A Runner’s Guide to Minnesota’s North Shore
Any runner knows the runner’s high, that warm glow of endorphins our body rewards us with after punishing it. But those who dare turn their steps off the asphalt may also know the trail runner’s high. It’s the same endorphins, plus all those other things that begin to happen in your brain when you immerse yourself in nature.
Both challenging and beautiful, the footpaths of Minnesota’s North Shore make it a superlative place for trail running. With expansive views of Lake Superior, an overabundance of pristine creeks and waterfalls, highly variable topography, and innumerable stretches of deep, dark and silent woods, a trail runner’s high is guaranteed. From Jay Cooke and Duluth to Grand Portage, the North Shore offers trail running adventures at all lengths and difficulty levels.
Try these state park loop runs:
Jay Cooke State Park
offers about 50 miles of loops and linkage trails within the St. Louis River gorge, enough to craft a run of almost any custom distance. The park has a delightfully varied topography that includes some stretches of extra-rocky footing near the river, and some cedar groves with soggy footing. But these challenges lead to incredible and unique ridgeline running, often on long spines where the woods drop off steeply on both sides. To run in the northern half of the park, start in the visitor center parking lot. For the southern half, park off the road along MN 23 near the spur to the Spruce and High Trails. More about the park
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
has 12 miles of great trails. The most popular route, the Split Rock River Loop is in need of pending trail improvements to address frequent mud pits, and there’s currently no bridge to cross the river at the apex. But the rest of the park’s trails form many other convenient loop options, running both through the woods and right along Lake Superior for almost 3 miles. Look for the wild raspberries in late summer.
More about the park
Tettegouche State Park
formerly an early 20th century retreat for a group of Duluth businessmen, has 23 miles of hiking trails presenting lots of loop possibilities. The terrain is hilly, to say the least, but your climbing effort is constantly rewarded with birds-eye views of the park and beyond. You’ll also feel some vintage North Shore history at the old camp, and encounter several beautiful lakes.
More about the park
Cascade River State Park
offers an 18-mile trail system for hiking in the summer and Nordic skiing in the winter, with all the loop options that this arrangement implies. Here, you can climb the Cascade’s grade up 900 feet in 3 miles, or up to Lookout or Moose Mountain to either side, or run right along Lake Superior for a mile on the Shoreline Trail. Do all 3 in the same run for a good dose of trail runner’s high. More about the park
George H. Crosby Manitou State Park
is a rugged and remote backpacker’s park. It has 24 miles of trails cut in very customizable loop run possibilities. Runs at Manitou treat you to beautiful overlooks and waterfalls, and to that hard-to-find feeling of true remoteness. More about the park
With a running partner, a little extra driving time and two cars, you can prevent an out-and-back for a through run and explore more trails. I recommend each person carry their own key, because it’s easy to forget to do the hand-off midway. Here’s how it works with two people and one car:
- Drop off Person A at the near trailhead.
- Person B drives and parks at the far trailhead.
- A and B run toward each other, meet and exchange key if necessary.
- A drives the car back and picks up B.
The Superior Hiking Trail
The above strategy is perfect for runs with a friend on the North Shore’s iconic trail, the Superior Hiking Trail. It holds Minnesota’s toughest climbs, best views, and most scenic attractions in woods, waterfalls, and wildlife. I’ve run the whole trail in segments over weekends with my significant other over the years. I don’t know how many times I’ve thought, “I didn’t expect this kind of expansiveness from Minnesota”.
Get the Superior Hiking Trail Association’s (SHTA) maps, to both plan and execute your run and always check their website superiorhiking.org for trail conditions. Major portions of the SHT are closed in November for firearms deer season, and some stretches get logged- things come up all the time. The SHT has a very generous number of trailheads, so for much of the trail, runs can be customized in increments of about five miles or fewer. Note that the more rural trailheads are on some of Minnesota’s less-traveled roads, with no cell service, and they can be easy to drive right by. So make sure you’re good on gas, and have the paper map and a general idea of where you’re going before you set out. The SHT is infamous for its rocks, roots, and mud. Generally, there’s more runnable trail where it climbs or follows a ridgeline, i.e. in the Sawtooth Mountains, and after stretches of dry weather. But remember, mud is fun too, once you commit to it. Water is abundant on the trail — a filtering straw or chemical purification is a possibility or even a must for very long or hot runs.
I absolutely recommend any and all sections, including a piecewise through-run of the whole trail, but these are my top five sections to run:
- Penn Boulevard (Silver Bay) to MN Hwy 1: 11 miles
This route is full of must-sees, with ample climbing: Bean and Bear Lakes, Palisade Creek, Mount Trudee, Tettegouche State Park and the Baptism River.
- Lake County 7 to George Crosby Manitou State Park: 11 miles
A relatively flat section, where the SHT swings inland into the quiet woods near Finland, MN. The trail curves to reach Egge and Sonju Lakes, which means swimming opportunities when it’s hot. Add on 8 miles and a lung-busting climb up the Section 13 cliff by starting at the Lake County 6 trailhead instead and be rewarded with a scenic view.
- Temperance River to Lutsen Mountains Recreation Area: 5+ miles This is the infamous, challenging home stretch of the Superior Trail Race. Add on even more mileage and natural beauty by taking the highly recommended loop trails on top of Leveaux and Oberg Mountains.
- Caribou Trail to Cascade River State Park: 11 miles
This is simply fun running along a very long ridgeline between Indian Camp and Spruce Creeks, with many spectacular views. If you don’t find this strenuous enough, add a quick up-and-down to White Sky Rock, west off of the Caribou Trail, for yet another worthwhile view.
- Jackson Lake Road to the 270-Degree Overlook: 10 miles
The view at the junction of the Superior Hiking Trail and Border Route Trail is a full 270-degree panorama of the Pigeon River gorge and layers of hills beyond in Ontario, Canada. It’s more than worth the long drive to the tip of Minnesota’s arrowhead. On the run from Jackson Lake Road, you’ll also enjoy stretches of deep, quiet woods and challenging climbs up Rosebush Ridge, including the highest point on the SHT, for that coveted feeling of remoteness.
Minnesota’s “Lowest-to-Highest” Run is about 18.5 miles one-way that climbs from Lake Superior, 600 feet above sea level, to Eagle Mountain 2301 feet. Although this is only a trail run for the first 3 and last 3.5 miles, the locations of Minnesota’s lowest and highest points make it a unique opportunity for a long run. I suggest arranging a pickup, hiring a local shuttle, or timing it with a friend who would like to just hike Eagle Mountain while you run. The route requires running county roads that frequently change direction, numbers and names and you need to map it and carry the directions with you.
Start by climbing the Cascade River west SHT spur trail for about 3 miles. Turn left onto Cook County Road 45 (Pike Lake Road) and follow this west, then north 3.5 miles. Catch County Road 157 (Cascade River Road) and run it for 3 miles north, then east. Turn onto County Road 158 to run north 5.6 miles to the Eagle Mountain trailhead at the intersection with County 153. The trail up to the top of Eagle Mountain is another 3.5 miles. That portion is only accessible by foot, so you’ll need to walk or run back to the trailhead for a total of 22 miles.
The Grand Portage is the 8.5-mile historic Ojibway and Voyageur land route bypassing the falls and rapids of the Pigeon River’s final 20 miles toward Lake Superior. The corridor is now part of Grand Portage National Monument. The portage has an initial gradual climb from lake level, is generally well maintained, but is best run in dry conditions, as the boardwalks get rather slippery. For a shorter run or bailout point, there is an access point about midway on the portage, reached via County 17 and County 89 (Old Hwy 61). Ask for permission before using other roads through the Grand Portage Reservation. While you’re there to take in an impressive waterfall, add on the easy one-mile trail to the High Falls from Grand Portage State Park or get sweeping views of Lake Superior and Isle Royale by taking the leg-burning 1.25-mile climb up Mount Josephine.
Safety and Gear
While trading asphalt for trail can take some stress off the knees, it can put other joints at risk, namely the ankles. A fall is much more likely on rocky, rooted, wet, or leaf-covered ground. On the other hand, a typical North Shore trail will naturally slow you down, likely two minutes per mile or more. Out on the trail, help may be far away, and cell service nonexistent. But knowing what to expect and being prepared with the right gear can help mitigate some of the risk.
Besides good, technical running skills, a good pair of trail running shoes with deep tread will help you storm up hills and slip less going downhill or through mud. A comfortable running pack is essential for carrying gear, water and snacks. Keep in mind that with hills to climb and rocks to avoid, your exertion level per mile will increase. In my case I need at least 20 ounces of water for every five miles on a typical trail run, even more if it’s hot or humid.
Make sure you pack a headlamp, and a fully charged phone in waterproof containers. A whistle and thermal blanket are a good idea, as is a spare warm layer, especially on longer or colder runs. Trekking poles are more useful on runs with more elevation change, otherwise they can be burdensome to carry. Over-the-shoe ice cleats will extend your trail running season until there’s about four or more inches of snow on the ground.
Finally, as with any adventure into the woods, always tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back and mentally rehearse an emergency plan beforehand. And, you’ll always thank yourself for leaving a change of clothes, extra water and food in the car for when you’re done.
About The Author
David Johnson is a runner from Duluth with intimate knowledge of the North Shore’s best natural surface trails. His passion for exploring Minnesota’s Outdoors on foot comes from a perpetual desire to see what’s around the next bend, and his bucket list includes skiing the whole Banadad Trail when running in northern Minnesota is a little tougher. Here he’s taking a break with his dog Freya at the top of Mount Trudee at Tettegouche State Park.