoyed it a whole lot more.

I suspect we all do this dance to some extent. Especially in this technology-rich social media era we live in. Outside of the news, much of what we see on YouTube and social media seems to be filtered through rose-colored glasses. I suppose that’s a good thing if it’s motivating and inspiring people to get outside, challenge themselves, and try new things. If you then add this one piece of advice—let go of your expectations of what you think it should be—you’re sure to have the adventure of a lifetime.

Planning your Superior Hiking Trail thru-hike

As I shared earlier, thru-hiking the Superior Hiking Trail is a unique experience for everyone. If you accept the challenge, I guarantee your story will be different than mine. And that starts with the planning. Everyone has a different comfort level with planning but this is one step you shouldn’t skip. There’s much to consider when planning a thru-hike. It’s not as simple as loading your pack and setting out on a week-long section hike. You’ll want to think about how you’ll get from one terminus to the other, how you’ll resupply your food, as well as the pace and mileage you can comfortably do.

Fortunately, there are plenty of wonderful resources to help you get started. If you’re just getting started with the SHT, the Superior Hiking Trail Association has a wonderful website where you can learn more about the trail. You can access their homepage here. Before you hit the trail, whether for a day hike or thru-hike, I highly recommend picking up the most recent edition of their Guidebook. I referenced my digital copy multiple times each day.

Trail users who don’t want to worry about keeping a charge on their wireless device swear by the Superior Hiking Trail Databook. I have the digital version of this as well but thought it might have been nice to have the print version and spend less time staring at a screen.

While we were camping next to a waterfall at George Crosby Manitou State Park earlier this year, I read Thru-Hike the Superior Hiking Trail by Annie Nelson. This was helpful in planning resupplies—especially her advice to plan them on the weekends when the trail is the busiest.

You can find maps and other resources at the SHTA Store here. The Association also hosts an active Facebook Group you can find here. While you’re exploring these wonderful resources, consider supporting the trail by becoming a member here.

Finally, the SHTA says it best on its webpage dedicated to thru-hiking. “Full thru-hikes generally take 2-4 weeks. Taking a “shake-down” trip of 1-2 nights will help you to determine your pace and give you a chance to field test your gear before setting off. We highly recommend a few day hikes or a short backpacking trip on the SHT before setting forth on a thru-hike. Without firsthand knowledge of pace and gear, you’re much less likely to achieve your goals.”

If you’re curious, I did finish my thru-hike. Although I had days that were much more challenging than expected, thru-hiking the Superior Hiking Trail was truly the experience of a lifetime. The opportunity to spend that many days, alone in the Northwoods was one of the greatest gifts life has given me thus far. You’ll be able to test what you’re capable of by overcoming challenges and this new skill will surely spill over into other areas of your life. In the end, whether you finish the entire trail or just a long section, you’ll have a sense of accomplishment that few have the pleasure of experiencing. As we approach another long Minnesota winter, there’s no better time to start planning.

Holly Scherer is a Minnesota-based writer, photographer, outdoorswoman, and guide. She’s most at home in the great outdoors; camping, hiking, paddling, cycling, and gardening. When she’s not on an adventure, she and her husband live in the Twin Cities where they’re fond of saying, “home is where we store our outdoor gear.”

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