Cross-country in Duluth
When snow falls, skiers fly onto a splendid system of groomed trails.
© Beth Gauper
Duluth's Piedmont Trail is lined with wooden signs.
One March, I went up to Duluth but woke up in Siberia.
Twenty inches of snow had fallen overnight. A savage 70 mph wind was howling around the glass-walled lobby of the Willard Munger Inn. Swirling snow had turned the air white.
But then my niece and I noticed cars crawling along Grand Avenue. Then more cars. So we bundled up and got in our car, and to
our surprise, made it all the way across town to Lester Park.
Dozens of other skiers already had been on its Lester-Amity Ski Trail, creating tracks that we gratefully followed into the sheltering forest.
Duluth is a tough town. When its skiers want to ski, nothing stops them.
Of course, none of them has to go far. Duluth’s hills, ravines and creeks create pockets of wilderness into which the
city has tucked 45 kilometers of trails.
Two privately owned ski areas, also within city limits, add another 37 kilometers, and just across the Bong Bridge, Superior Municipal Forest includes 26 kilometers of scenic trails.
It’s heaven for skiers. In the middle of the city, they’re immersed in wilderness — yet 10 minutes away from a really good restaurant or coffeehouse.
When snow falls, trails are groomed and tracked right along with Duluth’s streets and sidewalks. Within 10 to 12 hours of a half-foot snowfall, says city forester Kelly Fleissner, all the city trails are groomed.
“If we get a snowfall, we’ll be out there almost immediately,’’ says Fleissner, an avid skier who heads the grooming staff and says his “might be the best job in America.’’
Lester-Amity is the city’s most popular ski trail, being gorgeous as well as easy to reach, just off Superior
Skiing up the Lester River through a dense corridor of spruce, then along the rim of the Amity Creek gorge, my niece and I listened to the murmur of the wind and studied the pale winter palette of birch bark and beige grasses furling out of the snow.
Passing Seven Bridges Road, we started downhill back into the firs, and behind me I heard an exhilarated "Whoooooa’’ turning into “Wooooow . . . That was beautiful.''
© Beth Gauper
From Bardon's Peak on the Magney-Snively Trail, there's a panoramic view of Duluth.
From Lester Park, we drove up Duluth’s precariously steep streets to Snowflake Nordic Center. No one was in the wind-whipped chalet except its proprietor, George Hovland, who skied for the United States in the 1952 Olympics and is prominent in ski circles.
As he drew us a minutely detailed map of the trails, he chitchatted about global warming, politicians and course topography. But after he told us that he named Snowflake because medieval Norwegians wore mittens knitted in a snowflake pattern, we realized we had to take it all with a grain of salt.
"It's pretty deep out there — and in here, too,'' he noted slyly.
He told us we could ski free, and we headed out on tracks that were decent, though drifted in by the wind. Hovland hates to close Snowflake, so he tries to keep it open despite the poor conditions.
After skiing at Snowflake, we found our way to the nearby Hartley trail, almost getting stuck on the dead-end street that leads to it. But after a kilometer of skiing, we tired of the incessant wind and headed back to the motel.
The next day was colder, but the wind had died and the sun was bright in a frosty blue sky. Feeling inexplicably ambitious, we headed up to Magney-Snively Park, on heavily forested hills just beyond Spirit Mountain.
Its parking lot had been cleared, but the trail, which heads straight up, hadn’t been groomed. New tracks ended after a kilometer — we could see the cross-hatches left as the lone skier gave up and turned around — but we kept plowing on through 2-foot drifts.
We felt like pioneers, trying to follow old tracks that would pop up, like ruts on the Oregon Trail, then disappear under
drifts. Occasionally, our ski tips caught under the snow and we tumbled onto our faces in a flurry of powder.
Our payoff came at the Bardons Peak overlook, where we drank in a sweeping view of the St. Louis River estuary — Spirit Lake, Clough Island, St. Louis Bay, the Bong Bridge.As we sat, exhausted, on a wooden bench, another skier passed on his way to Bardons Peak, and we drolly told him to enjoy our tracks; he thanked us and said he already was.
After a well-earned lunch of burgers and malts at Grandma’s on Canal Park, we drove up the Piedmont trail, just off U.S. 53 next to a residential neighborhood. The groomer had just finished the loop, and I could’ve kissed its crisp corduroy.
The skiing was perfect, through light forest on wide, rolling lanes and screamer hills that had been turned into pussycats by top-notch grooming.
© Beth Gauper
Skiers glide on the trails at Lester Park, which are lighted daily.
Wooden signs put up by a neighborhood skier gave us a few chuckles: Go Dis Vay, No Laughing Zone, Finland 7,000 Miles. A Chicken Loop cutoff led around a hill marked Evil Knievel, and the long, gentle swoop to trail’s end was called Grand Finn Alley.“There really is just a plethora of great trails in Duluth,’’ Fleissner says. “You really don’t have to go far.’’
Trip Tips: Nordic skiing in Duluth
Snow conditions: To check grooming conditions or see whether there’s enough snow for skiing, call the city hot
line, 218-730-4321, or check the Parks Facebook
page. Skinnyski.com also lists trail reports.
Information: The Duluth XC Ski Club lists information about tours, clinics, races and grooming schedules.
For more about alpine skiing, festivals and other things to do, see Relishing winter in Duluth.
For trip-planning information, see Duluth 101.
Ski rental: The Ski Hut, which has locations near downtown and in West Duluth on Grand Avenue, rents cross-country skis.
Snowflake Nordic Center and Hartley Nature Center also rent skis.
Lester-Amity: This 18-kilometer trail, groomed for skating as well as striding, is the most popular trail in town, easily reached from East Superior Street at 61st Avenue. It's first to be groomed, and its giant firs provide good protection from wind.
In early morning and evening, 5 kilometers are lighted. An adjoining 3-kilometer loop on the Lester Park Golf Course is good for beginners.
Hartley Park: These wooded loops, in
a residential neighborhood, include 5 kilometers of double-tracked classical trails. There's a hilly outer loop and a gentler
inner loop, good for families and beginners. Hartley Nature
Center rents skis and snowshoes.
You can also snowshoe on the Superior Hiking Trail, which cuts through the park. It's just north of UMD, off Woodland Avenue; turn left after Fairmont Street.
© Beth Gauper
Families like the gentle trails at Hartley Nature Center.
Piedmont: This 6-kilometer trail in the hills near Enger Park, off U.S. 53/Piedmont Avenue, is double-tracked for classical skiing and includes an overlook of the St. Louis River valley. It's not too hilly and is good for beginners and intermediates.
Magney-Snively: This hilly 13-kilometer trail has a classical track and a skating lane and is best for intermediate and advanced skiers. The trail winds from Snively Park to the city limits and adjoining Magney Park, each of which has a stunning overlook.
It's two miles past Spirit Mountain on Skyline Parkway, just past the dragon's-tooth stone bridge.
Because of flood damage in 2012, its trails can be reached only from the Spirit Mountain trails.
There are two tricky parts. A snowmobile trail cuts through the Ely Peak Loop, and the one-way ski trail looks as if it ends there, but it continues across the snowmobile trail and just to the right.
And at the end, there's a steep downhill that ends in the road; beginners should take off their skis and walk.
Chester Park: This very hilly
3-kilometer trail, groomed for skating only, is tucked away near the College of St. Scholastica, off Skyline Parkway in a
The longtime hub of Duluth's winter sports, the Bowl includes Big Chester, a 115-foot wooden ski jump that still has its 1926 steel scaffolding.
However, it won't be open in 2013 because of flood damage.
© Beth Gauper
At Snowflake Nordic Center, a skier takes advantage of a November snowfall.
Snowflake Nordic Center: High above Duluth, this privately
operated ski center has 15 kilometers of trails, groomed often. Striding tracks flank skating lanes, used by the many racers
who frequent Snowflake, and classical skiers may feel squeezed at times.
There's a convivial chalet with snack counter. A trail pass is $7, but skiers over 65 (and Olympians) ski free.
Spirit Mountain: Just across the road from
the alpine slopes on Skyline Parkway, the city grooms and maintains 22 kilometers of double-tracked trails with
Superior Municipal: Just across the St. Louis River, the Superior Parks and Recreation Department maintains 26 kilometers of ski trails in Superior Municipal Forest for all levels, groomed for skating and striding; the 10-kilometer Yellow Loop, for advanced skiers, is on the Dwight's Point peninsula and is very scenic.
There’s a warming shelter at the trailhead, where the $5 daily trail pass is sold. To get there, head south on Tower
Avenue/Wisconsin 35 to 28th Street and drive west to Wyoming Avenue.
The snow conditions hot line is 715-395-7299. For more, see Plainly Superior.
Buying a pass: A Great Minnesota Ski Pass,
which costs $6 daily, $20 yearly or $55 for three years, is required for skiers 16 and older who use Duluth's city
It can be purchased by mail, on-line or at at sports shops or where hunting and fishing licenses are sold.
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