A backcountry lake in the shape of a teardrop sits below a rocky overhang in northeastern Minnesota, steep hills rising from the shore. A second lake, picturesque in its own right, peeks out near the horizon.
It’s a view — overlooking Bean and Bear lakes near Silver Bay — that has become iconic, spreading far and wide in social media posts and hiking guides that promote the most beautiful stops on the Superior Hiking Trail and across Minnesota.
“No one really knew about it until Instagram and social media,” said Lisa Luokkala, executive director of the nonprofit Superior Hiking Trail Association. “I think it has gained in popularity. People do tend to gravitate to the sections of trail that have really amazing panoramic vistas.”
But the fame and accessibility — the lakes are on a 6.8-mile loop with a trailhead that is a short drive from Highway 61 along the North Shore, making it attractive for day hikes and overnight trips — come with wear and tear, including erosion from increasingly heavy use. The trail needs some love.
That’s why the SHT Association has plans to revamp and reinforce parts of the section that passes Bean and Bear lakes, and two other popular loop hikes that run through Cascade River State Park and Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. Minnesota lawmakers this year approved $565,000 for the work, paid for by a fund that primarily uses state lottery money.
The SHT still has plenty of solitude on its 300-plus miles. It runs from the Wisconsin border southeast of Duluth to an overlook near the border with Canada. There is nothing resembling the jam-packed traffic at, say, Yosemite National Park in California. Even hot spots in Minnesota like Bean and Bear lakes can be quiet outside of the busiest times, Luokkala said.
But officials operating trails and parks across the country are grappling with maintaining infrastructure and protecting the environment with masses of visitors, and the SHT is no different. The trail rehab comes as the association works to identify “hot spots” and collect data on how to best handle areas with more use.
“Crowding, user conflict management, is very much in the forefront of this industry and it really is an industry,” Luokkala said. “It has a very powerful impact on the local economy and quality of life for people who live near some of these recreational amenities. There’s a lot of work behind the scenes on making it a positive experience and making sure again that we’re protecting the underlying resource.”
Work on Bean and Bear path, Silver Bay trailhead
For the Bean and Bear section of the SHT, lawmakers approved $197,000 from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. A past analysis of the trail — also paid for by the trust fund — identified the area near Silver Bay as in need of a revamp.
Issues on the trail are due in part to the original construction. The SHT was put together 37 years ago. But it’s also because of its use, especially lately.
More hikers on a trail cause erosion and “tread compaction,” which comes from “people literally pounding their feet on the trail,” Luokkala said. The money will pay for retrofitting steep areas and low-lying muddy areas with stone steps. Parts of the section will also need tread repair, drainage work, boardwalk replacement and even a short reroute. The upgrades will help keep water off the trail, too.
Lastly, the lotto money will pay for renovation of a campsite at Bear Lake. Sites on the SHT are free and don’t require reservations. But they’re also only meant to support a certain number of tents. The Bear Lake campsite is fairly popular, and needs help limiting “a little bit of sprawl,” she said.
“This will be one of our first significant campsite rehabs,” Luokkala said. In all, the revamp on the section with Bean and Bear lakes will take about two years.
The SHT Association isn’t the only group in the area looking to upgrade some infrastructure in light of a crush of visitors.
The Legislature also approved $1.97 million from the trust fund for a trailhead in Silver Bay, planned to be an access hub for the SHT, the Gitchi-Gami State Trail, the C.J. Ramstad/North Shore trail and the ever-popular Black Beach Park.
In a letter to state officials, Silver Bay city administrator Lana Fralich said the Bean and Bear section of the SHT sees “an unbelievable amount of traffic, especially during the summer and fall months.” That is a “key reason” why the city wanted to build what it calls its “Multi-Modal Trailhead Center.”
Many local business owners also wrote to the state, noting people have been parking and walking along highways to access trails. Mayor Wade LeBlanc, whose letter says he owns two gas stations in the area, wrote that safer and more convenient access to trails was needed to counteract the “incredibly hazardous” issue.
Work on river loops
Separately, lawmakers voted to spend $368,000 to “rehabilitate and renew” up to 13 miles of popular river loops to withstand high visitor use.
Luokkala said that includes a loop that runs along the Split Rock River and includes a section inside Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. It also includes a loop that follows the Cascade River near Lutsen and includes part of Cascade River State Park.
Loops get lots of day-hiking traffic. Especially ones right along Highway 61. The Split Rock loop trailhead begins at a wayside on the highway. That easy access is unusual compared to other long trails across the country that can be much more remote, especially at trailheads, Luokkala said. The state lotto money will also pay for some repair work on the Cascade loop after flooding in 2022.
A ‘master plan’ for the future
While the SHT association is using this money to look at those river loops and the Bean and Bear section of its trail, Luokkala said her organization is working on its first ever “master plan process” for the trail for a wider view.
The association has 12 automated counters on the trail to get an estimate of how many people hike each year, and what the busiest spots are. It’s doing surveys at 22 locations starting this weekend to collect data on experiences and perceptions of the trail. That can help guide decisions on infrastructure and spending, like potential trailhead expansions.
Luokkala said that given the increasing popularity of sections of trail, planning for people is important. “The North Shore is a very popular place to be,” she said. “I don’t think the popularity is going to go down anytime soon.”
IF YOU GO:
Planning for any hike is important, Luokkala said. People should be prepared and follow “leave no trace” principles. The trail association has information about sections and other logistics on its websites, and sells more detailed maps of the trail with lengthy written descriptions of each section in a book. Some mapping services also show the trail and have route-planning features, including Gaia GPS and CalTopo. State parks have information on parts of the SHT that run through park boundaries.