Sometimes the best thing to do on a well–planned vacation is to improvise. This time last year, my younger sister Margaret and I headed out for three days of trail running along the North Shore during peak fall colors. Studded with rocks and roots, the routes that climb and descend the ridgeline overlooking Lake Superior can be challenging, but they also offer some of the best trail running in the Midwest. My sister was more than prepared for our trip. She's notched serious trail races out west, including the Leadville Trail Marathon and the 120–mile TransRockies Run. By contrast, I push myself when I run five slow miles on paved paths along the Mississippi in Minneapolis. For my sake, we planned easy runs on Friday and Saturday to prep for the most difficult route on Sunday—a 6–mile, out–and–back along the Devil Track River north of Grand Marais. Unfortunately, it rained earlier in the week and more rain was expected on Saturday, which would make the Sunday run a slick, soggy nightmare. So the technical trail was Friday or bust.
Let's go for it, Margaret said.
We set out on the Superior Hiking Trail toward Pincushion Mountain around noon. Wet, fallen leaves and mud made low sections, slopes, and stairs slippery. I often walked around these sections, unsure of my ability. My sister sometimes walked around them and sometimes ran through them. Mostly, we ran together—through evergreens whose needles blanketed the trail, next to ferns that brushed our calves, and across an A–frame bridge. My sister said the sound of rushing water below was her favorite part of the run. She also loved the bird's–eye view of amber leaves and Lake Superior from the granite overlook on Pincushion Mountain. On our way back we went faster. And I realized my favorite part of the trip was my sister's example. It had given me just enough confidence to run through wet sections of trail that 30 minutes earlier I had walked around.
Joe Spring, senior editor
How to plan your trip
• Pick trails to match your skill level. Ask staff members at Duluth running stores for advice, read the Guide to the Superior Hiking Trail, call state parks for conditions, and look up information on trailrunproject.com.
• Keep the crowds in mind. Popular state parks including Tettegouche and Gooseberry Falls will likely be packed with people on the weekends. Run their trails weekday mornings.
• Running from south of Duluth to the Canadian border, the 310–plus–mile Superior Hiking Trail offers challenging routes along the North Shore.
• Duluth has 150 miles of unpaved hiking trails, many of which are easier than the Superior Hiking Trail and therefore better for beginner and intermediate runners. The Hartley Nature Center trails wind through forests of maple, oak, and pine, and the undulating Hawk Ridge trail offers stunning views of Lake Superior.
• Check the DNR's Fall Color Finder for leaf changing updates.
• The 100–mile Superior Fall Trail Race, one of Minnesota's most difficult ultramarathons, winds its way along the North Shore with numerous climbs and descents.
• There are 94 shared backcountry campsites along the Superior Hiking Trail—overnight options for dedicated trail runners who want to pack light and brave a long multi–day run.
• In a 2016 article, Trail Runner magazine said,
Despite its post–industrial grit, Duluth is one of America's best trail towns…