Anne Gullion pulled back a bit on the reins of her horse, Stormy, a 17-year-old gelding, and stopped to take in the view.
For as far as you could see across the hillside in far western Duluth - especially boosted an extra five feet in the air on horseback - maples glowed with orange and yellow and red, even on a mostly cloudy day.
"It's absolutely gorgeous,'' she said. "Sometimes you just have to stop and look for a while."
Gullion, of Cloquet, and June Breneman of Oliver invited a novice rider along one afternoon last week to ride on the new Magney Snively-Ely's Peak Equestrian Trail and Ski Loop along western Duluth's portion of Skyline Boulevard.
A decade in the works, it's the first "destination"' horse trail in Duluth and riding enthusiasts hope it will be the first phase of a trail network that will link with a pro-speed horse camp at the Buffalo House and on to existing horse trails in Jay Cooke State Park.
"If we can make those connections, this will become a destination for riders, especially endurance riders,'' Gulion said of a growing horseback group who take long rides. "And it gives people in town and just outside of town a great place to ride."
Horses have for years been allowed in a few places in Duluth, such as on the gravel portion of West Skyline and on Amity Creek trail. But the new trail is the first to offer a loop experience in such a scenic setting. The 3.7 mile new section, which will be officially dedicated Friday by city officials, is long enough to make it worthwhile for riders to trailer their horse and visit Duluth.
"It's not just people in town but people who live outside of town who may board their horse or even have five acres and a horse but maybe not any trails to ride on,'' Breneman said. "We've been hoping for a trail like this for a long time."
There are long portions of heavily wooded forest, under a canopy of old-growth maples and aspen. But there are also overlooks that provide scenic vistas of the St. Louis River and city below.
Local riders started organizing in 2003 when the city of Duluth, citing user conflict, closed many trails to horses that had been used by riders for years. In 2005 the Magney Snively Forest management plan called for a designated trail for horseback riders. By 2007, the Duluth Area Horse Trail Alliance became an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Their mission was, and remains, to develop trails were horses could be mostly on their own or are compatible with other uses.
The new 3.7-mile lop is a cross-country ski trail in winter. In summer and fall it will be open only to horses and hikers but not ATVs, motorcycles or bicycles.
"Multiple use trails (including horses) work everywhere. They are the norm out west. But here, not as much,'' said Gullion, an alliance board member. "But it's our job to educate people that horses and other (trail users) can co-exist."
The new trail was built with $168,000 of the city's "half-and-half" tourism tax funding and another $40,000 from the city's parks maintenance fund along with grants from the Minnesota Trail Riders Association and American Endurance Riders Conference and $40,500 from the Duluth Horse Trail Alliance. The alliance also added hundreds of hours of volunteer time for construction.
Loads of gravel were brought in to harden soft spots, and steep hills were made more gradual with switchback trails. That's to prevent erosion and makes it easier for novice riders as horses sometimes tend to go fast down steep hills. It also will help trail groomers track the ski trail even in low-snow winters.
Alliance members also are hoping to convert other, winter-only ski and snowmobile trails in the city to summer horseback use. Those trails are often unused in the summer. But the conversion often requires money and effort to harden, or fill-in, soft spots in low areas. Some horses uses multi-use trails that allow snowmobiles even in winter.
"Snowmobilers have been very polite. We get along with them just fine,'' said Candy Barbo, an avid horseback rider who lives near Spirit Mountain vice president of the alliance. "They often turn off their machines while we go by."
Jim Shoberg, Duluth senior parks planner for the city, said it's "absolutely important" for horse riders to have access to trails in Duluth, as long as the trails are built right.
"The soils are soft up there. And when you put heavy equestrians on it there could be erosion, so we had to do it right. That park is a quality natural area and we had to make sure that we weren't doing anything to harm the landscape, that we minimize the impact."
Shoberg said the city will keep working with horse enthusiasts as they extend trails west as part of the city's St. Louis River Corridor Initiative.
"We're going to have a seat at the table with equestrian enthusiasts, no doubt," he said.
The enthusiasm riders have for their sport is obvious. It's not only expensive to own and keep a horse, and a huge commitment of time, but it becomes an activity that morphs to obsession and then a lifestyle.
"You don't go for a ride and then put your horse in the garage and forget about it for a week,'' Gullion noted.
Breneman and Gullion talked enthusiastically about trips across the U.S. to horseback riding destination trials. Horse camps, where adults can set up tents and RVs adjacent to destination trails, have become hugely popular, allowing kindred spirits to spend their vacations together.
That's what alliance members are hoping for in Duluth.
"It's not only a great way to get outdoors, the activity and the scenery, but it's also a challenge, physically and mentally,'' Breneman sazid. "And then you have the relationship with the animal... and you have a three-pronged sort of benefit."
Meeting a horse and rider
Horses are big, and can be intimidating to some hikers and others on the same trails. If you encounter a horse and rider on a Duluth trail, or anywhere else for that matter, don't panic.
If you are overtaking them from behind, use a firm but normal voice to announce to the horse and rider that you are there. If you are moving toward (face-to-face with) the horse and rider, do the same. Don't make loud noises or harsh movements.
"If horses know you are there, everything will be fine,'' said Anne Gullion, owner of Serenity Farms, a stable in Cloquet, and a past president of the Duluth Area Horse Trails Alliance. "The problems come when horse are surprised suddenly by something they haven't seen or heard."
If in doubt, stop, step aside and wait for the horse and rider to pass, Gullion said, or ask the horseback rider what would be best.
If you go:
- What: Grand opening celebration for the new Magney Snively-Ely's Peak equestrian trail and ski loop. City officials will join horseback enthusiasts for the grand opening event.
- When: 11 a.m. Friday
- How much: Free
- Directions: At the trailhead parking lot, 10005. W. Skyline Parkway (West of Spirit Mountain or east of Beck's Road.)
- Online: duluthhorsetrails.org.