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Recently, I realized that for someone who lived in a town that was developing a reputation for mountain biking, I knew very little about Duluth’s mountain bike trails. Certainly, I had been aware for several years that there was some kind of crew carving out bike trails on public land in the city—occasional news stories kept me apprised of that—and as one who walked on the city’s public lands, I had noticed mountain bikers flashing through the woods where no mountain bikers had ever flashed before. But it was only recently, as I stood on Skyline Parkway and watched a mountain biker traversing the escarpment below me, that I realized big changes were afoot.
I would hardly have been more surprised to see a kangaroo hopping across the rocks. That section of the escarpment had always been trail-free, visited only by an intrepid few. It was one of the places in town that I had always thought of as “mine.” Now the mountain bikers had it. Clearly, the issue deserved further investigation.
The Upper Burner of Stovetop
I began my examination of the city’s mountain bike trails on October 31, 2015, in an area I like to call the Piedmont Wilderness: a rugged landscape of cliffs, streams and forests in Piedmont Heights that really has no business existing in the middle of town like it does. Since it’s not an official park, the Piedmont Wilderness doesn’t even show up on maps as green, but as a large blank space; if it were a city park, it would be bigger than most. A 5.5 kilometer network of Nordic ski trails is maintained in the Piedmont Wilderness; the Superior Hiking Trail, a snowmobile trail and a power line pass through it as well. Access is provided by a small parking area on Hutchinson Road and another small parking area on Haines Road, just above Skyline Parkway.
I parked at the Hutchinson Road trailhead. The day was gray and drizzly. A posted map didn’t show any bike trails—just ski trails—but I knew bike trails were out there. The website for the nonprofit group Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores (COGGS) listed nine miles of mountain bike trail at Piedmont. COGGS is the driving force behind mountain bike trails in the city. They have a dream of establishing Duluth as “the largest mountain bike trail hub in the nation.” Ultimately, COGGS’s goal is to complete the Duluth Traverse, a 100-mile multiuse hiking/biking trail contained entirely within city limits. COGGS has provided much of the labor to build and maintain the city’s bike trails, although professional trail-building crews have been hired for some sections.
According to COGGS’s website (coggs.com), planning for the Piedmont trails began in 2007. The project was “one of the first COGGS had undertaken…where we had a big chunk of land as basically a blank slate to put a trail system in.” The result was two main loops, the Upper Burner of Stovetop and the Lower Burner of Stovetop, with numerous offshoots and spurs for more adventurous rock jockeys. The Upper and Lower Burners are separated by the power line. Their names are typically wacky—other trails in the Piedmont Wilderness are named Foxx Rocks, Admiral Rockbar and Rickety Cricket.
I explored the Upper Burner on foot. The trail tread was firm and well-defined, if a little slippery in places due to drizzle. My hiker’s sensibilities were annoyed by the humps and bumps that were intentionally built in for mountain-biking fun, which meant extra work for me to climb up and over. The added bumps were also more slippery than the trail proper, having been built up with clay.
In some places, especially on the steeper slopes, the mountain bike trail looked like something that would need fixing if it were a hiking trail—a raw, steep gash in the earth with few breaks to slow down erosion. As COGGS’s first big project in the city, the Piedmont trails provided a valuable learning experience. On their website, they note that “many of the mistakes we made at Piedmont are constant reminders of the importance of sustainable trail design.”
At intersections, trails were clearly marked—a good thing, because they would have been confusing to navigate otherwise. At one point, the Upper Burner, the Superior Hiking Trail, and a Nordic ski trail all converged in the woods. With more and more trails crossing Duluth’s finite public lands, backcountry intersections like these are becoming more common, especially at certain pinch points. Perhaps traffic officers will be necessary in the future.
The most problematic feature of the Piedmont bike trails was the bridges and boardwalks. Constructed of thin lumber, wobbly, with skewed joints and a randomly changing deck width, the bridges seemed to have been carelessly slapped down by twelve-year-olds. Often they rested directly on the forest floor, rather than on cribbing or cross-ties. At one point, where a bridge crossed a small stream, the deck actually got narrower over the water.
Bridges, of course, add to the maintenance needs of a trail. Even small bridges might take weeks to repair when they break, because the materials have to be hauled in by hand and the trail crew might be working in another location miles away. When the full 100-mile Duluth Traverse is complete, the thousands of feet of bridges and boardwalks will present an ongoing maintenance challenge. I hope that somebody is keeping this in mind.
The Red Dress spur trail, for some reason, had a giant tepee-shaped structure made of dead poplar logs standing in the woods. Nearby, a wooden ramp led to the top of a large, flat-topped boulder. COGGS’s website says that Red Dress offers “several options to huck off some rock ledges,” so I surmised that the ramp and boulder had something to do with hucking.
At one point (I think it was on the Scarface spur) the trail curved perilously close to a serious drop-off. I imagined myself on a mountain bike, talking over my shoulder to someone as I hucked gracefully off into thin air.
By the time I returned to my car, I had been wandering in the woods for three hours. I had seen no one else the whole time—right in the middle of a city of 86,000.
Lester River and Amity East
The next day, November 1, I drove east to visit the mountain bike trails at Lester Park. There are three of them: Lester River, Amity East, and Amity West. According to COGGS’s website, the trails were closed due to wetness. I interpreted this to mean that the trails were closed to bikers, not me.
The Lester River trail is defined as a “multipurpose trail,” with symbols indicating people riding bikes, walking, and snowshoeing. On November 1, it wasn’t so great for walking. The wide, hard-packed tread, much of which was notched out of the sides of ridges as a “bench” style of trail, slanted out and down; when it was coated with slippery clay, as much of it was today, maintaining one’s footing was a matter of constant vigilance. Some steeper sections would have been impossible to traverse if not for the non-skid carpet of soggy leaves that lay atop the mud.
One of the first things I noticed about Lester River was that the bridges were better. They were built of heavier lumber and the stringers were mounted on crossties, not merely placed on the earth. They were wider and sturdier than the bridges at Piedmont, and (except for one long bridge that curved around a tree) they were level. I surmised that this trail had received attention from a professional trail crew, rather than COGGS.
The trail may have been multipurpose, but it was clearly designed for mountain bikes. Hiking trails tend to advance from Point A to Point B as expeditiously as the terrain allows, but the trails at Lester Park doubled back on themselves repeatedly, going back and forth and up and down—often over manmade bumps, as at Piedmont—to extract as much gnarly riding potential out of the landscape as possible. At one point, I looked around and realized that I was very near a point where I had been several minutes earlier. The trail had led me down a ridge and then back up the same ridge unnecessarily. I felt deceived.
The only person I saw was one renegade biker working his way carefully down the muddy trail. We greeted one another, commented on the mud, and went our separate ways—two scofflaws passing in the woods.
There were some spectacular overlooks of the Lester River along the way. On the Amity East trail, which I took on the way back, there were spectacular overlooks of Amity Creek. At one point, the trail ran along the knife-edge of a crumbling clay bluff above the creek. It looked precarious—not something I would allow my kids to explore—but I’m sure it made for radical mountain biking.
The steepness and slipperiness of Amity East (COGGS calls it a “more difficult” to “advanced” trail) eventually caused me to abandon the trail and walk out to the paved luxury of Seven Bridges Road, which I followed the rest of the way back to my car, stomping clumps of mud off my boots as I went.
One word that kept occurring to me throughout my explorations was EFFORT. Riding mountain bikes downhill might be great fun, but riding them up the hills would be hell on earth—for me, anyway. I tried to imagine myself riding up steep stretches of trail on a mountain bike. It was an exercise in horror. I wondered how many people who owned mountain bikes actually rode on trails like these. I guessed about four percent.
COGGS is the local chapter of the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA), which claims 35,000 members worldwide—not a huge number, in terms of the whole world. COGGS itself, as far as I can tell from news stories and social media (I attempted to contact them several times via email, but got no response), consists of a small core of passionate and dedicated individuals. As such, they should feel proud of the outsize impact their small numbers have had on city policy. In his eight years in office, Mayor Ness has made trails—especially mountain bike trails—a top city priority. Mayor-elect Larson will undoubtedly carry on this priority in the years ahead.