For the weekend of the Fourth, we loaded up the Family Truckster and schlepped the whole family to the Duluth area to spend time with family. Given the duration of the stay, this was a great opportunity to partake of Duluth’s singletrack. I went up there with the intent of riding Hartley, Lester Park, and Piedmont — I simply couldn’t ride everything in one go. Well, maybe I could have, but I had other plans up there as well.
For the bike, I was riding a full-rigid steel 29er. Nothing super-fancy. I took a spare cog with me, given the hilly nature of the area, so I was equipped with a 32×16, which was my usual, and and 32×18 as my “oh shit hills” gear. Other than that, typical Camelbak, spandex, helmet, etc. Nothing outside the norm for a mountain biker.
I was going to spend the first half of the Fourth of July out riding the trails. So I woke up early, discovered that my 18-tooth wasn’t going to work with the chain length on the bike, but I said “fuck it” and went and rode anyway. Gearing be damned!
First impression: a lot of very poorly-drained doubletrack. And honestly, I fucking hate doubletrack. I don’t know when it last rained in Duluth, but all the low-lying areas on the trail seemed to be a soup of dark mud. I’m told there’s a lot of great singletrack in the system, but damned if I could find it. The maps posted at the trailhead don’t even show any indication that MTB trails exist.
While I was poking around, I found a small spur that led to an overlook where you could see parts of the city and the port below. I also saw a couple, bare-assed nekkid, having sex on a rock. I said to myself, “‘Murica!” and then I noped the fuck back the way I’d come, and rode back to the car.
Generally, I think Piedmont might have been ruined for me by my first impressions. I’d like a Duluth native who thinks otherwise to show me the trail network up there sometime, though. I don’t want to write it off just because of a bad first experience.
The lack of any technical areas was mildly annoying — comparing to Twin Cities trails, I would actually categorize Lester as easier than Murphy-Hanrehan’s Beginner trail. The up-and-down flow is on par with parts of Lebanon Hills.
The only downside to Lester is the poor markings on the trail. I did once encounter riders coming the opposite way, and while there were a lot of “DO NOT ENTER” signs at various junctions, there wasn’t a lot of guidance as to what was what. I really, really want to revisit this trail with an experienced local and some more miles on my legs for the fitness factor.
Based on the three trails I rode, and the materials published on the web, this trail should likely be considered the crown jewel of Duluth’s singletrack.
Based on my reading of the COGGS site, I can’t imagine revisiting Hartley — the two bike-dedicated loops only account for about a third of the trails, and the shared paths were all flat, crushed-stone noodling that were crowded with hikers and walkers.
The big word here is “potential.” Duluth has potential in spades. The geography and nature are beautiful, and the trail builders are getting better and better, as evidenced by the quality of Lester. Where they need work now is in better trail markings, and in finding ways to become less-dependent on shared-use sections of trail (including doubletrack). In the future, I’ll definitely be partaking of the other offerings in the area, and returning to Lester as often as I can. It’ll be very interesting to see where the trails are in another five years.
It’s a remarkably developed system for a city of 86,000, and it’s something the city’s tourism board should capitalize on and seek funding for — were the trails more fully-realized, I think it would be a very worthwhile destination for mountain bikers seeking a North Shore experience.
ADDENDUM: Some interesting news came up after the second draft of this post.