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Doing It Right: Principles and Design Standards on the SHT

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Doing It Right: Principles and Design Standards on the SHT

October 23, 2019 (Originally published in the Fall 2019 Ridgeline newsletter)

I was new on the job at the SHTA two years ago, trying to get a handle on the best design and construction standards for the Trail that would withstand the increasing pounding, both from feet and from water, expected in the coming decades. 

I was given a spiral-bound book produced by the Minnesota DNR: “Trail Planning, Design and Development Guidelines.” Given I knew as much about hiking trail management as I knew about space flight, I was all eyes. And my eyes feasted on one section of that book – the landscape architecture theory behind trail design. 

The core principle these Guidelines speak to is that a trail is for people, after all: “Create sequences of visual, physical, and emotional responses that are pleasing to the trail user.” I think often of those pioneers who designed and built the SHT in the early days. My hunch is they didn’t lean on fancy landscape architecture theory to build the SHT 30 years ago. But they sure did “create sequences. . . that are pleasing to the trail user.”

There are few sequences more stunning on the SHT than arriving at an overlook at the peak of fall. Photo: @aaronwernimont.

People, Nature, Footpath – and Water 

What those founders could not have anticipated was the heavy traffic and extreme rain events the SHT now endures. Managing the Trail for those phenomena is our obligation – to minimize or eliminate environmental impact of trail use. Even a relatively benign human activity like hiking still damages the land and the water nearby. 

The SHT is entirely built, and though we will have reroutes and new routes and new loops and spurs to add for years to come, the Trail’s “spine” is in place. What we do to honor that original fine design, and protect the land and water we pass through, and to “please the trail user,” is a compelling and profound responsibility. Taking action through our Trail Renewal Program has brought us to these guiding principles:

Make it safe  

Much of the (mostly wooden) infrastructure you find on the SHT is well past its sell-by date.  Some of it – the classic example being rebar sticking out of stairway timbers – is dangerous. So, our first principle, and priority, is to repair or remove built structures that could hurt people. We understand that while hiking is inherently risky – rocks and roots can trip you up – our built structures should not harm.  

“Safety First” means these dangerous steps have got to go. Nature provides plenty of its own tripping hazards. Photo: Jaron Cramer

Make it dry  

Mud is a notorious feature of the SHT.  Some of that mud you can simply write off as “mud happens.” Much of it is the legacy of the original construction of the SHT, whose builders couldn’t have imagined the heavy use the Trail is getting, from water and from hikers.  

Managing water is doubtless our most serious challenge. There’s a full spectrum of actions to deal with it, from the micro (drainage dips and swales) to the macro (rerouting the Trail, building bridges – or not). Whatever the technique or strategy, the focus will be keeping water off the Trail and users on it. Example: fix mudholes that force Trail users off the trail and into the woods, only to create more mud.  

Mudholes like this one, on the Bean and Bear Lakes loop, are exactly what we aim to avoid through proper drainage, rerouting, or newly built structures. Photo: Jaron Cramer

Keep them happy 

There is a Superior Hiking Trail only because of the good graces of private landowners and public land managers who accommodate a national scenic trail on their properties. We are forever grateful to the access these landowners have given us. When a landowner or land manager brings an issue to our attention, we go on high alert. The public land managers have shown forbearance when we don’t have the human power or the cash to fix something right away. (The U.S. Forest Service’s patience with us at Pincushion Mountain, near Grand Marais, comes to mind.)  

Keep it all connected

Our formal agreements with landowners and public agencies run the gamut, from long-term leases and authorizations to rudimentary agreements that essentially allow the Trail to be there only until the land changes hands. And land is changing hands fast on the North Shore. We can’t coerce a landowner to enter into a more formal and permanent agreement with us (in the form of a trail easement agreement), but it is our goal to permanently secure the Trail’s route so it remains an unbroken and integral footpath from border to border.

By Denny Caneff, Executive Director

This article was originally published in the Fall 2019 Ridgeline newsletter. Join SHTA to support the Trail and receive your copy of the Ridgeline when it is published.