See more of the story

Managers of the Superior Hiking Trail on Minnesota's North Shore know the popular destination is heavily used. Now they have concrete evidence of boots on the ground.

The trail association for the first time has an idea of how many people are visiting the path and how often, and what it has learned holds long-term ramifications for the group and visitors.

In 2023, the trail had more than 407,000 visits during peak hiking season from May to November. The trail association placed infrared sensor trail counters at 23 sections along the 300-mile trail, or about half of its sections. The association also had people out to intercept and interview hundreds of hikers.

With help from the University of Minnesota, the group analyzed the data using methodology the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources applies to tabulate state trail use.

Taken together, a fuller snapshot of the trail's use emerged:

– Day-hiking made up almost 76% of use. Overnight backpacking was next at 14.5%, followed by trail running (4.3%).

– About 85% of trail users take out-and-back trips. The rest complete a section or the entire trail.

– More than 300,000 of the visits last year were made by 75% of users, who visit multiple times a season.

– The Duluth sections are the most-used part of the trail.

"What we find is that there are peaks and valleys in use based on location," said Lisa Luokkala, the association's executive director.

Woven into the association's master plan draft, the data will inform decisions about the trail's development and sustainability for years to come, she said.

The group can now begin cross-referencing sections and visitor data at specific spots with its inventory of infrastructure like signage, boardwalks and bridges to better prioritize and pay for maintenance.

The volume of day hikers could have an impact, too. For many, the long-distance trail's image is that of through-hikes, overnight backpacking trips and long-haul treks. And, yet, the overwhelming number of day hikers seen last year begs questions about meeting their needs — which are different, Luokkala said.

Better parking and signage might be required in sections, knowing some day hikers are looking for looped experiences. Perhaps trail maps and other publications about use of the trail must be adapted, too. Data now can drive some of the answers.

"The trail in its entirety is not being overused," Luokkala said, "but there is a concentration in day use in certain areas."

This month, the popular and heavily tramped Bean and Bear Lakes Loop, with its Instagram-worthy overlooks, was closed because of wear and erosion. Part of the Split Rock River Loop will close Sept. 1 for needed repair, too.

A master plan could be completed this summer. It then would get submitted in an application for regional designation from the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission — recognition that would open the association to new funding possibilities, Luokkala said.

"We're really excited to use the data," she said.