What follows is an incredibly scientific and very carefully curated guide to Duluth area cross-country ski trails.
1. Do you want something unavoidably intense?
If yes, proceed to #2
If no, proceed to #5
2. Do you have a lot of time?
If yes, proceed to #3
If no, proceed to #4
3. Do you prefer constant climbing followed by constant descent, or insidious but varying slopes?
Up then down: Korkki
Beat me up: Mangey-Snively
The Korkki trail, located off Homestead Road between Duluth and Two Harbors, is a single loop out and back with cutoffs at various kilometer points. Like Lester Park, it features a steady rise on the outward ski and a steady coast downward on the inbound trail, only it is more intense in this trajectory, and reaches its climax at the far end of the loop, where there are a bunch of aggressive hills. While
Magney Snively, located at the far west end of Skyline Parkway, is Duluth’s hipster ski trail. The whole system is marked as intermediate, which weeds out a lot of the amateurs, and while other trails have more daunting individual hills, it is notable for having almost zero flat ground. Everything here is either a climb or a descent, sometimes gradual and sometimes a bit more aggressive. Overlooks from Bardon’s Peak and Ely’s Peak afford views of the St. Louis River, and a connector links into the Spirit Mountain system for the truly ambitious.
4. Do you prefer to fall on your face in front of college students or schoolchildren?
College students: Bagley
The Bagley trail is a brief circuit of a park just off the UMD campus. Half of the loop is weaves up and down a few moderately eventful hills, but they seem tame compared to the other half, which involves an intense climb up Rock Hill followed by a very long, curving descent that is about as demanding a hill as one can find on a Duluth cross-country trail. For an adrenaline rush on a tight timeline, Bagley reliably delivers.
Like Bagley, the Chester trails are not long, but they are also even more consistently not easy, which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows the terrain along Chester Creek. There is a downhill ski area here for a reason. A merely intermediate loop links the two nasty loops, with the one atop the ski hill being the substantially longer one.
5. Do you enjoy making constant inane loops?
If yes, proceed to #6
If no, proceed to #7
6. What sorts of children’s activities do you like adjacent to your ski trails?
The full gamut of outdoorsy education: Hartley
We are skiing purists here: Snowflake
Hartley is not an extensive system, but it packs a little of everything into its nook between the Woodland and Hunters Park neighborhoods in Duluth. There’s an easy loop, an intermediate loop, and loop marked difficult largely due to one single hill with a curve at the bottom. The loops can grow a bit numbing, but the red pine ridge atop the intermediate loop has some romance to it in the fading winter light, and for a quick escape that still allows for a little variety, it’s an easy choice.
Like many young Duluth skiers, I learned my trade on the winding trails at Snowflake, the playground of the late local legend George Hovland. I have not been back much since, as it is not on the state ski pass and its trails seem to wind all over before ending up in the same place every time. Still, it has a good variety of stuff to deal with, 40 amusing signs, and the maze-like loops and cutoffs can add a new element.
7. Are you trying to get away from other people?
If yes, proceed to #8
If no, proceed to #10
8. Do you want to become an insufferable convert who only gushes about one single trail?
If yes: Northwoods
If no, proceed to #9
I will not pretend to be unbiased. Northwoods in Silver Bay is about a half hour extra drive from Duluth than anything else on this list, but it is here for a reason: it is hands-down the best trail I know, the crown jewel of northeast Minnesota ski trails. This single-track, classic-only network begins through thick balsams and traces the banks of the Beaver River in its early stages. The options only open up from there. First, just past a marshy meadow on the Beaver, the Palisade Valley connector splits off into the heart of Tettogouche State Park; often ungroomed, it tumbles up and down along creeks and between cliffs in pure solitude. There is the daunting climb up Herringbone Hill, and a separate, challenging overlook with views in three directions. To top it all off, there is a trail out to the floor of Bean Lake, one of the most photographed lakes in Minnesota in its cliff-lined hole, only with none of the crowds that flock to its hiking trail in warmer months. Its highlights take some commitment, but a novice with some endurance can reach Bean with no problem, and it’s possible to have a sedate ski here, too. It is perfection.
9. What is your preferred form of intimacy?
Surrounded by looming trees: Biskey Ponds
An open path lit by lanterns: Erkki Harju
Fredenberg Township’s Biskey system may not have the full array of physical features of Northwoods, but for single-track intimacy and some trails that are fun but never brutal, it’s hard to do better in the Duluth area. There’s a pleasant enough easy loop, but the winding intermediate trails, aptly named for the white pines and birches lining them, are lovely. The Eagle Hill trail is the real gem here, as it climbs to a view over the Beaver River before a long but fun plunge down the opposite side.
Erkki Harju sits on the edge of Two Harbors up Highway 2 and winds in and out of its golf course and some woods beyond. It has a couple of offshoots for added hill fun, and though at no point is the main loop overly technical, it does have a few long, steady cruises downhill that can be deceptively adventurous in the right conditions. Where this trail really shines is at night, when a 3 km loop is lit up by little lanterns on 3-foot poles. Give me this sort of inviting trail over the overhead lampposts on most lit ski trails any day.
10. Do you require the occasional lit evening ski?
If yes, proceed to #11
If no, proceed to #12
11. Do you prefer to commune with cakeaters or tourists?
Cakeaters: Lester Park
Tourists: Spirit Mountain
This East Duluth network is the second-largest of the city trails, and I’d claim it as my home course, having grown up within walking distance. The first half of your ski is a very gradual but quietly tiring climb upward, and the second half is a steady coast all the way back. Because of the elevation, the main loop asks a bit more of skiers than other supposedly easy circuits, and one can continue to add more and more loops as one heads north, both mainline intermediates that tack on the distance and some more demanding side hills for those who enjoy them. It can also be very pretty as it rolls along between the Lester River and Amity Creek, with the Lester D loop being its finest stretch. Get there early after a snowfall, though: it gets busy and it doesn’t take long for people to obliterate the tracks, and its users seem unreasonably fond of going the wrong way on a one-way trail. The good news: the further back one goes, the more the crowds dissipate.
Spirit Mountain/Grand Avenue Nordic Center
The longest system in Duluth has something for everyone. A bunch of easy loops putter around the top of the ski hill by Skyline Parkway, and a longer intermediate loop swings further afield, even providing a connector trail to Magney-Snively for the truly committed. It also has the longest difficult-rated trail anywhere in the area, at least among those using the standard classification system. I will confess to being an infrequent user for no easily discernable reason, but I have no reason not to recommend it, either.
12. Might your ambitions extend beyond one 5K loop?
If yes, Boulder Lake
If no, Piedmont
This Minnesota Power-run system located just beyond Island Lake is a solid trail with wide-ranging offerings. The four connected loops on the south side of the lake are forgiving, the only slight exception being some tight turns on Nine Pine’s hills. A connector across an arm of Boulder Lake takes one to a different world, with a climb up to the Ridge Runner, which runs along an esker and offers two equally worrying downhill options at its far end. Taking the northern route will connect one to the lovely, pine-lined Otter Run. (Why don’t more systems give their trails fun names the way Boulder does?) Bonuses include a bunch of interpretive signs and some campsites along the Bear Paw trail.
Piedmont is comparable to Hartley in its scope: an easy loop, an intermediate loop with some pretty scenery, and one difficult side loop notable for one particularly nasty big hill. The Evel Knevel hill at the back end of the intermediate loop can be challenging in the right conditions, though there is a cutoff, and its easy loop has a decent introduction to a hill with a curve on it. Amusing signs dot the route to liven things up, and there is a good overlook down over the city. Be prepared for the parking lot to overflow.
Yes, yes, I know Superior has a decent course, too, and there are good options at Pine Valley in Cloquet and at some of the local state parks. There is some lovely stuff up the Shore and on the Range, too. This post may grow with time as I venture further out.