Michigan is often called the Great Lake state, and its residents try to selfishly hog the accolades of all five of the amazing inland seas of freshwater. The reality, Michigan is great and is bordered by four of the five: Lake Michigan, Superior, Huron, and Erie. Only Lake Ontario is out of the Mitten’s grasp. Over time though, Michiganders have learned to share the great lakes and play in the same glacial-carved sandbox as Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
Lake Superior is the mightiest and largest of the great lakes, and it has created some terrain perfect for mountain biking. In the spirit of sharing, four Michiganders loaded bikes, ferried over one big lake, and drove across Wisconsin to get to the far west end of Lake Superior.
Enter Duluth, Minnesota.
Do not underestimate Midwest mountain biking. Duluth is not sandy and flat and has been designated an IMBA gold-level ride center. In mountain bike speak that means there are 100s of miles of sick, gnarly rock and single-track rollers that the experts love, and an intermediate rider (like me) can get a solid butt-pucker scare on. Bonus, this is all with impeccable views of Lake Superior and friendly locals with a wild side.
We came to bike and test our skill level. I suggested we start with Duluth’s Mission Creek area: mellow, fun and flowy trails overlooking the St. Louis River. Within 15 minutes of our first ride, Steve flew over his bars down a steep and landed on his face! His sunglasses snapped in half on impact and left him with an impressive shiner and a shin contusion with a bunch of swelling. We patched him up and rode out seeking ice packs, ointment, and beer. Hello, day one! Mountain biking and falling – it’s not if but when.
Duluth’s craft beer and food scene helped ease our leg soreness and helped Steve forget his swollen left eye. Ursa Minor Brewing was a favorite, convenient to trailheads with a staff that pumped out amazing wood-fired pizzas. We also refueled at Bent Paddle Brewing, Hoops Brewing and Canal Park on the bayfront.
This trip seemed all about testing limits. Steve and Josh kept gabbing about gaps, rollers and how hitting jumps is all about speed. I think they watched one too many YouTube videos. Kim and me, we discussed staying on our bike and keeping the rubber side down. I contemplated Steve’s crash throughout our four days of riding….not sure I would have gotten back in the saddle after a knock to the head!
With Spirit Mountain on our itinerary, a ski resort turned mountain bike downhill park, more falling seemed imminent. A thunderstorm rendered the lifts closed so to celebrate the 4th of July we rode off on the Duluth Traverse, logging miles tucked in lush woods and rock-lined rivers. The traverse connects all of Duluth’s main trail centers, providing over 100 miles of dirt highway. I followed my bike buddies up some climbs and around many river bends scraping my pedals on rocks in tight areas. Back at Spirit Mountain, a friendly local helped us find the Puker Trail, the long climb up the edge of the mountain. For the record, we did not hurl. Our reward was a long downhill called Happy Camper.
Testing legs and limits continued.
Josh hates getting lost on unmarked trails, one of many good reasons to hire a bike guide to show you around. Jake from Day Tripper led us on an adventurous tour around the Piedmont/Brewer trail system. His skill on a bike was impressive, and I watched amused as Josh finally had someone to chase for a change. It was a humid day confirmed by the sweat running into my eyes as I tried to keep pace. Thankfully Jake stopped at various lake vistas so I could collect my wits and find my legs, lost on one of the previous climbs. Another reprieve for me was an obstacle called Three Sisters. Riders can choose one of three rocky and steep 25’ drops. My response was a “hell no,” so Jake coached Josh through the line and demoed the run. Breathless, I looked through my lens and snapped photos of my daredevil husband. Steve, Kim and I cheered his “sister success,” and I exhaled thankful that nurse-maiding broken bones were not in my future. That day, only Kim took a turn falling while churning up a rocky pitch. She landed on a sapling but thankfully only bruised her butt and calf, not her head! Back at the parking lot we chowed on deli sandwiches and hit Brighton Beach. Lake Superior was warm enough for a swim but doubled as a natural ice pack.
We biked four days in a row and returned to Spirit Mountain for our final test, a true downhillers paradise complete with lift access to the top. By day four, I noted that everyone pulled on both kneepads and elbow pads. Smart. Looking around the parking lot, I spied plenty of bikers padded up, and most were wearing full-face helmets. We bumped into a bike shop owner from Wisconsin too, on the injured list from a recent jump-gone-wrong wipe-out. He limped around and showed us an image of a gruesome hole in his upper leg. Thankfully, his nurse-trained wife knew how to dress and pack a severe wound. Looking at his injury photo was probably not a good idea right before riding downhills. Caution was already my mantra, so I resolved to be the happiest, slowest, and safest rider down the mountain. I left the falling and testing limits to the others.
The weather cooperated, so we rode up the chairlift retrofitted to carry bikes. We skipped Puker and settled on the downhill trails: Candyland and Happy Camper to start. We chuckled at the green (easy) trail rating as we pointed the rubber down the trails. You pick up speed quickly plus the path is built with a series of mini speed bumps, followed by tight s-curves and high-banked turns, each obstacle required intent focus. Steve, Kim, and Josh bombed down in front of me, and I’d catch them at the bottom, and we’d ride up the chairlift again. Rinse and repeat. Steve did add another fall to his Duluth resumé, skidding out around a burm, this time bloodying his elbow and finger. His bruises began to take the shape of a new great lakes constellation, soon to be named, the Superior Purple Major. Finally, our calls for “one more” turned to the last run and the bikes and pads were stowed in the minivan.
We had a long ride home and plenty of time to discuss the trails, the Superior views, the rock riding and very literally about falling head over heels in love with an area that clearly knows how to deliver a good time on two wheels.