Duluth is lucky to have more than 100 miles of single-track mountain bike trails right in the city limits. Many are near the middle of town or out east, but don't let a few extra minutes of driving deter you from venturing out the Mission Creek trails in the Fond du Lac neighborhood.
On a recent Monday, I parked at Chambers Grove park and pedaled for just over 11.3 miles by making a loop out of the St. Louis River Trail, Valley West and Indigenous Lands trails.
Other trails in town might offer grand views of Lake Superior or waterfalls, but biking, hiking or running Mission Creek takes you through a forest and along smoother, less technical surfaces.
It often feels more like a wilderness — until you reach the cutout of Sasquatch holding a bike rim. Don't let that spook you. I once was trying to sneak a ride in before sunset and thought it was a bear for half a second.
But this ride was during the middle of the day as temperatures approached 90 degrees. Far away from the breeze off Superior, it was surprisingly pleasant under the heavily-shaded forest.
Maybe it was the heat, but I saw only three other people during the 90 minutes or so I was out there — all within the first mile. While weekends are certainly busier, it would be a stretch to call it crowded.
You can also hop on the trails at a trailhead off Becks Road, but starting at Chambers means I got the climbing out of the way early and could take the flowy downhills on the way back to my car. Thankfully, the climb is pretty relaxed and gradual. Yes, it's work, but 450 feet over 4 miles isn't bad compared to other climbs on Duluth trails.
The trails give you glimpses of the St. Louis River and 4 miles in, at the system's high point, there's an overlook of the valley the trails surround and of Mont du Lac Resort over in Wisconsin.
I'll call what I took the outer loop, and only the last mile or two are where you'll find turns, bridges and terrain that are slightly more challenging. Overall, the trails are generally smooth and interspersed with flowy sections that require little pedaling.
Many of Duluth's trails are rocky and rooty. For beginner mountain bikers, a front wheel against one of those can take out all your momentum, forcing you to stop or tip over. Worse, it can send you over the handlebars.
But the trails at Mission Creek are comparatively smooth, made up of mostly sand and dirt trails. If you'd rather hike or run, and are clumsy like me, the lack of rocks and roots will help keep you upright. Your toes and ankles will thank you.
For more experienced mountain bikers, the relatively smooth, nontechnical trails make for a great place to put on long miles. In total, the system has 25 miles of trail. By doing the outer loop I'm describing here — just over 11 miles — and then adding on what I'll describe as the inner loop — almost 7 miles of Loki, Upper Cathedral and Lower Cathedral — brings you to 18 miles with only about 1/2 mile of repeated trail.
You'll have to repeat some trails to get there and back, but Ninja Beaver, Porcupine Passage and East Porcupine Passage are also fun intermediate trails. Keep an eye open for porcupines, which also use the trails, hence the name.
Aside from the two advanced black diamond trails (both run parallel to easy green and intermediate blue trails and can easily be bypassed), the most technical aspects of the trail system are the many wooden bridges over ravines. Most are plenty wide but are often built on corners and may be sagging in the middle. Thankfully, volunteers with Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores have been replacing or repairing the worst bridges. They've also been building up the approaches so all you have to do is roll onto the bridge rather than pulling on your handlebars to get your front wheel high enough to get on top of it.
But even the short bridges can be sketchy if you're not paying attention. A couple summers ago, I came around a corner and up a slight hill to find a small bridge. I knew I didn't quite have enough speed so I hesitated before the bridge and somehow ended up at the bottom of the (thankfully small) ravine with bruised ribs.
There's no shame in walking across a bridge.
Be extra cautious toward the bottom of Indigenous Lands. The trail is cut into the edge of the ravine so there's a steep drop off on one side. The corners are often blind and some don't have berms.
Finally, the last section takes the roads through the Fond du Lac neighborhood back to the parking lot at Chambers Grove.
Have a favorite trail you want us to check out? Drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Happy Trails.”