Where the Heck is Breadloaf Ridge?
By Zach Johns
Last summer I came across a social media post from the Superior Hiking Trail Association (SHTA) announcing their “Summit Challenge.” It sounded exciting and I opened the link expecting to find the normal list of peaks that I, an SHT enthusiast, had climbed every year like clockwork, since the mid-nineties: Carlton Peak, Mount Trudee, Oberg Mountain. Those would be on the list for sure, right?
What I found surprised me. Stewart Knob? Wildflower Hill? Glove Overlook? Railroad Vista? What were these places? I had never heard of them, which was strange because having hiked the entire trail, I had obviously been to them all. Not only had I worn out dozens of pairs of hiking boots, I had also represented the trail at countless events, confidently answering questions from aspiring hikers. Yet if one had walked up to me and asked for the best trailhead to access the Downers Park Overlook, I would have frozen in my tracks, stumped.
That was the genius of last year’s Summit Challenge. It took hikers away from the SHT’s “Greatest Hits” and out to some of its lesser-known gems. In a year when COVID restrictions pushed more and more people into the Outdoors, it was greatly needed. People who had not set foot on a hiking trail in years, if ever, suddenly swarmed the North Shore of Lake Superior. Cars spilled out of trailhead parking lots and onto local roads as hikers explored the spectacular vistas they had seen on social media. The SHTA knew they needed to do something to spread out the throngs of hikers. In August they devised the Summit Challenge and many of us bit.
Personally, I can’t resist a challenge, especially when hiking is involved. From 2006 to 2011 my two sons and I crisscrossed the state gathering passwords for the Minnesota State Parks Hiking Club while hiking over 200 miles in our glorious parks. From the lush forests in the southeast corner, to the prairies of the west, to pine country close to home, it was a grand adventure. Like the Summit Challenge, the Hiking Club took us places we might not have normally thought to hike, as we visited every state park in Minnesota. The final password we found happened to be “Diversity,” which truly summed up the experience.
I’ve also participated in the North Country Trail Association’s (NCTA) annual Hike 100 program, which challenges hikers to log 100 miles on the North Country National Scenic Trail. That challenge was easy for me since the SHT is part of the NCT and I usually get 100 miles in by late September. Last year I had three months off due to the pandemic and I was able to finish by mid-May. It was a great start to the hiking season.
The Summit Challenge, though, was unique. After scouring the maps and guidebook to figure out just where the heck some of these places were, my friends and I hit the trail. The SHTA gave us a list of 12 objectives with a goal of hiking seven to qualify for the prize pin, but we wanted the full dozen.
I’ll admit, not all of the places on the list were obscure. The majestic 270-Degree Overlook with its spectacular view into the Canadian wilderness at the trail’s northern terminus was on the list. So was Pincushion Mountain, towering high above Grand Marais and showing off its wonderful, newly reconstructed trail section. However, many were off the well-beaten path in parts of the trail I hadn’t hiked in decades. It was wonderful to have a reason to get back there and realize, “Wow, I forgot how nice this section is, I need to hike here more often!”
The need for a plan to facilitate the dispersal of hikers was never more obvious than one morning as we left our basecamp in Finland, MN. We drove into Silver Bay for breakfast before heading south to hit a couple more summits. As we passed by the Penn Boulevard trailhead, we were shocked to see cars lined up for blocks along both sides of the road at nine o’clock in the morning. That trailhead is the gateway to the immensely popular Bear and Bean lakes but the amount of cars that day was staggering. I could only imagine the crowds standing elbow-to-elbow atop the overlooks.
After breakfast we hiked to Breadloaf Ridge and saw no one.