How a weekend ATV trip to Duluth and Cuyuna changed my summer
DULUTH, Minnesota – With just a breeze of wind and beautiful blue skies overhead, a few dozen pedal strokes took us to the wide-bermed switchbacks of the trail to Duluth Lookout Hill on the day of the opening of the recent holiday weekend.
The initial ride would be a climb to Enger Park, rolling over rocks and between trees to soak up the panoramic views of Lake Superior and Duluth Harbor.
Although I’ve ridden the trails before, this very first mountain bike excursion provided a new and very different way to enjoy the outdoors.
However, as a novice rider with limited skills, the frame was perfect as an introduction to trail riding.
As a veteran trail runner, several excursions each year take me into the backcountry to see hidden gems and incredible vistas, many of which are away from the roads and the city.
Minnesota, however, offers great trails just barely removed from the steel and concrete of the modern city – close enough to easily access them and find yourself in the wonders of nature.
And cycling – especially on a mountain bike – allows a person of any ability to quickly access the woods, meadows or cliff tops that help us reconnect with that primal urge to connect with the outside world.
spans 43 miles and connects dozens of trails, we loaded up the bikes after our first five mile ride and headed a short distance north to the Hartley Nature Center.
Visiting a trail for the first time can bring a wave of excitement and anticipation.
Stands of willows and pines towered as our wheels rolled over the crushed gravel. A few minutes later we were deep in the woods on wide, slightly hilly multi-use trails. As a newbie to mountain biking and the park, sticking to trails marked with green and blue signs seemed like a smart move. Each intersection brought new options and more time spent surrounded by the blank canvas of nature.
A boardwalk on the Root Canal Trail winds through the wetlands to provide insight into the diverse ecosystem. After more than five kilometers of driving, the trip through the park seemed too short.
An afternoon break, with a visit to Bent Paddle Brewery and OMC Steakhouse, provided enough refreshments for our last ride of the day. Starting at the Chester Bowl Rim, we hopped on the hilly trail for two-thirds of a mile before a neighborhood connection to the UMD Duluth Traverse segment. The trail took us to Root Canal, where we turned around to retrace our pedal strokes and call it a day.
After three separate hikes in one day, we set our sights the next day on the Mission Creek trails, where exceptional views over the St. Louis River valley punctuated our departure from the trailhead of the highway 210.
The lush air of the forested hills, just above the country’s largest freshwater estuary, filled our lungs as a green canopy shaded our journey along the flowing landscape. Many wooden bridges on the Loki trail can be intimidating for an inexperienced rider, but good balance and patience made these crossings fun and safe.
A short connection to the Upper Cathedral Trail would complete our six mile loop back to the parked vehicle, although we did stop a few times for views and photos to document the trip. As with running, the first time on a new trail can be slower, although there is a lot of satisfaction in taking the time to enjoy all those trails.
The adventure continued with a trip to
near Crosby, Minnesota in hopes of finding enough time to ride before forecasted downpours.
We arrived at the Yawkey unit under beautiful blue skies, unloaded the bikes and found our bearings. A gentle ride on the one-way Haul Road trail brought us to the main destination – the bobsled loop near Lake Yawkey Mine.
A quick stop before the climb allowed a few mountain bikers to zoom past. The climbing proved to be fun and after a few minutes of navigating rocky sections I began to realize that a bike mounted action camera was worth it.
Although Bobsled Loop’s arrival has been diverted, the descent still offers the sharp berms that make adults smile.
Returning to Haul Road, we opted to hike an extra mile of trail, accessing Manuel Drive, which offers some of its own climbing before leading mountain bikers through a thrilling red dirt roller race.
A few hours later, a drink and meal at a local restaurant capped off a day of new experiences and memories, and the long-awaited thunderstorm quickly passed.
It was hard to imagine how day three of our mountain bike trip could compare to what we had seen. But a stop for coffee at
and a short drive to Cuyuna parking lot prepared us to continue with a ride on the Switchback, Drag Line and Galloping Goose trails for a rather gentle circumnavigation of Portsmouth Mine Pit, Pennington Mine and Huntington Mine lakes.
For someone used to trail running, the sights and sounds were all very familiar. But the ethereal experience of nature from the saddle of an ATV has opened up a new way to access the outdoors.
It seemed like an almost too perfect trip – world class trails in multiple spots, mild summer temperatures, no bugs and a fun companion. With seven different rides, the adventure offered a diverse mix of easy to moderate trails to develop biking skills and see the world from a different perspective.
Although cycling trails require more equipment than running, the experience opened up another world of possibilities.
Now I just have to look at the calendar to know when I can go back – and find my way to Minnesota’s other great cycling destinations like Bemidji, Rochester, the Detroit Lakes and the Iron Range and the North Dakota.