From Steel To Stoke

As Duluth, Minnesota’s Director of Recreational Lands for the Minnesota Land Trust, Hansi Johnson has helped raise essential money, preserve natural recreation sites, plan and create single-track trails, and grow interest in the city far and wide. Call Up is lucky enough to have him as a guest writer to fill us in on the city’s rich storied past, its wildly exciting future, and how mountain biking played a crucial role in not only reviving the city, but transforming it.

Check out our handy dandy guide to Duluth’s very best trails and watering holes.

Picture a city that was so down on its self-image that it, too, believed in the stereotypes assigned to it by the outside world.

Welcome to Duluth, Minnesota.

Back in the days of old, Duluth was a place the native Chippewa people considered the land of milk and honey. Flowing through the city was the St. Louis River, one of North America’s only freshwater estuaries and perhaps one of the largest continuous beds of wild rice in the country.

Duluth was a land stuffed with food—the rice itself, the waterfowl that fed on it, and, of course, the fish: from walleye to smallmouth bass to the legendary Lake Superior sturgeon, some over six feet in length. Its Estuary led into Lake Superior, feeding its flourishing ecosystem. Its hilly forests were dense with ancient white pine and oak savanna.

But within 100 years of European settlement, Duluth’s rich life changed.

A Steady Downfall

The Chippewa were displaced. The timber was removed to the stump. The St. Louis River became the central highway for moving millions of board feet off to the lumber mills, destroying nearly all the wild rice in its wake.

Heavy industry soon followed, taking ore from the Iron Range to the river, where ships and steel were created to move it all to Lake Superior and thus the world. World War II—and its lust for mechanized death—saw the Range sucked dry of its ore and, by the 1970s, the whole mad cycle came crashing to a halt.

Once a vibrant region teeming with life, Duluth was now a place spent, denuded, expired. And the Duluth community, once one of the wealthiest in North America (if not the world), became the story of a rust belt left barren, isolated, and weak.

In just a few decades, Duluth went from hero to zero, from riches to rags.

To the outside world, Duluth was a place busted. An industrial wasteland. A backward, arctic no-go zone full of polka and hockey. No one seemed to remember the fact that the city had very nearly saved the free world as we know it.

This history of pain and heartbreak has embedded itself into the DNA of Duluth and its people. It’s been passed down from generation to generation to generation—as an apocalyptic inheritance that has impacted the city’s politics, business climate, and global decisions.

So how long does an epic trauma of this magnitude last? Until the people who are part of the community stand up and shake it off.

In Duluth’s case, that’s been about 40 years… give or take a few.

A Steady Rise

I have lived in Duluth on and off since the late 1980s. In that timeframe, I have been able to witness a massive change in Duluth’s economy, appearance and, most importantly, self-confidence.

I am often asked by people, from politicians to advocates to the general Joe, how all this came to pass.

More often than not, people are expecting to hear things like the number of dollars invested or other technical or strategic information. I could certainly answer that way, but the cold hard truth of the matter is that the reason Duluth has rebounded is because Duluth finally started valuing what it has versus what it does not. It stopped apologizing and started lifting up its unique attributes and being proud of them.

Much like the kid in The Lorax with the last seed of the Truffula Tree, the local Duluthians have gone back to what has been left of the land of milk and honey and started to both revitalize and restore it.

Duluth’s once explosive growth dictated its city limits should be set 27 miles wide to accommodate it. Of course, the growth stalled. But the upside is that Duluth now has over 11,000 acres of open space in its borders, much of it continuous and in hills that extend nearly 1,000 feet up from the St. Louis River and Lake Superior.

The places where factories once stood are, in some cases, now forested. In other cases, they’re clean, open spaces along the river itself. 

It’s work that has been ongoing for decades. Since the 1980s, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in cleaning up the river, with the same amount slated for the next five years.

Meanwhile, there has always been a segment of the population that has appreciated Duluth’s natural amenities. These are men and women who are hardcore paddlers, cyclists, climbers, and skiers. While Duluth’s detractor community was lamenting its failing industrial infrastructure and the dearth of jobs left behind, Duluth’s admirers were surfing the waves at Stoney Point, climbing the ice at the abandoned city quarry, and ripping the sweet singletrack at Hartley Park. Either way, these were disparate groups more concerned with living their lives than entering the noisy discourse surrounding community and revitalization.

The Cyclists of Gitchee Gummee Shores (COGGS), IMBA, and the Duluth Traverse provided the energy that sparked that change.

A Changing Landscape

Through vision, planning, and good old-fashioned sweat, the local Duluth mountain bike community came up with an idea for The Duluth Traverse Trail System, over 100 miles of singletrack spanning 27 miles of city space.

Interconnecting thousands of acres of parks and open space with nearly every neighborhood of the city, it’s a remarkable—and very Duluthian—vision. To date, the Duluth Traverse project has raised over 1.5 million dollars and constructed over 70 miles of purpose-built, pro-designed singletrack. This effort has been so successful that Duluth was recently awarded the IMBA Gold Level Ride Center designation, the only one in the Midwest—and one of five in the world.

More importantly, as this effort gained success and worldwide accolades, the leadership in Duluth took notice. Then-mayor Don Ness realized that this project was building a newfound sense of pride in the city. Mayor Ness decided not only to invest city funds and staff time into it, he also decided to invest in other destination quality outdoor recreation, along with arts, food, beer, and small industry projects. Duluth’s revitalization was starting to take shape.

I was personally asked to join the effort in a partnership between the city and the Minnesota Land Trust, an NGO partner that also had a stake in bringing people back to these now restored places in the city. My role was to work with our silent sports user groups to create a similar model in the vein of our successful off-road cycling partnership.

That effort has borne fruit in the fact that Duluth was given Outside Magazine’s Best Outdoor Town in 2014. More importantly, the suite of outdoor experiences the user groups envisioned were so powerful that the City of Duluth, by a unanimous vote of the City Council, decided to bond for $20 million dollars to implement them.

Today, along with the rise in craft beer (Duluth has ten breweries in a city of 95,000 people) and what by all accounts is a booming economy, the community of Duluth has stopped apologizing for its lack of steel production. It’s now proud to export “stoke,” and sees it as one the main reasons people choose to live and spend their tourism dollars here.

The world is not changed by bloated politicians. It is not changed by economists or theory. It turns out, the world is changed by people like yourself who want the place that they live in to reflect the values and experiences they want to have.

In the case of Duluth, we want to be outside every day living our lives in a land of milk and honey.

How to Make the Most of Your Duluth Mountain Bike Vacation

Here, Hansi gives a quick overview of a solid weekend or more on Duluth’s trails, with food and beer recommendations.

The Trails

The Duluth Traverse

You will see a lot of press on the Duluth Traverse. The “DT” is a singletrack green trail with the audacious goal of running the entire length of Duluth — 45 miles, end to end. At the time of this writing, the DT exists only in segments, most of them associated with Duluth’s major riding spots. Eventually, all these fragmented sections will be linked, allowing riders to cross Duluth from point A to point B on 50 miles of purpose-built singletrack!

The “Shore to Sky” Ride

Trailhead: Lester Amity. MTB Project Link.

General Ride Description: The Shore to Sky ride goes to one of the highest points above the City of Duluth and Lake Superior, Hawks Ridge.

Starting at the Lester Amity Trail head, ride up The West Amity Trail to The Hawks Ridge Trail. Ascending the Hawks Ridge Trail gives you access to a sweeping view of Lake Superior and the east side of the City. Currently, the Hawks Ridge Trail is an out and back.

Upon your return, choose the Duluth Traverse Trail for your descent. This trail will complete your loop back to the trailhead. The Duluth Traverse descent is a flowy, green-level trail with amazing views of the various waterfalls of the Lester River.

The “Rift Ride”

Trailhead: 40th Ave West, Hikers and Bikers lot. MTB Project Link

General Ride Description: This ride gets you up close and personal with the geology of the vast rock formations of the Duluth Complex.  While the off-road cycling in this zone is considered more technical, the Rift Ride is one of the more entry-level trail routes that exist here.

At the 40th Ave. West Trailhead, riders are located directly between Piedmont Park to the east and Brewers Park to the west. By riding up 40th Ave hill and accessing the Lollygagger section of the Duluth Traverse, the rider will ascend the Continental Rift, which towers above the city of Duluth. Lollygagger is a trail full of smooth berms and rollers that twist and turn around the backside of the Brewers Park Ridge line. At its high point, it generally contours until it runs into The Homebrew Trail.

While Homebrew is rated as an advanced Black Diamond trail, it should be noted that its main “A” line tread is more akin to blue trail riding. Many of Homebrew’s advanced features, considered “B” line choices, are found off to the side of the trail. These types of B trails creatively utilize the Gabbro rock ledges of the Duluth Complex for fun drops, jumps and rollovers, while also allowing the less advanced riders a choice of challenge. Mix in berms and stunning views of the St. Louis River Valley to the West and Lake Superior to the East, and you have a rocky, technical experience for a variety of rider abilities.

There are many variations on the Rift Ride, however most are advanced.

First there is the Kissing Booth Variation. This extends the Lollygagger/Homebrew loop by adding in a directional descent and ascent trail called The Kissing Booth. This is an advanced and technical downhill descent and a challenging climb back up to Homebrew. For those folks that relish a truly tough singletrack challenge, this is a must ride.

More advanced riders looking for a longer ride can access the Piedmont Trail system to create a longer and more technical loop in addition to the Homebrew and Lollygagger loop.

“The Rock and Roll Experience”

Trailhead: Lower Chalet, Spirit Mountain Recreation Area. MTB Project Link

General Ride Description: Some folks like to flow with gravity and some folks like to fight it. Spirit Mountain is the place for those who flow.

As Duluth’s first lift-served gravity center, this is the place where you lower the seat as far as it will go! Loosen up your clipless pedals, borrow a full-faced helmet, and concentrate on going down hill at the speed that feels most comfortable. For novice riders, Happy Camper and Candyland are your best bets. No mandatory air, minimal rock gardens, and wide treads make these trails a fast, fun descent with an extremely high “whee factor!”

For advanced riders, Wild Cat and Smorgasbord are some great choices. Look for drops, rocks, big high-speed berms, and doubles and tabletops galore. Stepping it up a notch are the trails that comprise Calculated Risk (a true DH run with major rock gardens plus rock drops) and Boss Hog (a big hit jump line).)

“The Kitchigumizibi Ride”

Trailhead: Chambers Grove Park, Fond Du Lac neighborhood. MTB Project Link.

General Ride Description: The word Kitchigumizibi means “Lake Superior River” in Ojibwa and it’s fitting for this wonderful off road riding experience that takes place above the St. Louis River on Duluth’s far western boundary.

The best way to start is to climb the Cathedral Trail to its ridge line contour, and flow forth until it becomes Upper Cathedral. These two mostly green-level trails compose the western end of the Duluth Traverse.

Eventually the rider will hit the Porcupine Passage Trail and make a right. This trail rolls and winds its way all the way down to the Old Mission Creek Road. Making a left on the road leads the rider to a mile or so of two-track that has a wild backcountry feel to it. There are several creek crossings and some interesting views of old bridges from the road’s heyday in the early 1900’s. Eventually, the road intersects with the Valley West Trail. A left will lead to a climb and eventually return you to the Upper Cathedral Trail.

At this point, riders can either return via the Cathedral Trails, or if they are open for more riding and can handle a blue-level trail, they can complete a full system loop by descending Loki: a real barnburner with many articulated and banked bridges (not jumps or drops) that eventually bring the rider back to Cathedral and the Chambers Grove Parking lot. This ride is butter smooth with nearly no rocks, lots of gradual climbing with very few steep ups or downs. The trails wind through many hardwood stands and also provide views of the Mission Creek Valley.

Check Conditions

When visiting Duluth, please ride responsibly! As Hansi points out, “The majority of our riding is on clay soil. Clay is awesome. When dry, it’s hard, fast, and extremely grippy. In good conditions, riders in Duluth can take corners quickly and aggressively. When clay is wet, however, it’s the worst riding surface in the world, and it’s also easy to damage trails.”

Please check The COGGS website before every ride to see if your trail or trails of interest are open. If they’re wet or closed, please respect the judgment of the trail stewards.

Pre and Post Pedal

There is no shortage of “must-enjoy” food and beverage offerings in Duluth, and the list seems to grow every year. Here are just a couple of Hansi’s suggestions, but make sure to ask the friendly locals, too!

First, Fitger’s and their beer and suite of eateries needs to be mentioned. The crew at Fitger’s has always been a supporter of outdoor recreation, and even hosted some of COGGS’ very first beer-related Duluth Traverse Fundraisers. Also, check out The Brewhouse, Tycoons Ale House, Endion Station, and The Burrito Union.

The Duluth Coffee Company is another big hitter that needs some love while you’re in town. Duluth Coffee delivers by bike, and the owner and some of the employees are old BMX shredders that still step out onto the dirt from time to time to show us all how it’s done!

A few others:

Amity Coffee House

New London Café

Beaner’s Central Coffeehouse

Duluth Grill

Bent Paddle Tap Room

Lake Superior Brewing Company

The Iron Mug in Morgan Park

The Lotus

For your bike needs:

The Ski Hut

Continental Ski and Bike

Twin Ports Cyclery


Please check Visit Duluth for more information!

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