Lake Superior shimmers in the sun below me. After a day of rain, the clouds have parted and the air has cleared. I can see sailboats raising their white sails and Matchbox-sized cars crossing the bridge to Wisconsin. Rising from the coast, a chairlift ferries bikes and riders to the summit where I stand.
Returning my attention to my bike, I mount my saddle only to discover that my riding partners have taken off without me. My 4-year-old, full face helmet and game face on, is zipping down the trail, my husband chasing close behind. Rushing to catch up, I clean a rock face and throw a cursory glance at the sign to confirm that we are, indeed, on a green trail. It’s surprisingly tough.
When we decided to visit Duluth, Minnesota as part of our year-long mountain biking road trip, I vaguely remembered reading some magazine articles about the great riding. Still, I had trouble imagining how a city in the upper Midwest could impress a Western-raised girl. My expectations, therefore, were low when we pulled into camp atop Spirit Mountain. But it didn’t take long to understand why Duluth has gained its reputation and IMBA gold-level ride center designation. From technical lift-served downhill runs to all-day cross-country epics, Duluth did nothing but impress.
For our first full day of riding in Duluth, we chose to buy lift tickets to Spirit Mountain. My son and parents decided to join, so it was a bit of a family affair. There were plenty of other families riding as well, which suggests that the future of mountain biking in Duluth is secured.
The family-friendly nature isn’t to suggest that the entire bike park is tame. Spirit Mountain offers something for everybody. There were runs that neither my husband or I could clean, though we tried.
The trails were a nice combination of flow trails with man-made features, and others with natural, rocky terrain. The most intense run, Calculated Risk, deserved its double black diamond rating, with one of the longest rock faces I’ve ever seen. On the other end of the spectrum, the green runs were fun for both my 4-year-old and myself with big berms, wooden bridges, and a few techy rock spots thrown in.
Between the lift-served trails, the pumptrack, and the skills area, we were able to easily consume an entire day at Spirit Mountain. In fact, we made it onto the third chair of the morning and one of the last to go up the mountain in the afternoon.
On our last lift of the day, we got off and rode 100 yards to camp. It doesn’t get much more convenient than that. The ideal location of the campground at Spirit Mountain — at the top of the ski hill — allows ride-in, ride-out access to the trails, and the ability to get a run in before the lift has even opened for the day.
As much as I enjoyed our lift-served day, I’m a cross country girl at heart, so was excited to head out the following morning on the Duluth Traverse trail, which conveniently connects to the base area at Spirit Mountain. The traverse offers 85 miles of trail (65% of it singletrack) connecting the area’s popular trail systems and the city itself. From the traverse, riders can explore Lester Park, Hartley Park, Piedmont, Brewer, and Mission Creek.
The Traverse, along with the various associated trail networks, offered enough singletrack to provide us with several days of entertainment… and we didn’t complete it all. To my surprise, the mountains north of Duluth provide a fair bit of climbing and descending.
Not only did the area test my endurance, it tested my technical skills as well. Many of the system trails are rooty and rocky, with long wooden bridges spanning the muddy spots. The Traverse itself tends to be buff and fast.
My favorite trail was the Home Brew loop at Brewer. Far from the slickrock trails of Moab and Sedona, there in the upper-Midwest, I found myself riding up, down, and over smooth granite. The trail required focus, but nothing caused me to dismount, so I found myself lost in “the zone” — the highest badge of approval in my book.
A Vacation-Worthy Destination
Thanks to on-the-mountain camping and a thriving, bustling city, Duluth is worthy of a long weekend or even a week-long vacation. As mentioned, the Traverse connects much of the city, and if you are willing to throw in some paved bike trails, you can get just about anywhere via bicycle.
Off the bike, there’s also plenty to keep riders entertained. The Duluth Beer Trail connects six breweries, which we found to be a good diversion on a rainy summer afternoon. On sunnier days, the city’s trails run through other recreational gems: rock climbing areas, skate parks, and frisbee golf, if any of those happen to be your jam.
The local mountain bike organization, COGGS, offers additional trail and visitor information on their website.