The view from Skyline Parkway

John Ramos

View from 500 Block. Photo credit: John Ramos
View from 500 Block. Photo credit: John Ramos

Starting in June, the city will begin restoring views to sections of Skyline Parkway, which in many places are completely blocked by vegetation. Selected trees will be cut down and the stumps treated with herbicide. The opened hillside will be replanted with native shrubs and smaller trees to control erosion and restore aesthetics. The hope is that the new landscape will be able to establish and perpetuate itself, keeping the views and reducing maintenance for many years. In the past, tree stumps were not treated with herbicide. According to Kelly Fleissner, the city’s manager of maintenance operations, “they suckered and sprouted and came back like gangbusters.”

Unlike most city work plans, which employees develop internally, the Skyline vista-clearing project has an advisory committee evaluating it. Composed of members of the Parks Commission, the Urban Forest Commission, city staff and other citizens, the advisory group was formed last December by Jim Filby Williams, the city’s director of public administration. He took this “unusual step,” he told me, because the city has lacked diligence with regard to Skyline Parkway work in the past.

“A number of citizens had reported cases of city commitments made and not fulfilled in regard to restoration of the viewsheds on Skyline repeatedly enough and over a long enough period of time that I felt like we needed to invite an elevated level of transparency and engagement and oversight so that citizens could feel confident that this time the city’s commitments would in fact be translated into satisfactory actions,” said Filby Williams.

500 Block. Photo credit: John Ramos
500 Block. Photo credit: John Ramos

Although standards and guidelines for Skyline Parkway exist in a number of documents (for example, the Unified Development Code (UDC) states that new plantings on the lower side of Skyline cannot reach higher than three feet above the surface of the roadway), there are currently few formal guidelines for Skyline to which the city can refer when clearing trees and landscaping hillsides. Filby Williams hopes to change this. In a draft work plan that he submitted to the Parks Commission last December, he called for “an amendment to City Code…to include specific direction on cutting trees for view along Skyline Parkway, both on City and private property.”

The landscape architecture firm SAS and a professional arborist have developed a list of 13 sites along Skyline that need attention. Work will be done one site at a time for as long as funding holds out. There will not be enough money to do all 13 sites this year, but the city hopes to save money in the future by having city employees do the work.

“The intent was to hire [the consultants] to design the restoration plans for three or four sites, with the intent to use those designs not only for work on those particular sites, but to serve as templates for staff, who would thereafter be charged with developing site plans in-house,” said Filby Williams.

Historic reflecting pool. Photo credit: John Ramos
Historic reflecting pool. Photo credit: John Ramos

The first site that will be worked on is the 500 block of West Skyline Parkway. Unlike Skyline’s more remote sections, where it is a gravel road winding through deep woods, the 500 block is paved and urban, overlooking downtown. The viewshed is still open in places—if you stand in the right spot, you can catch a great vista of Park Point and the aerial lift bridge—but box-elders and other weedy trees obscure much of the view. The site is choked with brush.

SAS’s plan calls for removing most of the brush and bigger trees on the site, with the exception of a stand of pines on the eastern end and a stand of sumac on the west. New shrubs and trees will be planted, with smaller plants like honeysuckle and northern black currant next to the roadway and larger trees like sugar maples farther down the hill. Some trees will be strategically situated so as to “frame” desirable views. Mailings will be sent to all residents living within 200 feet of the work area before the work commences.

Skyline Parkway has suffered from inadequate attention for decades. Many people point to the emergence of Canal Park as a tourist destination in the 1980s as a factor in drawing resources away from Skyline. Sporadic attempts have been made to improve the parkway—way-finding signs have been erected, a historic reflecting pool was excavated from the forest in 2014, and volunteers periodically pick up old tires and bags of garbage that have been dumped off the overlooks—but the signs of neglect are unmistakable and ubiquitous. Much of the roadway is badly potholed, many bridges need maintenance and at least one scenic overlook, on the western end of the parkway, is located in the middle of the forest.

Bridge over Stewart Creek  Photo credit: John Ramos
Bridge over Stewart Creek Photo credit: John Ramos

In 2003, the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission (ARDC) conducted a state-funded study and produced the Skyline Parkway Corridor Management Plan, the goal of which was to “Restore and maintain Skyline Parkway as a major scenic, historic, natural and recreational resource and attraction for visitors and residents alike.” The findings of the study were unsurprising: Skyline Parkway was a unique, wonderful place—the authors especially liked the “native stone” out of which the many bridges and overlooks were constructed—and restoring it would be “an ambitious and long-term undertaking” that would require a lot of resources and commitment. (The report, which was updated in 2015, is a very interesting read. It may be found at
In 2010, Mayor Don Ness called for a ten-year plan to spruce up Skyline. He was talking primarily about the road surface, but he also expressed a desire to reopen closed overlooks and ramp up police enforcement to discourage illegal dumping. The city chipped away at the job over the years, but its many budget constraints made the problem seem almost insurmountable.
Ironically, the Great Flood of 2012, which ravaged the city and destroyed parts of Skyline, proved to be a great boon to the parkway. Emergency relief money, much of it from the county, was made available to assist in recovery efforts. This resulted in some nicely refurbished sections of Skyline—the Haines intersection, the Highland/Getchell intersection and a long stretch of Seven Bridges Road were all completely rebuilt, among other things.
The current impetus for vista-clearing began on August 31, 2015, when the Duluth city council passed a resolution calling on the city administration to adopt “vegetation management strategies” for Skyline that followed recommendations in the ARDC report. The work on the 500 block will be the first visible manifestation of this strategy, which the city intends to refine and carry on through 2017 and beyond.

The original Skyline Parkway, then called Terrace Parkway, was a three-mile stretch of road that ran along the escarpment from Chester Creek to Miller Creek. It was completed in 1891. It was very popular, and grew piece by piece over the years. “Snively’s Road,” Mark Ryan’s 1994 article about Skyline Parkway, is the best source on the subject. “When presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan campaigned in Duluth in 1900, he toured the boulevard and reportedly agreed afterward with the local assessment that there was no finer drive in America.”

Today’s Skyline Parkway begins at Becks Road and travels 25 miles to Seven Bridges Road, through every zone of Duluth: from deep woods, with rocky outcroppings and tumbling waterfalls, where the road is rougher than most Forest Service roads, to major urban traffic arteries, business districts, residential areas and then back to the woods and more waterfalls.

This year is Skyline’s 125th anniversary, but you don’t hear much about it.