Stretching 150 miles across Minnesota’s Arrowhead , the Superior National Forest (SNF) is home to two of the nation’s premier recreation destinations: the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness  and the Superior Hiking Trail . Though the forest is best known for these two heavyweights there are few outdoor activities that you can’t enjoy here.
The forest’s three million acres surround over 2,000 lakes, 2,250 miles of stream, some almost-mountain-like hills, and an extensive boreal forest ecosystem. All mammals typical of the Northwoods inhabit the forest, but the roughly 400 gray wolves roaming Superior are the real stars and the 155 breeding bird species are more than any other national forest.
Not surprisingly the American Bird Conservancy chose this as one of its Globally Important Bird Areas.
Most of the campgrounds sit lakeside and are peacefully rustic, though if you aren’t into roughing it, many of the state’s best resorts and most charming towns border the forest, so after taking in the scenery during the day you can retire to elegant quarters and a gourmet meal.
The Superior is so vast that for the purposes of this travel guide the five administrative districts, Tofte , Gunflint , Kawishiwi , LaCroix , and Laurentian , are treated as individual places. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness  spans four of these districts and has its own section.
If you are coming in September and October, call the Forest Service’s Fall Foliage Hotline (800/354-4595) to get the up-to-the-minute scoop on autumn’s annual exhibition.
The Superior National Forest’s nearly 500 miles of hiking trail range from quarter-mile strolls to weeklong wilderness treks with some of the best backpacking east of the Rockies, including much of the 205-mile Superior Hiking Trail , which hugs the North Shore. Mountain bikers are largely limited to forest roads and old logging roads, though the Tofte District’s Superior Mountain Bike Trail System has something for everyone. Mountain bikes are not allowed anywhere in the BWCAW or on the Superior Hiking Trail.
Come winter 290 miles of trail are groomed for cross-country skiing, with most of these spread across the Tofte and Gunflint Districts. This includes the North Shore Ski Trail, which combines for 120 miles along the hills between Tofte  and Grand Marais . The Laurentian District has additional groomed miles, while most of the trails in the Kawishiwi and LaCroix Districts extend into the BWCAW — where snowmobiles are banned — and so are ungroomed. In total, snowmobilers have nearly 700 miles of groomed trail to ride.
Paddling is principally about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness , where you can explore over 1,000 lakes and streams, but it’s not the only option. Another 13 designated lake and river portage routes lie outside the Wilderness, and not only do they have great scenery, but relatively few people follow them. Another bonus to these lesser-known trips is that permits and fees are not required. Even though most are short enough to run in a day, campsites facilitate overnight trips.
Obviously, with 695 square miles of surface water, fishing is popular here. The Gunflint and Tofte Districts are rumored to have the best angling opportunities, though you can’t really go wrong wherever you cast a line. Many people fish the BWCAW for the serenity, and because more big fish live to maturity, some smallmouth aficionados believe world-record bass swim these waters.
Superior has 23 developed campgrounds. All sit on a lake or river and the majority lie in the eastern end of the forest with access from the North Shore. Only Whiteface Reservoir by Hoyt Lakes and Fall Lake near Ely  have electric hookups, and only the latter has showers and flush toilets. Individual campsites all have a picnic table, fire grate, and tent pad.
In general the camps are fully operational from mid-May into September. In the off-season some of the campgrounds are gated and have no water or other services, but camping is allowed. About half take reservations (877/444-6777, www.reserveusa.com , $10 nonrefundable fee), though all have some first-come, first-served sites available.
Surprisingly, except for summer weekends the camps rarely fill up — and even on summer weekends it is usually possible to show up and get a site somewhere. Summer rates range $10–20 depending on amenities provided; there is usually no charge after the water is shut off. There are also 17 rustic campgrounds with fewer facilities that tend to be very peaceful (none have more than eight sites) and more remote. All of these free camps are in the Tofte District, except for one nearby in the Gunflint District.
Many remote backpacking and canoe-in sites with fire grates and latrines dot the forest’s lakes and trails. For more information on these free sites inquire at one of the district offices. Forest Service rules also permit you to camp anywhere on National Forest land outside the BWCAW, as long as you’re 100 feet from any trail or water source and observe Leave No Trace (www.lnt.org ) outdoor ethics. Though registration isn’t required for backcountry camping, checking in at a ranger station before heading out is always a good idea, especially to find out about fire restrictions.
The Forest Headquarters (8901 Grand Avenue Pl., 218/626-4300 or 218/626-4399 TTY, www.fs.fed.us/r9/superior , 8 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Mon.–Fri.) is in Duluth , though information on specific facilities is best requested from the appropriate district ranger station.