Sure, the Pacific Crest Trail is epic and the Appalachian Trail is steeped in vagabond mystique, but unless you can steal away from work for months, your chances of conquering one of these storied interstate hikes are slim. For a more compact but no-less-exhilarating long-distance trek, check out the Superior Hiking Trail, which stretches 286 miles from Duluth, Minnesota, the port city on Lake Superior's southwestern tip, all the way to the Canadian border.
The route predominantly hugs the rocky, cliff-heavy, woods-meets-water shoreline, offering spectacular views of the world's largest freshwater lake. It also crosses several rivers and streams that spill into Lake Superior and carves through the dense Superior National Forest and seven state parks. For the most part, elevation change is much slighter than mountain trails, ranging from roughly 600 feet above sea level at the big lake's edge to a pinnacle of 1,750 feet near the Canadian border, where you'll find yourself towering more than 1,000 feet above the water.
There are 86 backcountry campsites spaced out along the way, each equipped with ample tent space, benches, a fire ring, and a latrine. Most sites also offer close access to a lake or stream, so bring a small filtration device or tablets to make the water drinkable – much more practical than lugging gallons for days.
Some zealous hikers tackle the entire trail just to say they did, but we strongly suggest trimming the trek to maximize your time and effort, especially if you're travelling from afar. Skip the Duluth sections and start farther up the shore. Take Highway 61 (yes, the one Bob Dylan made famous) north to Castle Danger, where you can park a car, and finish your trip at Judge Magney State Park, the Arrowhead Trail, or Otter Lake Road on the Canadian border. From any of these spots, you can catch the Superior Shuttle back to your car – as long as you've made reservations in advance. If you have just a few days to work with, there are many options for shorter backpacking trips.
Of course, you can stick on the trail the whole time by lugging your entire trip's worth of rations on your back. But if you don't mind dipping back into civilization every few days, either mail yourself nonperishable food and other supplies in advance to some of the post offices in lakeside towns not far off the trail, or re-up on fresh eats from the in-town stores. (That's another beauty of this trip – you feel like you're remote, but you can still enjoy the perks of having resources not far away.)
The best time to go is definitely September through mid-October, when the humidity has broken and the aspen and maple trees are glowing bright yellow and red. To get there, fly into Minneapolis, rent a car, and drive two hours to Duluth. You can also fly directly into Duluth International Airport if you're not picky about flight times and have more dough to spend.
One word of caution: Massive floods hit northeastern Minnesota in June that damaged and forced the closure of several sections of the trail. As of mid-August, everything north of Duluth had dried out and reopened except one stretch near Castle Danger where a bridge had washed out. The Superior Hiking Trail Association predicts this will reopen in mid-September, but be sure to check trail conditions in advance to make sure it's traversable or the detour is still in place.