Local Flavors: The Complete Guide to Riding in Duluth, Minnesota

Oct 8, 2018
by Brice Shirbach  






"The easy story to tell," Hansi is telling me over coffee as we chat lakeside. "Is this resurrection of Duluth. Duluth has resurrected itself through a number of means, and yes mountain biking has been a part of that equation. But we have a lot of new businesses, food, and various social causes that the town has really embraced. I think it would be disingenuous to say that 'mountain biking did all of this'. It has helped change the way many people in this town look at their city now. We still have a lot of work to do. There are a lot of neighborhoods that we need to welcome into the fold, and make sure they know that they can be a part of the community as well."

Well hell. Who doesn't love a good old-fashioned, "mountain biking saved our city" story? But his point is well understood. On one hand, there is certainly a lot more to the story in this town than that. On the other, how to you extricate that underlying message from any discussion about Duluth mountain biking? The truth is, Duluth's mountain biking history is deep and there are more people involved, more narratives at play, and more trails you can shake a stick at in town than we have room for here. We'll get to all of that. First things first: there's that lake.

Prior to this trip, all I had ever seen of Minnesota was from inside of the Minneapolis - St. Paul International Airport, and most of it was a blur even then as my time was spent sprinting across numerous terminals to catch a connection. After two straight days of driving from Arizona which included a number of thunderstorms, and many long, empty midwest roads, my first glimpse of Minnesota came in the dark at 1:00 am. I was still a few hours south of Duluth, but I was cooked at that point and needed to catch some sleep before my eyes decided to rebel and melt out of my head. The morning light didn't reveal much initially. Remnants of the previous evening's thunderstorm left low hanging grey skies and not much to see from the road aside from dense forests, some tall buildings in St. Paul, and road signs warning of possible moose crossings. I had no such luck witnessing the latter.

Two hours into my drive, blue skies began to poke through the clouds. As I drove over the St. Louis River, the topography around me suddenly became much more interesting. I was driving almost directly east on Interstate 35 when everything about my day changed drastically. The highway crested a bluff when Lake Superior first appeared below, a jaw-dropping backdrop to a beautiful, industrial aesthetic amidst a patchwork of low lying fog holding on for dear life as the sun grew more prominent in the sky. You know that pain that likes to live at the base of your skull after 30+ hours on the road over the course of two days? No? Well, I do and I was pleasantly surprised to feel it melt away as soon as I laid eyes on the glistening horizon line of the lake.

Duluth is situated on the westernmost coast of Lake Superior, and is home to the most inland international seaport on the planet. Duluth and its neighbor from across the St. Louis River - Superior, WI - combine to make the metropolitan area known as the Twin Ports, and shipping vessels up to 1,000 feet in length arrive in the harbor daily via a 2,300 mile journey beginning on the St. Lawrence Seaway and ending with the Great Lakes Waterway. The lake itself is vast, with a surface area of nearly 32,000 square miles, making it the largest freshwater lake in North America, and the third largest on the planet. It is also stunningly beautiful, a deep blue vastness that stands in sharp contrast to the rocky coastline, industrial cityscape, and rolling hills and bluffs that rise sharply above the city.



Brice Shirbach // Local Flavors
Age: 36
Location: Philadelphia, PA, USA
Industry affiliations: Pivot Cycles, Maxxis Tires, Stans No Tubes, Kali Protectives, MRP, Julbo, Deity Components, EVOC, Shimano, 9point8, Topeak
Instagram: @bricycles
Favorite Trail in Duluth: Greenman
Riding Style: Whatever's Clever


As I pulled off of the highway and made my way toward Canal Park, I had to remind myself that it was only Monday. The foot traffic was reminiscent of a busy weekend by most standards, and as the blue skies increased, so did the crowds. I was a bit early for check in, which was no problem once I looked to my left and through the windows on the opposite end of the lobby. There, basking brilliantly in the sun, was a partially submerged icehouse 30 feet from the shoreline just outside of my hotel. A number of people were swimming to and from the structure, with a few bold souls clambering along the edges and leaping into the water 15 feet below. Forgetting that my luggage was likely in everyone's way, and that neither of my bikes were currently locked to the Thule rack on the back of my car, I walked through the hotel and onto the back lawn to take in the scene. The icehouse was directly in front of me. To the left, I could look down the lakewalk towards downtown Duluth, with the prominent topography jutting up directly behind it. To the right were two lighthouses perched on the North and South Piers of Canal Park, situated across from one another and separated by the Duluth Harbor. At the mouth of the harbor was the Aerial Lift Bridge, a landmark relic originally built in 1905, and designed to rise 135 feet to allow for the passage of the massive shipping vessels that frequent these waters. Taking in the scene forced me to face the fact that I truly know very little about so much of this country. There's a certain level of joy that comes when you are able to dismantle your own ignorance in the face of such splendor, and had it not been for a series of chirps emanating from my phone, I might have continued to stare and forget the whole reason for my trip to Duluth in the first place. A quick glance at the screen brought me back: It was time to head for the hills.

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
Duluth is the most inland international seaport in North America, with vessels making the 2,300 mile journey from the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes Waterway.

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
A partially submerged icehouse waits patiently for the morning fog to lift.

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
Coastal vibes await those who pay this town a visit.

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
Between the repurposed industrial aesthetic and the magnetism of Lake Superior itself, I have to admit that Duluth is one of the most surprising and brilliant towns I have ever been to.

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
I had a hard time keeping my gaze away from the water.

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
Crowds gather at the North Pier lighthouse to welcome shipping vessels from around the world.

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
The westernmost city on the Great Lakes, Duluth is also home to the largest port on Superior, transporting coal, iron ore and various grains around the globe.

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
Stopping mid-ride to look out over an inland sea is something special.

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
Great food, and a friendly and lively culture abound in this community.

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
Duluth will always embrace its industrial roots.

Duluth has a bit of a funky geography. The city itself is nearly 27 miles long, but rarely exceeds a mile in width at any point. The city's layout runs in a primarily northeast-to-southwest orientation, with Lake Superior and the St. Louis River bordering the east, and a 700-800 foot tree lined prominence of gabbro and sandstone bookending the other side of town. This layout has had a profound effect historically on Duluth, and is equally paramount for mountain bikers in the region. Along the length of this bluff are 5 distinct trail networks, including Spirit Mountain Bike Park, all of which combine for upwards of 90 miles of singletrack and trails within city limits. Between those 5 networks, riders have a broad spectrum of riding opportunities to pursue. There's an abundance of hard pack flow in places like Lester Park and Mission Creek, to much more technical and even freeride options in Piedmont and obviously at the bike park itself. In addition to the various trail networks sprinkled throughout town, there's also the Duluth Traverse, a massive initiative that began years ago when IMBA and the Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores, or COGGS, combined their efforts to design a singletrack system that would connect all trails in the city, and essentially ensure that no one in town would ever be more than a mile from the trails. The city supported these efforts, as did the state by awarding them with a $250,000 Parks and Trails Legacy grant. Additionally, COGGS receives a $100,000 grant from the Duluth Park Fund until completion of the Traverse, which is already 90% finished. This level of support doesn't happen overnight. Duluth mountain bikers have been at it for decades, and early ambitions certainly didn't include hundreds of miles of singletrack throughout the city, or a lift-served bike park, or even a singular collective of area riders working together.

"I was road racing motorcycles in the 80's," Gerry Olson tells a group of us over lunch. "I raced everywhere from Daytona to Brainerd, and everywhere in between. A guy on our road race team had a mountain bike, so I jumped on it and rode it and just fell in love with it. It reminded me of dirt biking. I went out and bought one, of course, and then I found out there were hardly any trails around. I mean, there were no legal trails. I had my own little trails that I built, but I wanted to know the other trails, so I started a bike club called Superior Bikers. It was kind of a selfish motivation, because I really just wanted to find out where the other trails were. So that's what we did. It was about four or five years of Superior Bikers, and then another group started called North Star Bike Club. Eventually, we decided to combine our resources and started COGGS."

As Gerry recounts his involvement with the origins of COGGS and really the origins of mountain biking in Duluth, it's clear that these memories are cherished by the retired Superior Light, Water, and Power employee of 40 years, and he has not only my attention, but that of former COGGS president Adam Sundberg, current president Alec Kedlac, as well as my Duluth guides in Hansi Johnson and David Grandmaison.

I asked him to describe the culture of the mountain bike community in those early days, and if he can pinpoint when it stopped just being about building more trails, and began to include real advocacy and land management relationships.

"It was such a variety of people." he tells us. "We had real rednecks, we had young hippies, we had old hippies. Seriously. We had old hippies that were riding with us, you know? And their kids were riding with us. It was everybody that loved being on a bike out there riding. I don't know how you would characterize it. Eventually, we were trying to build trails and we couldn't find places to build it. And then Andy Pollack from St. Louis County came and said Hey, we've got some great land to make trails on up here. That would be great if you could come in and make trails. We thought it would be great if only we had the manpower to do it. We just didn't at the time. But IMBA came in, and I think it was IMBA that really impressed upon us that we've got to get to do this legally and do it correctly so that it shows people that we are serious about this, and it's not something that's going away."

Gerry held his post as the COGGS chair for close to a decade, but eventually needed to step down and let someone else take the reins. Unfortunately, it seemed that no one was really prepared to step into that role early on. I imagine that this was due in part to the standard set by Gerry was intimidating, something he'd certainly be uncomfortable admitting. But the reality is that in the immediate years that followed his stepping away from the lead role in the COGGS system, things slowed a bit in Duluth. Eventually, a young chiropractor would come to town and was itching to explore the trails on his mountain bike.

"I just went to the current COGGS group and was like, Are there any opportunities for more trails?," Adam Sundberg says. "They were worn pretty thin, and were like, We're not really building anymore trail right now, because who's going to maintain them. That became my first initiative in town. I just wanted to try and build something new. The problem was, I wasn't a very good mountain biker at the time. I had never built a trail before, and so for two years, we built a total of eleven miles of trail that kind of sucked.

"I mentioned before I still coordinate trail work in Piedmont, we've been rebuilding the entire thing. Literally, it's ninety percent different than the eleven miles we built originally. But that was how I first got involved, and the truth is that created a little bit of an upswell of momentum where people are like, Hey, some really good stuff is happening with these trails. From there I became the COGGS chair for 8 years."

That upswell turned out to be pretty sizable. Right around the time Adam was taking over as chair for COGGS, Hansi had taken a position with IMBA as the Midwest Regional Director, and with him as a resource COGGS was able to partner with the City of Duluth, apply for and win hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants, and steadily cement the mountain bike community as a force for change in Duluth.

"I remember when I first moved here," Adam continues. "People would talk about being excited to buy a house that was close to the trails. No one talks about buying a house super close to the trails anymore because everyone is super close to the trails. You can't get away from the trails. No matter where you are, you can ride out the door and be on trail. Because of that, there are more and more opportunities popping up that are allowing for more and more people to get involved, especially with the NICA and DEVO programs. None of those programs used to exist here. Mountain biking in Duluth used to be this fringe activity that meant getting lost in the woods, or beating your bike and body up, and if you put up with that for long enough you were suddenly a mountain biker.

"I was just talking with a patient yesterday, he has three sons that are 12, 10, and 8. He's bringing them to their Duluth composite practice, and he's riding with them. His 12-year-old hit the trails close to their house with his buddies. I think the biggest thing is just how many people are doing it and how accessible it is for so many people."

Alec Kadlec's fresh, bespectacled face is listening to both Gerry and Adam intently and respectfully. Between them, they have almost as many combined years of COGGS leadership as trips around the sun for Alec in total. The recent University of Minnesota Duluth graduate is half a year into his new role as COGGS chair. I am both surprised and impressed to see someone so young in this role, as many riders in their teens and early twenties are content to dig and ride, and are happy to leave the administrative duties to the "elders". I know I certainly was. I asked him how the transition from simply being a member of a prominent advocacy group to its leader is going.

"Don't tell my boss," he says with a smile. "But I keep the COGGS email open all the time at work because it's just constantly flooding. I started carrying around this planner because my life started getting complicated between meetings and everything else that I needed to actually keep track of."

Alec is very aware of the bar that has been set by people like Gerry, Adam, Hansi, and other leaders of the community here. Duluth is knocking on the door of a 100 miles of trail within city limits, with nearly 90% of the Duluth Traverse having been completed. As an organization, COGGS has nearly 700 members, and there's a very real momentum that mountain biking is responsible for here. Outside Magazine awarded the city as America's best place to live in 2014, and while the reasons behind such accolades extend beyond the realm of riding bikes in the forest, the reality is that COGGS and IMBA have played a monumental role in the city's current identity. Fortunately for Duluth, he has no intentions of easing off of the throttle.

"To be honest with you," he continues. "Before I got in a heavier role with COGGS, I was looking at doing some Board of Director work with Duluth Bikes, which is a community advocacy group for cycling. It's the local chapter of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota. Advocacy has always been a strong part of my relationship with mountain biking. I really want to get more people on bikes. The benefits that everyone in the entire community gets from having this great resource with these trails is why I want to be in this position. Yes, we're a mountain biking club, but these are multi-use trails; multi-use mountain biking optimized trails. That grants us incredible levels of accessibility, and it gives something to everyone that I think is just incredible. The way that it brings together the various communities in Duluth is really what I love seeing."

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
Creative entrepreneurs are making great use of Duluth's relics.

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
Businesses such as The Bent Paddle and OMC Smokehouse are not just offering up top-notch flavors for Duluth, but are also ardent supporters of the mountain bike community.

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
The same care that has gone into building Duluth into a world-class destination for visitors has also gone into the trails that connect all corners of the city.

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
The Duluth Traverse is 90% complete, with close to 90 miles of trail interconnected throughout town.

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
Dee Bartlam at warp speed on Hawk Ridge. Dee is one of the leaders for the mountain bike community in Duluth, and has been integral in getting more women out on the trail.

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
Three generations of leadership for COGGS representing past, present and future from left to right: Gerry Olson, Adam Sundberg, and Alec Kadlec.

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
There are a lot of strong and talented riders coming from the Duluth scene at the moment.

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
One of the really cool things about Spirit Mountain Bike Park is the hand-built feel a lot of their newer trails have to them.

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN

Throughout my time in Duluth, there was a pretty interesting take on what it means for mountain biking to be good for communities. It's a phrase I personally seem to have on repeat and I often think of the benefits in terms of economic and quality of life, and those are tangible impacts that our sport can have on various communities around the globe. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that it's mostly white dudes talking the talk and walking the walk. While there has been a significant uptick in the number of women in recent years and plenty of initiatives for youth participation, we have to acknowledge that there are still large segments of the population who look at what we do as pure flight of fancy, if they're even aware of it in the first place. There's an undeniable racial and socioeconomic deficiency in mountain biking that does kind of stand in the face of sweeping claims by mountain bikers and the benefits associated with our sport. Duluth is working to shift the paradigm.

"I feel like it started out really just kind of fun, cool, activation activity." Mayor Emily Larson tells me from her office downtown. "A straight up activity. Then it became about connectivity, you know, bringing neighborhoods and various parts of the city together. Now I feel like we're getting into the; what for me is kind of the coolest part to see, which is that this is for everybody."

Emily, a mountain biker herself, is 3 years into her office as Mayor of Duluth. Much of COGGS growth occurred on the previous mayor's watch, and I was interested in hearing from her what it was like to "inherit" this relationship, and her approach to assessing the role mountain biking can have for the community.

"I inherited so much awesome stuff from a great predecessor," she tells me. "One of them is this vision, this expansive vision for trails and how to get that done. There are plenty of things that you're all like, I'm all in, let's keep going. But I was hearing from a lot of people because I was so actively campaigning around the city. I was door knocking like crazy because I love it, so I was everywhere. There was a lot of feedback from the community about feeling as though the trails were really an amenity and that we were overlooking the basic mechanics of a city. I realized that we kind of missed a message, I mean, some of that is a messaging thing, because the reality is we aren't building trails and amenities at the cost of other programs and services. They are funded very, very differently. The money we are using for this is not money I can pay police with, it's not money I can pave streets with. So, what I realized is we are missing a message on talking about how we're building out these systems in this city and we need to get clearer on that. Until we do, people just aren't understanding that. It's my job to just make sure we correct the message."

I asked her what she thought needed to be done to ensure that the trails are good for as many people in Duluth as possible, regardless their socioeconomic status, or the color of their skin, their gender, etc. If everyone in town is less than a mile from a trail, is everyone in town benefiting?

"I think it's first acknowledging that that's the case, right?" Mayor Larson responded in a manner that made clear to me the weight this issue held with her. "You have to want to be a community that wants to acknowledge that that's the case. Not every community wants to do that. Duluth has really a strong history of just being a really straight-up, forthright, honest community. One of the things I love about living here is, we're imperfect and we know it and we kind of own it. We work on what's wrong and we talk about what we find challenging, and so this idea that there are people who can benefit from the trails but they don't know where the trailhead is is something we need to address. A lot of it has been community driven and so people who are into the trails are the ones who are really working on the trail. I think what we have found is that, when we slow down enough and we invest in strategies that get kids of out, regardless of gender, or race, or income, it's a big deal. It makes a difference."

Hansi Johnson was with me for my discussion with the mayor, and when he and I sat lakeside later in the week to have our own discussion, we were quick to pick up on the big picture of mountain biking's impact on Duluth. Hansi, the former Midwest Regional Director for IMBA and current Director of Recreational Lands for the Minnesota Land Trust, is basically a professional outdoor advocate. He was integral in getting several of Duluth's mountain bike initiatives off of the ground and is currently focused on working with the city of Duluth and helping them invest in outdoor recreation infrastructure, and creating engagement with the citizens of the city and showcasing the massive amount of open space in the region.

"Worldwide we’re seeing a revolution around mountain biking," he tells me over coffee while watching the fog slowly lift from the water's surface. "We’re watching trails pop up all over the planet. It’s creating a lot of great change for those communities as well. While we’re still seeing it pop up here, it’s important to remember that it’s not just a “Johnny Come Lately” thing. It’s been an evolution for us since the 1980’s. Over the last 10 years, we’ve picked up some steam and have leveraged a lot of our developments to get to an even better place as a mountain bike community.

"One of the key things we’ve had to acknowledge as a community is that simply putting trails in front of people doesn’t work. It’s not enough to just say Hey, there’s a trail now go get on it, as there are other barriers to entry at play. Gear, transportation, cultural; some people are afraid of the woods for historic reasons as bad things have happened to some people in the woods historically. We want to knock down those barriers. We would get a group together and meet once a month with a contingent called the Adventure Gap Group, combining all of the town’s youth groups, particularly at-risk kids. We’d get all of the various user groups involved as well, like the mountain bike club, the climbing club, all of the peripheral outdoor recreation groups. We got together once a month to discuss how we could work together and introduce outdoor recreation to everyone. A lot of times, whether we want to acknowledge or it not, these outdoor rec groups can be fairly affluent and white. We want to create trust between these other communities and let them know that our intentions are genuine. Out of that, we were able to raise the funds to create an organization called Youth Outdoors Duluth, which has a full-time staff member whose job is to coordinate interactions between these groups now. Not only has this effort brought a bunch of people together, but it has also helped facilitate a dialogue within each organization where we are now asking ourselves how we might make efforts of our own to grow participation among women, kids, and develop programs to bridge this gap on our own. It’s important for us to broaden our message and our offerings. Mountain bikers have always talked a good game about how mountain biking is good for everyone, but when you dig deep you see that we don’t really have a lot of meat on the bone. I think we can do that here in Duluth. I want to see more diversity on the trails. Income, race, gender, I want everyone out on bikes."

Duluth, as is the case with virtually any major population center, is too complex and large a community for mountain biking to be considered a primary driver of finance and quality of life, and as Hansi pointed out early on, there's a lot more to the story here than mountain biking simply "saving" Duluth, but that's not to say that you can simply ignore the good our sport and community has done for this midwest gem. The truth is mountain biking has long been a part of the equation, and while its impact on life in Duluth is certainly measurable and significant, there's a prevailing sense here that there is work to be done within the mountain bike community itself. Duluth mountain biking is already lightyears ahead of many other riding destinations in North America, both in terms of land access and trail quality. The advocacy efforts here are now aiming to extend beyond the realm of rubber to dirt, with much bigger picture cultural and socioeconomic themes at work. The people here are doing something special, and the foundation they're laying is a model many communities could stand to embrace. A look at Duluth's mountain bike community provides a glimpse at a deep-rooted history, an inspiring present, and a future as big as the lake this town was built upon. Speaking of which, I was wanting to hear from a local whether or not the water's magnetism ever eased on the people who call this place home, as I was finding it very hard to keep my eyes off of it whenever I caught a glimpse.

"I mean, there is this primitive kind of connection we have to the lake." Mayor Emily Larson told me as we shook hands on my way out. "I find the lake's presence to be a very humbling force. I love looking out at that lake and going Okay, you're important, but that thing was there long, long before you got here and it will be here for generations after, so know your place. I think the lake brings a nice humble spirit here. We all feel it."

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
Mayor Emily Larson is obviously much more than a mountain biker, and Duluth is fortunate to have help shaping the future of this brilliant community.

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
The world needs more Hansi Johnsons in it.

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
The youth movement is a sight to behold here, with an emphasis on quality coaching helping elevate the level of riders coming up through the ranks.

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
Hawk Ridge Trail to the north of town offers up plenty of inland sea views for riders.

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
Spirit Mountain offers riders with the rare opportunity to smash trails from mountaintop to coastline.

Images from Local Flavors Duluth Minnesota
Images from Local Flavors Duluth Minnesota

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
The lake, the people, the trails, this town: there's a magnetism to Duluth that caught me completely off guard.

Photos from Local Flavors Duluth MN
Click here to check out the full gallery of images from my trip to Duluth.




Local Knowledge


Bike Shops: There are plenty of shops to suit your needs here. The Ski Hut, Twin Port Cyclery, Stewart's Bikes and Sports, and Continental Ski and Bike just are just a few of the area spots for gear and wrenching.

Favorite Eats: This was a big surprise for me. I certainly wouldn't say that my expectations were low for this trip, but Duluth has some really awesome places for fans of quality food and beverage. OMC Smokehouse is a place I could happily eat every day for the rest of my life. In fact, you can order take out and bring it to The Bent Paddle for some great brews and live music. If you're hanging in Canal Park, you'll be overloaded with great options. Head to Lake Avenue for good eats and amazing cocktails. Duluth Coffee Company will help you start your day with your best foot forward.

Area Digs: Lodging options abound here. I stayed at the Hampton Inn Duluth. It was right on the water, an easy walk to restaurants, had great wifi, and they were cool with me keeping both bikes in the room with me! That's always a win when traveling.

Local Mountain Bike Club: COGGS (Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores) has been at it for decades here. What they have helped to develop and continue to cultivate is something very special.

Brice's Key Tips:
1: Make a road trip out of a visit here. The Great Lakes region is unbelievably beautiful, and there are stretches of road between Duluth and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan that are so stunning you cannot help but to drive distracted.
2: Bike choice: Between the XC trails throughout the city, and the bike park on Spirit Mountain, you can bring any or all bikes and have a good time here.
3: Consider an area guide service. The options for riding and additional endeavors are as vast as the lake itself, and there are people here who have dedicated their careers to helping visitors get the most out of a trip. The Duluth Experience, Day Tripper of Duluth and others offer up numerous means of exploring Duluth on and off of the bike.


Spirit Mountain biking trails


Duluth mountain biking trails


97 Comments

  • + 44
 Hell yeah. As a proud Duluth native, this attention and publicity is remarkable and very welcome. We love our city and hope that it becomes even more discovered!
  • + 10
 Most people would say the riding sucks, don't come here. It's nice to hear the opposite for a change. Brice, loving the local flavors!
  • + 6
 Icy downhill skating in the trails of Duluth, MN: vimeo.com/209860552
  • + 4
 Every August I head there from the Black Hills to escape the Sturgis Rally. It's mostly a canoeing trip, so I dive around with my bike for 2000 miles for two afternoons of riding, and it's 100% worth it every year.
  • + 23
 I'd imagine in the near future the Lake Superior region will be a serious draw for biking, not that it isn't already, but it'll be a legit "gotta-go" destination. Especially if Lutsen Mountain finally pulls their head out their arses and starts utilizing it's 1,100 ft of vertical, gondola, 1,000 acres of terrain and turnkey infrastructure during the Summer. Rode around on the services roads a month ago and saw so many potential rock slab features into forest it blew my mind. Take that + Duluth + Copper Harbor + Marquette and you got yourself a real mtb epic. Hopefully the work Rock Solid is doing around the Tofte area with help inspire them to make the leap.
  • + 10
 Lutsen definitely needs some trails
Giant's Ridge is working on making the midwest's largest bike park and that's only an hour drive from duluth, (plus it's within an hour drive of several mine tailings to freeride down)
Duluth is an awesome region for mountain biking. Plus their bike park has the longest season in Minnesota.
  • + 8
 Lake County has some very ambitious plans for 100+ miles of epic new singletrack with more of a 'backcountry' feel to it, in the area of Split Rock Lighthouse (just 45 minutes up the shore from D-town).
  • + 2
 @namdoogttam: I saw that, if it's part of the system that is being built off of the Britton Peak trail? I was talking to the staff at Lutsen – since that trail is supposed to connect eventually – and they said they aren't interested in lift-service biking, which blew me way. Maybe they are staying mum? Either way, the singletrack they built for the Lutsen 99er is decent enough, so I don't see why they'd not be interested in turning the lifts on? Or at least putting some gravity oriented trails, I have no issue earning my turns.
  • + 3
 @dstn617: I think Lutsen's business decisions always seem perplexing because people who've been there know what amazing terrain they have. The thing we always forget is that it's a long way from everywhere. The closest large population center (Twin Cities) is 4 hours away. Anyone coming up I-35 from the cities comes within just 2,315-feet of the top of Spirit Mountain (as the crow flies), as they hurtle past on the interstate.....at which point they still face another 2 hours of driving, before arriving at Lutsen.

The same dynamic plays-out all winter long, with skiing/snowboarding, and I'm sure they've done their market-studies to determine winter is viable but summer is not.
  • + 3
 @namdoogttam: let me beliiiieeeeeeeeeeeve man, just let me belieeeeeeeeve it'll happen one day! haha. Suppose they've done their due diligence, but I regularly drive to Copper Harbor which is 6.5 hours away, and drive to Duluth 1 or 2 weekends May thru Oct and it ain't no thing for me to give it 2 more hours for quality terrain.
  • + 5
 @namdoogttam: winter must have pretty good profit margins for lutsen considering they built that awesome gondola what I don't understand is they spin that gondola all summer long anyway. Would a bike patrol and trail crew be to much overhead ?
  • + 7
 And don't forget about the Canadian side of the lake!! Great trails up here in Thunder Bay and more coming in the future
  • + 1
 @Jordanh604: If I remember right the gondola just switches riders from one mountain to another. so basically it does mountain bikers no good, otherwise I'm sure they'd take advantage of it.
  • + 2
 Not to mention the endless gravel and bike packing possibilities in the Superior National Forest and Chequamegon National forest.
  • + 1
 @DeadThrone: the gondola runs from the village up to the top of moose mountain. You could descend down moose mountain. Then it would be a small hike back up to the village, you're right. But if I recall the chair lift for the Alpine slide runs from the creek at the bottom up eagle mountain. So couldn't you ride the gondola over to moose, descend down, ride the chair lift up eagle, and then descend to the village? Or you could take the gondola to the top of moose, descend down, take the caribou express chair back up(so they'd have to start operating that) then take the gondola back to the village. There's many ways to do it. Some maybe not so great. I rode at silver mtn in Idaho last year and after you descend down it's a 1.5 miles paved trail back to the village. No one seemed to mind..
  • + 1
 @DeadThrone: I guess what I'm trying to say is that gondola runs every single day in the summer. It seems doable to open up another chair lift to make a bike park work even if it's just for Saturday's each week... But I'm not a businessman haha
  • + 1
 @Jordanh604: i guess if they are running the alphine slide lift already in the summer it wouldn't hurt. However opening an additional lift is crazy expensive, I say that as the relative of a ski resort owner. We are considering building a bike park but despite existing chairlifts we're leaning towards shuttling or a magic carpet lift due to price. Unfortunately DH is not popular enough to justify running chairlifts
Places like Spirit can do it because they are not private. Per se Detroit mountains (government ) just got a multi million dollar grant to build more trails,
If lutsen is government owned however it's not as large of an issue
  • + 2
 @DeadThrone: i can't say on the government owned part.

Also are you referring to Andes? I heard that rumor 2 years ago. Was really hoping it would happen! Detroit MTN needs to get going on building those additional DH trails to attract travelers. As a season ticket holder, and someone who travels to other bikeparks, dmtn gets dull after a few hours. Although they do kick ass at utilizing what they have.
  • + 1
 @Jordanh604: yes I'm referring to Andes, yeah i agree about Detroit mountain (except I don't like how they used wood features)
Our bike park would be almost void of wood features, but would instead (most likely) utilize rock drops, steep slopes, and jumps, we're also interested in building xc trails
Also we hope to use our newly installed magic carpet lift, this will help prevent long wait lines but will result in shorter vertical drop. our goal is to take beginners and get them hooked on biking. Also hey if there's a feature you want to see just let me know

The bike park is not a for sure thing but we're working to convince our relatives
And they are also looking into it.
  • + 2
 @DeadThrone: yes avoid wood features. I rode at dmtn a few weeks ago. Got there early at 9am. I'm not sure if the wood features have some moss/midlew on them or what but the morning dew made them like ice. Honestly I couldn't even stand on them. I slammed real hard and it wrecked my whole day on my first run.
  • + 3
 @Jordanh604: It’s not just trail building and patrol, it’s also insurance.
Remember, Lutsen used to offer lift served MTB! And so did Marquette Mt.
  • + 1
 @nedersotan: I heard lutsen did, but wasn't sure if that was just rumor. I understand the insurance ordeal. Didn't think of it initially. What type of setup did they use to have, as far as chair lift use , etc.
  • + 2
 @peterlikesscissors:
Yeah buddy! Hopefully those in power up here can see how worth it trails are
  • + 2
 Even if Lutsen doesn't have any immediate plans for gravity riding, there's so much potential for advanced single track along the entire north shore. Imagine Piedmont with even longer descents. It'd be awesome if one day there was a continuous traverse from Two Harbors to Lutsen or Grand Marais for multi-day single track adventures.
  • + 3
 @Jordanh604: I used to ride Lutsen all the time years and years ago. Back then you would ride the service road down to the Mystery Lift. Jump on the lift and someone would hang the bike off the back of the chair. On some weekends the gondola would be open for bike hauls up to Moose Mountain. That was a special treat in those days. The gondola at that time was only a two-ish person gondola so your bike would hang off the gondola on a sketchy hook. Ha!

Lutsen was very raw. Nothing really groomed, no man-made jumps but still pretty fun for back in the day. I have a lot of fond memories riding at Lutsen. My first run down Lutsen was on my old GT Zaskar with a Manitou elastomer fork and garbage rim brakes. Sketchy for sure!
  • + 2
 @SeaLegs26: I think that's the plan for the trail Rock Solid is building off of Britton Peak. From what I hear it's suppose to eventually connect to Lutsen as a first phase and then beyond.
  • + 1
 I can't imagine backcountry trails in the interior areas up there. The Mosquitoes are absolutely insane. Changing a flat tire would be tortuous.
  • + 2
 @yeti-cruz: as I understand it they didn’t invest enough in the trails to attract much ridership, but their interpretation was that there’s just no money in bikes.

The new trail will connect Britton peak and Lutsen, eventually on to Pincushion Mtn. There’s talk of a new trail center above Grand Marais someday, and I dream of a few tech downhill runs on the old ski hill behind the hospital. With all the momentum I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine singletrack from Duluth to GM, with Lake Co’s plan, Britton, Lutsen, etc.
  • + 2
 @ecologist: Yeah, they didn't invest much time or money into the trails. There were a few locals that would do some maintenance but not much building. There was a good chunk of regulars that offered to volunteer their time to help build (myself included) but the management at the time wasn't interested. That said, I actually really enjoyed how raw the trails were. I'm glad they weren't overly manicured. It's an aspect of riding that I feel is missing these days.

Lutsen finally closed the bike park/trails for "environmental reasons" and that was that. No more lift assisted riding in MN (Well, until Spirit opened).

I think that would be great to connect to GM and some old techy DH would be icing on the cake. How cool would it be to extend the Duluth Traverse all the way to GM?!?! That would be nuts! The North Shore Traverse has a ring to it. :-)

I hope to see riding in Lutsen again. The landscape up there is way too good to not build on!
  • + 1
 @nedersotan: Yep! They spun the lift on Mystery Mountain for a few years I think. It was pretty much dirt roads we would rally down. I have some old videos form there I need to dig out.
  • + 7
 Has anyone done an MTB tour around Lake Superior? One of these summers I need to take a month off and do it. I count at least 10 solid riding destinations. Duluth, North Shore MN, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Munising, Marquette, Houghton, Copper Harbor, Ironwood, Bayfield
  • + 2
 Absolutely, I agree. Have been planning to do this for years. Perhaps when my son gets a bit older. Thank you for adding a couple extra locations to the list. Now my trip got longer. Half tempted by the way to do the trip by boat...
  • + 1
 Count me in, let's make it happen!
  • + 1
 @timbo: Summer 2020! Let's start planning.
  • + 1
 Agree on all all accounts! Re: Lutsen, wasn't around then but always interested to hear from folks who were!
  • + 1
 OK OK. Replied to wrong thread and double posted below...always wondered how people managed to do that and now I just got smart phone and suddenly guilty. Still don't know how it happened...
  • + 1
 We had some folks come through our shop that were doing that this summer! Sounded like a rad time. There’s not a lot between here (Tbay) and the Sault as far as I know, but the drive is stunning, so it’s still a worthwhile go. Would be cool to see a story on the front page about that kind of trip...
  • + 7
 Great spot. Never had the chance to MTB in Duluth but it's a beautiful city nonetheless. And just around the corner is Thunder Bay for the Canadian connection! Any town near to Superior is gorgeous and the topography is great for MTB!
  • + 3
 I was blown away by how much more elevation the north shore gains as you drive past Thunder Bay towards Nipigon. That region has to have more elevation than the UP.
  • + 6
 I know Pinkbike has some strong opinions about fatbikes but the singletrack in Duluth is amazing in the winter. There are trails like Piedmont have some huckable features even in the winter and the snow makes for a softer fall if you screw up the landing. Some is groomed and some is tracked in by people super well. Riding along the beach on the frozen sand is also pretty awesome too. It's just unreal to be able to ride singletrack in nearly every season.
  • + 5
 "Awkward" is what I live for. You don't learn bike handling skills on perfectly smooth runs no matter how much fun they may be. Looks like a great place to ride hopefully I'll make my way up there in the near future!
  • + 3
 drove all the way from white bear lake, mn last april to duluth. upon arriving at duluth, i saw the big mountains on my left and the on my right was lake superior. i thought that those would definitely make for some mountain bike trails and happily, it looks like there is a thriving community up there!

grandma's saloon and grill ftw!!!


footnote : i think that was the coldest i have felt my whole life (wind chill too), and it was just april! can't imagine how cold winter could be in duluth
  • + 5
 I'd only ever heard of Duluth through watching Fargo. After reading this I kinda want to put it on my places to visit list next time I'm in the US.
  • + 3
 Awesome article. My wife and I go to Duluth and Grand Marais every year for our anniversary. Heading there next Thursday. I would love to move to Duluth but I'm a cnc programmer/machinist by trade and can't seem to find anything to suit me in the Duluth area. I'll have to settle for my annual trip for now.
  • + 1
 Cirrus is always hiring.
  • + 1
 @Tinga: I was under the impression that all of Cirrus' manufacturing was here in Grand Forks ND( I'm just across the river from them In MN) , and that Duluth was more white collar?
  • + 2
 @Jordanh604: There is plenty of assembly and production here in Duluth at Cirrus. I believe there are also some 3rd party companies that sell parts to just Cirrus.
  • + 2
 @Tinga: Thanks for the info. I will have to dig a little deeper. Would be great to stay in prototype work, but sacrifices have to be made sometimes haha.
  • + 3
 Great to see Duluth and MN getting some coverage. I grew up in MN, but moved in 2007 and haven't had a chance to get back for any riding. I raced at Spirit Mountain a few times back in 1999 to 2001 and always loved the trails up there. Duluth is a fun place.

Anyone still riding the trails in Milaca?
  • + 2
 Locals. Cuyuna has sort of eaten Milaca's lunch
  • + 3
 @CycleKrieg: Bummer. I grew up in Milaca, and we put a lot of effort into those trails. I need to get back next year and see how it all has changed. Piedmont, Welch, Cayuna, Glencoe...
  • + 3
 @James2785: You wont recognize Piedmont. If you like tech and gnar Piedmont has it in spades.
  • + 1
 @James2785: I am hitting Milaca this weekend, its been a few years but recently moved to Elk river so its only 25 minutes away
  • + 1
 @Tinga: Right on. I only remember the big rock slabs up there and thinking how totally different it was from Central/Southern MN.
  • + 2
 @bogmonster: Nice! If you remember, shoot me a message and let me know how it was. There used to be a bunch of skinnies and wood bridges that we built in the back section that was, funny enough, named "bog monster."
  • + 1
 @James2785: will do, yep username came from that section, back in the day I thought that was a crazy section of trail for these parts
  • + 1
 @bogmonster: No kidding. Were you local back then? I was in high school when all that was hitting its stride, and rode those trails almost every day after school.

The year that bog monster was finished, the Blast Series added it to the XC race loop. It was chaos. Once you're in there, there's nowhere to pass and a few of those bridges were pretty high consequence. I remember cranking a wicked sprint to pass a few guys before that section started just so I wouldn't get caught behind them. It was raining, everything was muddy, all the wood features were slippery as hell. It was amazing.
  • + 3
 Great story. I grew up in MN and spent time on the North Shore every summer for family vacations. It was a formative experience. I now live in Montana but can't wait to bring my kids to Duluth to ride all of these trails and watch the ships come in.
  • + 2
 This is astounding! I grew up in northern MN, then did my first post-college job 20 miles away, and there was nothing for mtb (granted, this was 1983).

And I also grew up racing dirt bikes with Gerry Olson (and dog Jagger) and Fritz Kadlec (Alec's dad or uncle, perhaps?). Gotta get back there and look these guys up again for a tour of the local goods.

Keep articles like this coming PB. Destination reports are my personal favorites.
  • + 2
 Another cool destination article; excellent content here. Nice one Brice. Who knew Duluth would offer what look like really fun trails right next to the lake? If you can handle the winter, this place looks like it’d be a great place to live. Affordable with a lot of cool recreation opportunity between the trails and the lake.

Someone posted a vid above of guys skating down trails in the winter. Those look like perfect conditions for mountain biking, on your normal mountain bike, with a set of Schwalbe Ice Spikers. If you have trails that turn to ice like that, get these tires. They make those conditions fun and safe.
  • + 3
 There are numerous creeks that run downhill and ice over in the winter that create a literal ice DH course. It's pretty intense.
  • + 2
 Awesome piece Brice! Most of the trails in Duluth were built after I left the midwest (WI native) but it is a beautiful city and one of the few places I would consider living if we ever ended up in the upper midwest again. Between Duluth, the Camba trail system in northern WI, Marquette, and Copper Harbor, you could really link up an epic week of riding in Northern MN/WI/MI.
  • + 2
 I agree that Duluth is far better than Cuyuna for my riding preferences. Cuyuna is pretty beginner and intermediate friendly, which is great for newer riders and families. Duluth offers a greater variety of trails for riders from beginner to advanced. There are true blacks and double blacks in Piedmont and Brewer. I think Duluth is much more interesting for the intermediate to advanced rider because that is where the terrain really shines. And, everything is pretty centrally located, you can be at any trailhead within 15 minutes and can ride the Duluth Traverse as a point to point fairly easily.
  • + 2
 Yes!! I got my first taste of real mountain biking and the subsequent addiction while I was going to school up at UMD. Awesome town, awesome trails and awesome people to ride with. If you're in the midwest, I absolutely recommend making the trip up to Duluth.
  • + 1
 Last year I came out from Montana, with a buddy, to buy a bike from a rider on the pinkbike classifieds, and visit family. Didn't get to stay very long, but was pleasantly surprised. The vibe of the town and the people were awesome! Rode at Spirit Mountain for a day. For a smaller mountain, I thought the trails were fun and pretty well maintained. Can't wait to come back, and explore more of the trails!
  • + 4
 More of these features! Very nice article. Smells of Bike Mag quality! Top drawer stuff!
  • + 2
 Thank you for this awesome write-up! My co-workers have gone here recently and spoke highly about it, so cool to read up on it though. It is a destination trip for sure since it is close enough!
  • + 2
 I spent a lot of time here in the summers when I was a kid. It's still in my memory as the best place ever in the summer, excited about this feature, I really want to go back and visit now!
  • + 2
 If you liked it as a kid you'll enjoy it more as an adult.
  • + 1
 @Tinga: I always assumed that, thanks for confirming.
  • + 4
 The Spirit Mountain lift service during the winter months is awesome with the fat bike. Great article for a great place.
  • + 1
 Because some roads you shouldn’t go down. Because maps used to say there’d be dragons here. Now they don’t. But that don’t mean the dragons aren’t there.

But seriously, Duluth looks great!
  • + 0
 Love riding up in Duluth. Lester Park, Piedmont, Brewer, are my favorites.

But, don't think it will ever be a "major" destination due to how spread out everything is. Not any more than Duluth already is as far as tourism goes, mostly Minnesotans travelling up there.

Cuyana on the other hand? Gonna be a BIG DESTINATION within 5 years. Been watching the trails evolve and expand since it opened in 2011 and it just keeps getting better. And you can see what the money coming into Crosby has done with the new restaurants and bike shops.
  • + 6
 "Spread out"? I rode end-to-end in 4.5 hours on my all steel, fully-rigid back up bike. If Duluth is, then Moab is too spread out to be a real mountain biking destination too.

Don't get me wrong: I love Cuyuna too. Great trail system....well planned and thought-out.
  • + 7
 Not to discredit Cayuna, but I doubt it has anything comparable to some of the exposed rock faces at Piedmont or Brewer. I'd imagine people coming from outside the Midwest to ride Minnesota would want to see the most challenging terrain it has to offer.
  • + 1
 People seem to really love cuyuna. Almost every MN I talk to ranks Cuyuna at the top of their list if they've been there.
  • + 8
 @Jordanh604: It's buffed out flow trail built back when people/IMBA were figuring out exactly what that meant. The Yawkey unit offers some trials-like tech riding. It tops out at about a soft intermediate trail system. Though the jumpline they just installed at the Rally Center has some decent hucks to it. I take my XC bike there for hot laps. What Cuyuna does have going for it are the crystal clear turquoise mining lakes you can literally ride your bike into for a post-rip swim and the trailside yurts. It has some amenities to it for sure, but it doesn't offer too much in varied terrain or skill building. Not to discredit whats there, it's fun in it's own right, but it's definitely no Duluth.
  • + 3
 I'm always surprised at the amount of people that rank Cuyuna over Duluth. Duluth has a larger variety of trail styles and the town of Duluth blows Crosby out of the water for off the bike activities.
  • + 4
 @Tinga: Same here. I think it may be because Cuyuna offers more of a "one stop shop" experience. You literally go up there, park at the trailhead, and start riding. In Duluth you kinda have to know what you're looking for. Also a lot of MN riders are XC and fatbike enthusiasts, and Cuyuna is definitely better for that sort of thing.

Me on the other hand, I will and do ride Duluth every chance I get. I think I made it up there 8 or 9 times this summer from the metro area.
  • + 1
 @BlackVR: I rode Piedmont last year. Next weekend I am riding Brewer and spirit. Any other stops that I can't miss, or should substitute ?
  • + 3
 @Jordanh604: Ride Piedmont again with Brewer. I think Brewer is more of an add on to a good Piedmont ride. All of Brewer is only like 4-5 miles. If you like going fast Lester is another Duluth staple. Mission Creek is fun as well but I would put it 3rd on the list. And absolutely ride Spirit.
  • + 4
 @Jordanh604: This is my first time using Trailforks to create a route, but this is a 2 ish hour route that I like quite a bit. Hopefully the link works. This route avoids the really big hard stuff, but it's easy to see on the map. BOB, Medropolis, DM, Valley Girls, and Kissing Booth are all great trails and you can easily hit all of them from this route if you want to. The Keene descent is also awesome if you like flow. It's professionally designed and built machine cut flow trail, and rides more like a bike park than local singletrack. It's unfortunately a bit of a climb back up to the lot, but it's well worth it IMO.

www.trailforks.com/ridelog/planner/view/44249
  • + 1
 @Jordanh604:

Try the "Death by Piedmont" route, if you've got the skillz.

a href="https://www.trailforks.com/route/death-by-piedmont/">https://www.trailforks.com/route/death-by-piedmont//a>
  • + 6
 @Tinga: I don't know if that people "rank" Cuyuna over Duluth. They are just two very different experiences. If someone was into downhill, ghar with a capital "G" and a more aggressive ride, its Duluth all day long. If someone wants speed, flow and where going to travel with a family, its Cuyuna all day long. With the coming Maroco Unit and the Cuyuna Hills backcounty trails, the hardness of Cuyuna will increase. As to the town, its hard to compare the Crosby/Ironton scene to a town 50+ that size. However, investment is in Crosby/Ironton area is always a good thing.
  • + 2
 @Tinga: I second Piedmont Brewer Keene, but hopefully you’re going *next* weekend cause I don’t think much will be riding this weekend. Rivers are running though bring creeker!
  • + 1
 @ecologist: thankfully I am going next weekend. Im really hoping it dries out. I didn't get to ride at all last October on my anniversary because I fractured my shoulder at silver mtn Idaho. I'm really itching to ride in Duluth now.
  • + 1
 @Jordanh604: We had an interesting weather event today called "sun flurries". hopefully we get some more sun and less rain soon.
  • + 1
 @Jordanh604: sorry to hear about your shoulder, hope it's good now. Weather is looking decent toward end of week so hopefully starts to dry out for you! My 2cents, maybe others will disagree, there's enough good riding in Duluth that unless you really want to do a lot of runs Spirit wouldn't be high on the list. It's fun for sure but you'll have fun either way. Happy anniversary and have a blast!
  • + 1
 @ecologist: Thanks! It's been a year on my shoulder but I avoided surgery. I still have pain, but I feel it's at full strength .my plans are to ride Piedmont/brewer in the morning on Thursday and then I am heading to Spirit at 2 when they open. After spirit we are heading up to Lutsen. Then we are riding pincushion after the sawtooth challenge race is over on Saturday . I'm super optimistic with the way the weather forecast looks!
  • + 4
 Love these features, makes me want to take a trip up and visit!
  • + 3
 Any one else check for job openings in Duluth?
  • + 2
 Duluth is a great place! Cant wait to visit again soon!
  • + 0
 Last time I visited I was treated by locals to a nice healthy "we're better than people from MSP area" I was even told once that Minneapolis didn't deserve more snow that winter than Duluth had. I guess entitlement even for snow is ingrained into the culture
  • + 1
 @AdobeAwesome: sorry to hear about this - we're not all snooty up here! Most of us just want to ride stoked, with anyone else who's interested!
  • + 1
 Looks like a fun place to ride some bikes!
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