When you get the opportunity to enjoy the Great Lakes region, consider one of these six best Lake Superior backpacking hikes. The paths around the lake are traveler-friendly, and beautiful sights await you and your hiking companions. Whether you enter from the Midwest or across the Canadian border, there are hundreds of hiking trails for you to enjoy in the Lake Superior area. Take a look at some of the best and most hiked ones currently open.
The Lake Superior Area
Lake Superior, the largest of the five Great Lakes, is surrounded by Ontario, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. More than 200 bodies of water feed into this lake, and it is known as the world's largest freshwater lake. Lake Superior's basin was created by volcanic eruptions. The shoreline is a wonderful mixture of beaches, rugged rock, and cliffs, and the lake itself is filled with trout, salmon, and brown trout.
Since Lake Superior borders three states in the USA and one province in Canada, there are various trails in all of the regions, many of them in national parks with rivers and waterfalls. The hiking season for this area stars in May after the snow melts and extends until late October, before the winter snows arrive.
Routes Along Lake Superior
If you want to hike the entire lake's shoreline, consider a Circle Tour. Many start in Duluth, Minnesota, and then travel up the North Shore east toward Ontario and then head back south again just before reaching the border. The complete hike can take an average of three to four weeks.
If, due to time and energy, you are unable to complete the entire Circle Tour, there are shorter hikes within the whole circle, between Duluth and Ontario that you can divert to.
In the United States, the trail from Duluth up the North Shore is called The Superior Hiking Trail. The trail is accessible from State Highway 61, secondary roads, and trails which feed into the larger trail. All trails are well-marked and maps are available at all information centers, state parks and campgrounds, and many of the local resorts as well.
You may want to join the Superior Hiking Trail Association. Their website has a detailed map of the towns and landmarks that are along this 210-mile trail; check out a detailed map of the massive trail and some of the smaller hikes that you can visit along the way.
Some of the views hikers can enjoy include while hiking along Lake Superior are:
- The Sawtooth Mountains
- The famous Split Rock Lighthouse
- Streams and brooks
Trek the 6 Best Lake Superior Backpacking Hikes
With dozens of beautiful hiking trails along Lake Superior, it is hard to narrow the choices down to only a handful. Below are 6 of the best Lake Superior backpacking hikes that have been enjoyed along Minnesota's North Shore over the years. Since the lake is also shared by Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ontario, accessible trails in each of these regions are described later under Other Backpacking Hikes. Maps for all hikes can be downloaded at North Shores State Parks.
Temperance River Gorge Trail
This famous ½ mile hike is located inside the Minnesota Temperance River State Park and takes hikers along the northeast side of the Temperance River up to some beautiful views of the legendary gorge itself. To enter the out and back trail, visit the Highway 61 parking lot on the northeast side.
Note that this trail does vary between periods of packed dirt to gravel and it includes some rock stairs to bring you up to the clifftops above the gorge itself. If you aren't physically in a position to be climbing, this trek might not be for you.
Gunflint Lake Hiking Trails
The Gunflint Lake Hiking Trail, a National Scenic Byway, amounts to about 57-miles of hiking terrain. Loon Lake Landing off of the Gunflint Trail (County Road 12) is where you will find parking and access to this trail. You can also enter from any of the resorts or at the Gunflint Lake Lodge.
This trail joins the Magnetic Rock Hiking Trail from the trails near Moosehorn Lodge and includes trails of various difficulties and distances for hikers of all levels of experience. From the southern side of Gunflint Lake, the views are beautiful.
Although the hike is incredibly long and does rapidly change in elevation (about 600 feet in the first few miles), there are multiple areas for you and your group to stop and take a rest. From fishing at the Mink Lake to browsing the shops and restaurants in the south-side of the trail, there're a ton of opportunities for you to explore and turn around to make this an out and back hike.
Cascade River Hiking Trails
Access and parking to the trails are in the Cascade River State Park along Hwy 61 next to the Cascade River Bridge. Hiking trails are along both sides of the Cascade River, offering views of waterfalls.
Some of the trails inside the park intersect and will take you along the rocky shores of Lake Superior; a trail to Lookout Mountain also intersects. The multiple Cascade River trails provide a moderate hike experience and covers about 18 miles.
Within the park's boundaries, there's a half-mile hike on the Cascade River Lower Loop that's perfect for people who only have a short amount of time to spare or who have people in their party who might be hiking for the first time. However, you can take the full 7.3-mile Cascade River Loop which belongs to the Superior Hiking Trail route. There's a steep 1,000 feet elevation gain and rough terrain, so it's moderately challenging. As with most trails, this trail is most enjoyed during the summer and fall months.
South Lake Hiking Trail
This out & back trail is another Minnesota trail that takes you from Poplar Lake to Birch Lake in about two-and-a-half miles across moderate terrain one way. Notable for the beautiful wild flowers and natural foliage that litter the trek, this trail is best enjoyed during the late spring, summer, and early fall months.
This trail is perfect for people who want to explore the Lake Superior area without being crowded by higher volume trails. Parking is available at the trail head off of the Gunflint Trail (County Road 12) across from Rockwood Lodge, as the trail is one of the many that come together to encompass the larger Gunflint Hiking Trail.
Grand Portage Hiking Trail
The Grand Portage National Monument is about 36 miles east of Grand Marais off of Hwy 61. Parking is permitted here, and you will see signs for the Grand Portage Hiking Trail. This is a historic trail, once used by trappers, explorers, and the Ojibwe Indians, making it a truly fascinating hike to experience. It winds above Lake Superior until it reaches Fort Charlotte on the banks of the Pigeon River. At 16.5 miles, this is a moderate to difficult hike.
This trail reaches a little over a 600 feet increase in elevation above Lake Superior, and will amount to about a full day's work of hiking should you take the entire trek. A picnic area and tent platforms near Fort Charlotte will give you and your group a place to rest for the afternoon or stay the night. For all the hikers who love to bring their pets with them on their excursions, the Portage is dog-friendly, but dogs must remain leashed.
The Superior Hiking Trail
Last, but not least, there are seven different sections of the massive Superior Hiking Trail, which stretches across state lines and parks, much like the Appalachian Trail on the East Coast does, leading you up from Minnesota to the Canadian border. You can enter the Superior Hiking Trail at various trailheads and depending on which place you enter will determine what part of the trail you take. Each of these sections amounts to an impressive amount of distance, with oscillating changes in elevations, terrain, and difficulty. However, don't be too alarmed! Your net gain in elevation only amounts to about 450 feet and there are many places to rest and refuel along the trail.
Considered one of the best thru-hikes in the country, the Superior Hiking Trail gives you access to incredible views of the rugged midwestern landscape ranging natural phenomena like waterfalls, the Sawtooth Mountains, Lake Superior, deep gorges, and the natural wilderness. If you're taking the entire trail, expect to take anywhere between two-weeks to a month to finish. Given that the hike takes multiple weeks to finish, there are many convenient locations along the trail to camp in the backcountry, allowing you the chance to curate the hike that you've always wanted to take.
Here are the seven main trails that come together to create the Superior Hiking Trail:
- MN/WI Border to Duluth - 50.2 miles
- Duluth to Two Harbors - 57.2 miles
- Two Harbors to Silver Bay - 44.6 miles
- Silver Bay to Caribou Falls State Wayside - 45.3 miles
- Caribou Falls State Wayside to Lutsen - 34.5 miles
- Lutsen to Grand Marais - 35.2 miles
- Grand Marais to 270 Degree Overlook - 54.2 miles
Camping Along the Trails
Campsites along the hiking trail are from six to eight miles apart in the seven state parks along the trail. Each site has a fire ring, room to pitch a tent, and a latrine. Some of the items you want to include in your pack for your hikes are:
- Flashlights and batteries
- Sleeping bags
- Sleeping bag covers
- Sleeping pads
- Lightweight backpacks
- Water filtration systems
- Extra socks
Lodge to Lodge Camping Programs, of which many are available, are great for those who don't want to camp in a tent. In these programs you, you'll hike the trails to various different lodges and stay there for the night. Some even provide breakfast each morning, and sack lunches for you to eat as you hike. Check out what lodge to loge camping programs are available at the times that you want to take whichever hikes you choose and be sure to sign up in time to reserve your spot.
Other Backpacking Hikes
For those accessing the Lake from a location other than Minnesota, try these backpacking hikes.
- Lake Superior Water Trail in Wisconsin - Covers more than 400 miles of shoreline which connects Lake Superior across various states and Canadian provinces.
- Ashland/Bayfield Area Color Tour in Wisconsin - You can drive and walk through this wooded area which boasts impressive fall colors during the autumn months.
- Marquette to Sault Sainte Marie in Michigan - You can take the Superior Hiking Trail to traverse between these two areas of the Michigan landscape.
- Provincial Park in Ontario - You can reach Lake Superior via these other hiking entry points on the Canadian side with trails such as Nokomis Trail, Orphan Lake Trail, and Sand River Trail.
Further Reading on Lake Superior Backpacking Hikes
As you prepare for your hikes, why not read some helpful books by those who are seasoned travelers of the Lake Superior Trails?
- Guide to the Superior Hiking Trail: Linking People With Nature by Footpath Along Lake Superior's North Shore by Superior Hiking Trail Association
- Only in Minnesota by Roxanne Kjarum and Berit Thorkelson
- Superior Journey: Diary Of A Dream by Jean Morris Trumbauer
- Gentle Hikes: Northern Wisconsin's Most Scenic Lake Superior Hikes Under 3 Miles by Ladona Tornabene, Melanie Morgan, and Lisa Vogelsang
Superior Backpacking Options for Intense Fun
Backpacking is such a fun activity that you can take on as a solo trek or turn it into a family adventure, and these various backpacking trails around Lake Superior will let you explore the luscious, midwestern region from all possible angles.