Wondering what to expect on a Beginner Backpacking Trip? Our July 13-15, 2018 trip recap is a perfect example of what a new backpacker might anticipate, especially when the weather and bugs cooperate as well as they did on this trip.
Sarah wanted to refresh her backpacking skills. Inspired by her now-adult children, both of whom possess significant outdoor skills, she decided to brush off the dust and set herself up for future trips with family. It quickly became very clear that Sarah is an incredibly strong, fit woman, easing back into the sport of backpacking as though her prior trip was yesterday, rather than many years ago.
Our trip meet-up was at Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply in Grand Marais, where we did a final backpack and gear-list shakedown. Sarah remembered all of the personal items that were designated as her responsibility on the packing list. We provided the rest of the items for her, including backpack, tent and sleeping bag, as well as other key essentials. She had to supplement her pack with only additional insect repellant and two pocket maps.
Sarah - Ready to go!
I have a tradition of grabbing a photo of clients once they are fully suited up, wearing their pack with poles in hand and the car locked, the moment we leave civilization behind. It’s a pretty sweet moment, as you can tell by Sarah's expression. The very next step is literally onto the trail, commencing the trip into days of wilderness and our own tenacity.
Our trip started at the beautiful Kadunce River, just north of Grand Marais, which quickly transitions into the Kadunce Canyon, a shallow canyon, beautiful at all times of year. Be sure to take advantage of the various non-official overlooks as you make your way along the spur trail to the main Superior Hiking Trail.
The first day, we covered 6.2 miles through deep forest, crossing beautiful Crow Creek and stunning Kimball Creek, which has one of my favorite sites on the entire trail. The trail then follows the western ridge of Kimball Creek for over a mile, its cascading waters serenely coaxing us through the forest. We took another snack break at lovely Cliff Creek and, having seen only one other backpacker the entire day, we finally landed at Durfee Creek campsite, having the small wooded site all to ourselves. While surrounded by verdant wilderness, the site also renders a challenging, muddy, downhill hike each time we needed to retrieve water – our hiking poles definitely came in handy. The small swimming holes (more aptly called sitting holes, rather than swimming holes) at Durfee Creek were so refreshing after a hot, humid day hauling a pack through the woods.
We each pitched our solo tents and were able to sleep without using a rainfly. All through the night, we had a lovely breeze in the treetops keeping us company, with hundreds of bright stars piercing the crystal-clear black sky – absolutely breathtaking.
We were incredibly fortunate on this trip, with very few insects. And, thankfully, the fickle North Shore weather did not deviate from the stellar forecast. It is always cold along the shoreline, but the Superior Hiking Trail is back far enough from the lake effect that we had temperatures in the low 80s with high humidity, a quintessential Summer weekend. This meant lots of invigorating swimming in gorgeous cascading rivers that transect Northern Minnesota's ancient Sawtooth Mountains (yes, we have mountains; they are just really old, so the peaks have worn down after millennia).
When it’s hot like it was, and you know the weather will hold, it’s advisable to find ways to help your body cool off, one of the best of which is to get your hair wet as well as your quick-dry shirt and hat, and to do so every time you reach a water source. Make sure to drink plenty of water with electrolytes so that you replace your critical body salts, too. It is a great reset and boosts your energy, giving your body a break from having to work so hard.
Wet hair to manage hot days
If it's hot and you know that the weather will hold, get your hair wet at every creek crossing to help relieve stress on you body
The second day, we covered around 5.5 miles to the coveted West Devil Track River campsite. Once we reached the site, we met two adorable Australian Sheepherder Dogs who, like most trail dogs, carry their own little packs. They had all stopped for a quick swim so, much to our surprise, we ended up having the large group campsite to ourselves, even on a Saturday night!
We arrived early in the afternoon on Saturday, so we had time to luxuriously explore the Devil Track River and its myriad waterfalls, finding a couple of perfect swimming holes and napping spots.
En route to this campsite, we traversed Wildflower Hill and its sweeping views of Lake Superior. In Spring, Wildflower Hill is blanketed with every Minnesota wildflower imaginable, as the landscape gently slopes toward Lake Superior.
Backpacking along Woods Creek's Eastern flank, we could hear its rushing waters for a full mile before we crossed it. Almost immediately, we then found ourselves paralleling Devil Track Canyon, the deepest natural canyon in Minnesota, a popular attraction for day-hikers. This section also crosses County Road 58 and the nearby public parking lot makes it easy to explore one of Minnesota’s intriguing natural attractions.
The well-established section of trail winds along the eastern edge of Devil Track Canyon hundreds of feet above Devil Track River, through stunning Red Pine groves where we stopped for lunch under dappled sunlight while listening to the breeze through the tops of the pines and the river below. We enjoyed bison embedded with cranberries and a little bit of spice, aged gouda, 4 different types of crackers and dried peas, a very satisfying lunch.
Back at the West Devil Track River campsite, I was charmed by some of the comments memorialized by other backpackers in the 3-ring spiral notebook tucked into one of the rare trail boxes peppered along the Superior Hiking Trail. The last comment logged was also my favorite comment, “Is this the Sierras?” (Thank you, Dillon!) Sarah had also commented that evening as we ate our dinner on the bridge with our feet swinging high over the river, “I am amazed at how much beauty is here as well as the extent of the wilderness. And it’s so accessible.” We were again able to sleep through the night without using a rainfly under soothing, star-filled skies.
Sunday morning, Sarah indulged in an early swim at 6:30 am, just as she had vowed to do the night before. We opted for a quick coffee and Cliff Bar for breakfast, skipping the more time-consuming, filling oatmeal. We covered a short 3.5 miles our final day, dropping our packs briefly at the spur trail to Pincushion Mountain to take in the unbelievable views.
Be forewarned that the trail gets a little confusing at this point, as it braids with cross-country and mountain biking trails, criss-crossing every so often. Look for the infamous Superior Hiking Trail blue blazes on the trees after crossing each intersection to ensure you are heading the right direction. Our goal was the Pincushion Mountain parking lot, high above Grand Marais, where we had parked Sarah’s vehicle.
We took one last gigantic view of Lake Superior, surrounded by wild daisies and one woman harvesting June Berries. That parking lot is a popular nexus for nature-lovers seeking a variety of outdoor activities. Inevitably, I always notice the other backpackers also wrapping up, just as we were, as well as the fresh backpackers launching the start of their own trips. With so many backpackers, it’s enough to give anyone backpacking fever.
Plan to spend some time exploring Grand Marais, which in 2017 was designated “Best Midwestern Small Town” by the StarTribune. A favorite stop in this charming, bustling town sprinkled with many independently-owned, tasty restaurants, is The World’s Best Donuts. And don’t let the plain cake donut fool you. Everything there is tasty and civilized, both in size and price. My absolute favorite restaurant in town, though, is The Angry Trout Café, especially for a healthy, well-balanced celebratory meal after a weekend on trail. Its large windows seem to land right on top of the water and afford rare views of the beautiful harbor, sometimes with otters at play mere feet away.
Would you like to learn how to backpack, too? We have more First-Time Backpacking trips available this hiking season. If those dates do not work for you, we have flexibility and can create additional trips to accommodate your schedule. Please check us out, and feel free to contact us with any questions you may have.