Cross-country skiing in Duluth
When snow falls, skiers fly onto a splendid system of groomed trails.
One March, I went up to Duluth but woke up in Siberia.
Twenty inches of snow had fallen overnight. A savage 70 mph wind was howling around the glass-walled lobby of the Willard Munger Inn. Swirling snow had turned the air white.
But then my niece and I noticed cars crawling along Grand Avenue. Then more cars. So we bundled up, got in our car and, to our surprise, made it all the way across town to Lester Park.
Dozens of other skiers already had been on the Lester-Amity Ski Trail, creating tracks that we gratefully followed into the sheltering forest.
Duluth is a tough town. When its skiers want to ski, nothing stops them.
Of course, none of them has to go far. Duluth's hills, ravines and creeks create pockets of wilderness into which the city has tucked 45 kilometers of trails.
Two privately owned ski areas, also within city limits, add another 37 kilometers, and just across the Bong Bridge, Superior Municipal Forest includes 26 kilometers of scenic trails.
It's heaven for skiers. In the middle of the city, they're immersed in wilderness-yet 10 minutes away from a really good restaurant or coffeehouse.
When snow falls, trails are groomed and tracked right along with Duluth's streets and sidewalks. Within 10 to 12 hours of a half-foot snowfall, says city forester Kelly Fleissner, all the city trails are groomed.
"If we get a snowfall, we'll be out there almost immediately," says Fleissner, an avid skier who heads the grooming staff and says his "might be the best job in America."
Lester-Amity is the city's most popular ski trail, being gorgeous as well as easy to reach, just off Superior Street.
Skiing up the Lester River through a dense corridor of spruce, then along the rim of the Amity Creek gorge, my niece and I listened to the murmur of the wind and studied the pale winter palette of birch bark and beige grasses furling out of the snow.
Passing Seven Bridges Road, we started downhill back into the firs, and behind me I heard an exhilarated "Whoooooa" turning into "Wooooow . . . That was beautiful."
From Lester Park, we drove up Duluth's precariously steep streets to Snowflake Nordic Center. No one was in the wind-whipped chalet except its proprietor, George Hovland, who skied for the United States in the 1952 Olympics and remained prominent in ski circles until his death in 2021.
As he drew us a minutely detailed map of the trails, he chit-chatted about global warming, politicians and course topography. But after he told us that he named Snowflake because medieval Norwegians wore mittens knitted in a snowflake pattern, we realized we had to take it all with a grain of salt.
"It's pretty deep out there — and in here, too," he noted slyly.
He told us we could ski free, and we headed out on tracks that were decent, though drifted in by the wind. Hovland hated to close Snowflake and always tried to keep it open even in poor conditions.
After skiing at Snowflake, we found our way to the nearby Hartley Park trails, almost getting stuck on the winding lane that leads to it. But after a kilometer of skiing, we tired of the incessant wind and headed back to the motel.
The next day was colder, but the wind had died and the sun was bright in a frosty blue sky. Feeling inexplicably ambitious, we headed up to Magney-Snively Park, on heavily forested hills just beyond Spirit Mountain.
Its parking lot had been cleared, but the trail, which heads straight up, hadn't been groomed. New tracks ended after a kilometer — we could see the cross-hatches left as the lone skier gave up and turned around — but we kept plowing on through 2-foot drifts.
We felt like pioneers, trying to follow old tracks that would pop up, like ruts on the Oregon Trail, then disappear under drifts. Occasionally, our ski tips caught under the snow and we tumbled onto our faces in a flurry of powder.
Our payoff came at the Bardon's Peak overlook, where we drank in a sweeping view of the St. Louis River estuary — Spirit Lake, Clough Island, St. Louis Bay, the Bong Bridge.
As we sat, exhausted, on a wooden bench, another skier passed on his way to Bardon's Peak. We told him to enjoy our tracks, and he thanked us and said he already was.
After a well-earned lunch of burgers and malts at Grandma's on Canal Park, we drove up to the Piedmont trails, just off U.S. 53 next to a residential neighborhood. The groomer had just finished the loop, and I could've kissed its crisp corduroy.
The skiing was perfect, through light forest on wide, rolling lanes and screamer hills that had been turned into pussycats by top-notch grooming.
Wooden signs put up by a neighborhood skier gave us a few chuckles: Go Dis Vay, No Laughing Zone, Finland 7,000 Miles. A Chicken Loop cutoff led around a hill marked Evil Knievel, and the long, gentle swoop to trail's end was called Grand Finn Alley.
"There really is just a plethora of great trails in Duluth," Fleissner says. "You really don't have to go far."
Trip Tips: Nordic skiing in Duluth
Snow conditions: To check grooming conditions or see whether there's enough snow for skiing, call the city hot line, 218-730-4321, or check the Duluth Parks Facebook page or Duluth XC Ski Club Facebook page. Skinnyski.com also lists trail reports by region.
Snow-making: At the foot of Spirit Mountain, the Grand Avenue Nordic Center with snow-making on 1.5 kilometers of a 2.5-kilometer trail. Eventually, there will be 3.3 kilometers of trail with snow-making capability, and a 1.7-kilometer connecting trail to the 22 kilometers of trail on the upper part of the hill.
Information: The Duluth XC Ski Club lists information about tours, clinics, races and grooming schedules.
For more about alpine skiing, festivals and other things to do, see Relishing winter in Duluth.
For trip-planning information, see Duluth 101.
Maps: Duluth Parks and Recreation has maps of each trail.
Ski rental: The outdoor programs at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and St. Scholastica rent skis to the public.
Hartley Nature Center also rents skis and snowshoes, and Snowflake Nordic Center rents skis.
Continental Ski at East First Street and 13th Avenue, 218-728-4466, and Ski Hut at East Fourth Street and 11th Avenue, 218-724-8525, rent skis.
Lester-Amity: This 15-kilometer trail, groomed for skating as well as striding, is the most popular trail in town, easily reached from East Superior Street at 61st Avenue. Its giant firs provide good protection from wind.
In early morning and evening, 4 kilometers are lighted. The 4-kilometer loop on the Lester Park Golf Course is good for beginners. Off Seven Bridges Road (Occidental Boulevard), there's a warming chalet.
Hartley Park: These wooded loops, in a residential neighborhood, include 5 kilometers of double-tracked classical trails. There's a hilly outer loop and a gentler inner loop, good for families and beginners.
Hartley Nature Center rents skis and snowshoes. The trailhead is north of UMD, off Woodland Avenue.
Piedmont: This 5.5-kilometer trail in the hills near Enger Park, off Hutchinson Road (reached from U.S. 53/Piedmont Avenue), is mostly double-tracked for classic skiing and includes an overlook of the St. Louis River valley.
There's a 1-kilometer easy loop groomed for skate and classic. It's not too hilly and is good for beginners and intermediates.
Magney-Snively: This hilly 14-kilometer trail has a classic track and a skate lane and is best for intermediate and advanced skiers. The trail winds from Snively Park to the city limits and adjoining Magney Park, each of which has a stunning overlook.
The parking lot is two miles past Spirit Mountain on Skyline Parkway, just past the dragon's-tooth stone bridge over Stewart Creek. Skiers also can reach it via the Connector trail from Spirit Mountain.
There are two tricky parts. A snowmobile trail cuts through the Ely Peak Loop, and the one-way ski trail looks as if it ends there, but it continues across the snowmobile trail and just to the right.
And at the end, there's a steep downhill that ends in the road; non-experts should take off their skis and walk.
Chester Park: This very hilly 3-kilometer trail, groomed for skate and classic, is tucked away in a residential neighborhood off Skyline Parkway.
The longtime hub of Duluth's winter sports, the volunteer-run Chester Bowl includes a small alpine hill and ice-skating oval.
Snowflake Nordic Center: High above Duluth, this privately operated ski center has 15 kilometers of trails, groomed often. Classic tracks flank skate lanes, used by the many racers who frequent Snowflake, and classic skiers may feel squeezed at times.
There's a convivial chalet with snack counter. A trail pass is $10.
To reach it, take U.S. 53 past Enger Park to Arlington Avenue, which turns into Rice Lake Road past West Arrowhead Road.
Spirit Mountain: Just across the road from the alpine slopes on Skyline Parkway, the Duluth XC Ski Club operates 22 kilometers of groomed skate and classic trails from Spirit Mountain Nordic Center.
There's a 1-kilometer lighted trail and a connector to the Magney-Snively trails. The center is open weekends and holidays, and an $8 trail fee is requested.
From the Grand Avenue Nordic Center at the foot of the mountain, there's a chalet and 2.5 kilometers of trails, including a 1.5 kilometer loop with snow-making capability.
Boulder Lake Management Area: When conditions in the rest of Duluth are marginal (or any time), ski here, in the Island Lake area 20 miles north of town.
There are 22 kilometers of classic trails, 11 kilometers of skating trails and a warming house, maintained as a gift to the city by Minnesota Power, and no fee or Minnesota Ski Pass is required.
From Rice Lake Road, turn left at the Island Lake Inn. There are three places to park. The first one, the East lot, is closest to the scenic and easy Lonesome Grouse and Nine Pine loops.
The North lot, next to the warming house, is 2.7 miles in. There are also snowshoe trails amid the hillier North Loop trails. The snow conditions hot line is 218-355-3057, and grooming reports are posted on its Facebook page.
Superior Municipal: Just across the St. Louis River, the Superior Parks and Recreation Department maintains 28 kilometers of ski trails in Superior Municipal Forest for all levels, groomed for skating and striding; the 10-kilometer Yellow Loop, for advanced skiers, is on the Dwight's Point peninsula and is very scenic.
There's a warming shelter at the trailhead, where the daily trail pass is sold. To get there, head south on Tower Avenue/Wisconsin 35 to 28th Street and drive west to Wyoming Avenue.
The snow conditions hot line is 715-395-7299. For more, see Duluth's twin in Wisconsin.
Buying a pass: A Great Minnesota Ski Pass, which costs $10 daily, $25 yearly or $70 for three years, is required for skiers 16 and older who use Duluth's city trails.
It can be purchased by mail, on-line or at sports shops or gas stations where hunting and fishing licenses are sold.
In Duluth, locations include the Holiday gas stations on Grand, Woodland, London Road, Arrowhead and Miller Trunk Highway.