A Split (Rock) Decision

July 8, 2020

For the past few years, the Superior Hiking Trail Association has worked to build a new bridge over the Split Rock River on the SHT, just outside the boundaries of the Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. The SHTA’s Board of Directors recently voted not to build this bridge.

SHT users can continue to cross the river at the former bridge site when water levels are low, or by using the Gitchi-Gami State Trail bridge near Highway 61. Photo: Andrew Gustin

It’s been a long and winding hike as we explored a number of options and experienced numerous detours and dead ends. In the end, the weightiest and most intertwined factors shaping the Board’s decision were cost, complexity and regulations, as well as a focus on the majority of SHT users.

  • Cost: To build a Minnesota DNR-recommended bridge and abutments, in a location better suited to the longevity of a 60-foot long bridge (about 150 yards upstream from the site of the last bridge), we estimated it would have cost more than $2,000 per foot. That expense, given the myriad other needs on the SHT and in a period of financial uncertainty due to the coronavirus, feels unwise to undertake. This cost does not include the expense of hiring a contractor to build the abutments.
  • Construction complexity: The bridge site is more than 2.5 miles from the nearest road, meaning everything – from water for cement (river water was not an option), the cement itself, bridge parts, timbers, etc. – would have to be flown in by helicopter. In addition, the contractor would have had to camp out at the site for several days, and we couldn’t find the right contractor willing to work under those conditions. 
  • Regulations: Adding to the project complexity was “regulatory ambiguity.” On one hand, state park officials were eager to assist in building this bridge. On the other hand, there were several other approvals and reviews needed from the Minnesota DNR that were not issued, making it almost impossible to schedule construction.
  • SHT Users: Finally, while a bridge over this river made for a pleasing and popular loop trail, SHT users have been either crossing the river at various places at low water levels, or continuing their travels on the Trail by using the Gitchi-Gami State Trail bridge along Highway 61 near the wayside. Life on the SHT was going on, without a bridge over the Split Rock River. No bridge means the full loop trail may not be possible to complete at all times, but the SHT remains an enjoyable experience nonetheless. 

This feels like the right decision, especially in light of the many challenges we face up and down the SHT — and even on the rest of the Split Rock River loop trail. If you have been on it in recent years, you know the loop trail is beat up, especially on the west side. We just completed another assessment of the loop trail that will call for reinforcing the Trail in the current location (our preferred reroute was not approved by DNR) and constructing stairways and boardwalks to eliminate dangerous spots and minimize erosion. Restoring the Trail itself along the loop is now among our top priorities. 

While we will no longer work to build a bridge at Split Rock, we remain focused on ensuring the safety of trail users and the integrity of the SHT experience. This summer, we’ve opened a beautiful new section of the SHT at Pincushion Mountain (Grand Marais) after several years of work, and we’ll soon replace a long, failing boardwalk over the Sawmill Creek Pond (Finland) with an impressive structure. We are committed to renewing the Superior Hiking Trail in ways that not just maintain but elevate its status as an outdoor recreation gem for Minnesota.

As always, you can Contact Us with any questions or concerns. 

The SHTA team