Friday, October 23, 2015

Trail heads into red rock gorge, past falls

Split Rock River runs through a gorge of red rhyolite, 
volcanic rock that is 1.1 billion years old. 
Photo courtesy of Minnesota DNR.
Map of Split Rock River Trail, courtesy Minn. DNR.

Split Rock River Trail
popular at Minnesota
North Shore state park


A red rock gorge with waterfalls awaits day hikers of the Split Rock River Trail on Minnesota’s North Shore.

The 4.4-miles round trip trail sits in Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. Due to the great scenery and ease of access, it’s also among the Superior Hiking Trail’s most popular segments.

Split Rock Falls
To reach the trail, from Two Harbors, drive north on Minn. Hwy. 61. At mile marker 43.2, turn into the parking lot for the Split River Rock Wayside on the road’s north side.

The path heads up the west shore of Split Rock River through a birch grove on a spur trail. The spur is a gradual climb, offering nice views of the river valley below. Be aware that the clay banks on this side of the root beer-colored river at times are steep and after a rainfall can be slick; boardwalks, timbers and bridges make up part of the rugged trail’s surface.

At 0.5 miles from the trailhead, the spur reaches the junction with the actual Superior Hiking Trail; go right/north, remaining along the river. Watch for the blue blazes that mark the SHT.

A wooden bridge crosses the West Fork of the Split River, a small creek that drains into the main waterway, at about 0.8 miles from the trailhead. Large, mature cedars grow near the confluence, and a rock ledge allows a great place to rest and even enjoy a picnic as viewing Split Rock Falls, which tumbles 20 feet over gray rock.

Red rock gorge
From the creek, the trail swerves back to the river and enters a magnificent red rock gorge. The rock is rhyolite, a form of granite that appears red though its crystals are pink, black and white It formed during a massive lava flow 1.1 billion years ago.

A bare, shear five-story cliff of rhyolite is visible on the opposite shore. The green conifers atop this wall nicely contrast with the red rock.

Cascades and a small waterfall also can be found within the gorge.

Also among the highlights is the Pillars, twin chimneys of rhyolite. They sometimes are referred to as “Split Rock,” though that appellation probably came after the park was named. Passing the formation, look back as the pillars frame the waterfalls in the gorge.

Leaving the gorge, the trail levels out. At 2.4 miles, it reaches a bridge over the Split River; this marks a good spot to turn back to the parking lot.

Additional hike
If you have a little extra energy, consider making a loop around the river. Rather than turn back at the bridge, cross it to the river’s east side for a 5-mile round trip.

This trail on the eastern/northern shoreline is higher, staying above the gorge. Combined with the greater amount of sunlight the slopes on this side of the river receive, this is a drier portion of the trail. The cliffs also offer a unique vantage for seeing the Pillars.

The trail soon moves away from the river and climbs a bit higher to a ridgeline. The result is a wide, commanding view of Lake Superior with the Apostle Islands in the distance. A lean-to shelter is near this vista.

At 4.2 miles from the parking lot, the Superior Hiking Trail comes to a junction; take the spur trail right/southeast. The trail then makes a steep descent. At the bottom, you’ll cross Hwy. 61. From there, go left, southwest on the paved Gitchi-Gami Bike Trail.

The trail then crosses Split Rock as it spills into Lake Superior. Use the pedestrian tunnel to cross Hwy. 61 to your parking lot.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.