The Cross-Training Mecca of the Midwest: Duluth, Minnesota

When Outside readers gave Duluth, Minnesota top honors in the magazine’s annual “best towns” feature, the selection turned more than a few heads. You might think a frigid harbor town in a state with no mountains is hardly an outdoors mecca. You’d be wrong, though. Minnesotans are skilled at making the most of what they have; and wedged between the world’s largest freshwater lake and the jagged hills of the state’s north shore, Duluth has a lot. Trail runners, mountain bikers, and skiers – Nordic and downhill alike – will find the town a veritable paradise, and it’s said no one in Duluth lives more than 1,000 feet from a trail.

Some people might see Duluth’s deep delve into winter each year as a disadvantage. Not true, said former Mayor Don Ness in an interview with Trail Runner magazine. “There’s a tendency to be afraid of winter, but we’ve found it’s a really deep part of experiencing the outdoors,” said Ness, who was mayor for eight years, through January 2016. “There’s a rugged nature about [Duluth] – the rock outcroppings, the weather, using what the environment has offered us. Duluth is a city that can challenge you, but also provide these incredible rewards in exchange.”

Duluth’s accouterments as the outdoors capital of the upper Midwest have helped produce a slew of top-flight athletes. Seven-time Western States 100-mile champion and famed ultrarunner Scott Jurek grew up in neighboring Proctor, Minnesota, and cut his trail running teeth on the trails surrounding Duluth; two-time Olympic distance runner Kara Goucher attended Duluth East High School, when her last name was Wheeler; and two-time Olympic biathlete Kara Salmela cut her skiing chops on the city’s seemingly infinite park system. Countless other skiers, runners, mountain bikers, kayakers and ski jumpers have trained on Duluth’s trails, slopes, and rivers.

Duluth is a winning town for both its access to outdoors activities and the variety of activities the city’s parks and trail systems can accommodate. There is something for everyone in this four-season wonderland. Furthermore, there is tremendous teamwork between enthusiasts of different sports, who recognize that a better multi-use trail and park system stands to benefit everyone. “What makes Duluth a great trail town is the network of volunteers who built, maintain, and advocate for our trails,” said trail runner Chris Rubesch, who came to Duluth for college and never left. “I think that’s a bit of a unique model, and I think Duluth’s runners benefit from the partnerships greatly.” In 2015, Duluth was named as a Gold-Level Ride Center by the International Mountain Biking Association—one of just six designations in the world! Mountain and fat-tire bikers can enjoy the Duluth Traverse, a 100-mile ribbon of singletrack traversing all 26 miles of Duluth’s city limits.

Downhill skiers can make the most of tiny Chester Bowl, packed surreptitiously into the heart of the city; they can also hit the slopes at the larger Spirit Mountain. Climbers can find rock – or ice, in the winter – on basalt outcroppings and cliffs at the city’s myriad parks. But coming soon, the city is officially sanctioning a rock and ice-climbing park in casket quarry – a “crag” local climbers have been using, quietly, for years.

Hikers and trail runners will enjoy the endless singletrack in and around the city; in addition to Duluth’s parks and the traverse, which will be open to foot traffic, the 300-mile Superior Hiking trail winds through city limits and can take adventurers south to Wisconsin or north to Canada, with incredible views of Lake Superior and inland features. Paddlers can not only hit the open water of Lake Superior, but can get their fill of the twenty-two rivers running through town. Duluth’s interconnected waterways make this a mecca for paddlers of all stripes.

Nordic skiers can find fresh tracks at city parks such as Lester, Chester, or Hartley – and at parks jut outside town, like Boulder Ridge or Jay Cooke State Park – as well as plenty of backcountry opportunity on – or off – trail in the surrounding hills. “It’s March 15th today and a pleasant 47 degrees,” remarked Bill Fischer, a Duluth native, as he looked out over the St. Louis River flowing toward Canal Park in Duluth. His Nordic skate skies resting on his shoulder and perspiration beading on his forehead, Fischer continued, “It’s been an unusually warm winter and there’s not a drop of snow on the ground anywhere in the Midwest. But I just walked out my front door and did one of the most amazing 10k skate skis of my life. There was this perfect twenty-foot crust of snow and ice along the frozen river that had been perfectly groomed by the winds and sun for days. It was amazing. What a fantastic day!”

For expanded information on Duluth, go to

March 2016 Update: Duluth-based Loll Designs, designers and manufacturers of modern outdoor furniture, announced a $60,000 donation to be spread equally among three local outdoor nonprofits: Duluth Climbers Coalition, Duluth XC Ski Club, and Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores (COGGS). Full story:

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