DULUTH, Minn. -- With just a wisp of breeze and magnificent blue skies overhead, a few dozen pedal strokes led us to the wide-bermed switchbacks of the trail leading to Duluth’s Observation Hill on the opening day of the recent holiday weekend.
The initial ride would be a climb to Enger Park, rolling over the rocks and between the trees to soak in the panoramic views above Lake Superior and Duluth harbor.
Though I’ve run the trails previously, this first-ever mountain biking tour provided a new and vastly different way to take in the outdoors.
However, as a novice biker with limited skills, the setting was perfect as an introduction to riding the trails.
As an veteran trail runner, several excursions each year take me to the backcountry to see hidden gems and amazing vistas, many of which are removed from the roads and city.
Minnesota, though, offers some great trails barely removed from the steel and concrete of the modern day city — close enough to access easily and find yourself within the wonders of nature.
And cycling — especially on a mountain bike — allows a person of any ability to quickly access the woods, prairie or cliff tops that help reconnect us with that primal urge to connect with the outdoor world.
Though the Duluth Traverse Trail spans 43 miles and connects dozens of trails, we loaded the bikes after our initial five-mile ride and headed a short distance north to the Hartley Nature Center.
Exploring the green
Visiting a trail for the first time can bring a wave of excitement and anticipation.
Stands of willow and pine trees towered above while our wheels rolled over the crushed gravel. Minutes later we were deep within the woods on wide and gently rolling multi-use trails. As a newbie to mountain biking and the park, sticking to trails marked with green and blue signs seemed the smart move. Each intersection brought new options and more time spent surrounded by nature’s pristine canvas.
A wooden boardwalk on the Root Canal trail meanders through the wetlands to give a glimpse of the diverse ecosystem. After five-plus more miles of riding, the trip through the park seemed too short.
An afternoon break, with a rendezvous to the Bent Paddle Brewery and OMC Steakhouse, provided enough refreshment for our final ride of the day. Starting at the Chester Bowl Rim, we jumped on the undulating trail for two-thirds of a mile before a neighborhood connection to the UMD Duluth Traverse segment. The trail led us to Root Canal, where we turned around to retrace our pedal strokes and call it a day.
The tour continues
After three distinct trail rides in one day, our sights were set the following day on the Mission Creek trails, where an outstanding view above the St. Louis River Valley punctuated our start from the trailhead off Highway 210.
The lush air of the wooden hills, just above the nation’s largest freshwater estuary, filled our lungs as a green canopy shaded our journey along the flowing landscape. Numerous wooden bridges on the Loki trail can be daunting to an inexperienced rider, but good balance and patience made these passages fun and safe.
A short connection to the Upper Cathedral trail would complete our six-mile loop back to the parked vehicle, though we stopped a few times for overlooks and pictures to document the journey. Like running, the first time on a new trail can be slower, though there’s plenty of satisfaction of taking time to enjoy all these trails have to offer.
The adventure continued with a drive to Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area near Crosby, Minn., in hopes we’d find enough time to ride before the forecasted rain showers.
We arrived at the Yawkey Unit to glorious blue skies, unloaded the bikes and found our bearings. A mellow ride on the one-way Haul Road trail led us to the main destination — the Bobsled Loop near Yawkey Mine Lake.
A quick stop before the ascent allowed a few mountain bikers to rocket past. The climbing proved to be fun, and after a few minutes of navigating rocky sections, I started realizing that an action camera mounted on the bike would be worth the investment.
Though Bobsled Loop’s finish has been rerouted, the descent still offers the high-pitched berms that makes grown-ups smile.
On our return to Haul Road, we opted to tack on an additional mile of trail by accessing Manuel Drive — which offers up some of its own climbing before leading mountain bikers on a ride of thrilling red dirt rollers.
A few hours later, a beverage and meal at a local restaurant capped a day of new experiences and memories, and the long-awaited rainstorm rolled through quickly.
A different perspective
It was hard to fathom how the third day of our mountain biking road trip could compete with what we’d seen. But a stop for coffee at Red Raven and short drive to parking at Cuyuna had us ready to continue with a ride on Switchback, Drag Line and Galloping Goose trails for a mostly gentle circumnavigation of Portsmouth Mine Pit, Pennington Mine and Huntington Mine lakes.
For someone used to running trails, the sights and sounds were all very familiar. But the ethereal experience of nature from the saddle of a mountain bike opened up a new way to access the outdoors.
It seemed an almost too-perfect trip — world-class trails in multiple locations, mild summer-like temperatures, no bugs and a fun companion. With seven different trail rides, the adventure offered a diverse mix of easy to moderate difficult trails to build biking skills and see the world from a different perspective.
Though biking trails requires more gear compared to running, the experience has opened another world of possibilities.
Now I just have to look at the calendar to figure out when I can go back -- and find my way to Minnesota's other great biking destinations places like Bemidji, Rochester, Detroit Lakes and the Iron Range and North Dakota's Maah Daah Hey Trail.