Finally, we reached the top of the hill, sweaty and panting.
The sun had broken through the haze and the city below sloped lazily toward the blue mass of Lake Superior. From our viewpoint at Hawk Ridge, hanging above downtown Duluth, wildflowers bloomed and the image they framed seemed almost orchestrated.
“Pretty great, right?” said Jake Boyce, my guide, as he climbed off his mountain bike. “It never gets old.”
In the past few years, Duluth has exploded in popularity as an outdoor destination. But the picturesque panoramas are only part of the story. It’s the journeys to those spectacular views, as much as the views themselves, that are bringing record numbers of visitors to town.
With steep hillsides like the one I biked up with Boyce and sprawling Lake Superior, the port city is gaining new attention — both locally and nationally — as a place to hike, paddle and bike while remaining within the amenity-filled confines of a city. Awards have followed; most notably Outside magazine naming it “Best Town Ever” in 2014.
In between my entrance to Duluth and that show-stopping vista was a grueling hour-and-a-half mountain bike expedition: a will-testing climb that left me coated in dust. But after the ride, I would retreat to a plush new resort on the water’s edge and sip on a cold glass of French white wine. It was a pattern I repeated all weekend — and one that Duluth made it easy to accomplish: mountain biking, kayaking on the big lake or hiking in the woods, followed by civilized pampering.
“Duluth, forever, has been recognized for its natural beauty,” said Anna Tanski, Visit Duluth’s president and CEO. “It used to be a hidden gem, but like anything, once it started to catch on, it really caught on fire.”
‘Best Town Ever’
Boyce — a Duluth native and avid outdoorsman — started his tour guide company, Day Tripper, in 2013 after returning from college in the Twin Cities and rediscovering the unique natural features that his hometown had to offer.
Others were discovering that wealth, too, he realized.
“Duluth has always been a great place to play outside,” he said. “In recent years, that has just become more known.”
Last year, Day Tripper managed almost 340 trips. Looking back, Boyce believes the company’s timing was perfect.
Other outdoors outfits had tried and failed to sustain success. But in 2012, construction began on the Duluth Traverse, a mountain bike trail project; since then, more than 40 miles of trails have been added, weaving through canopy-covered forests and flirting with the city’s dramatic ridgelines. The 70-plus miles now available within city limits — which include various options for the experienced and the wobbly — already separate Duluth, nationally. But 30 more miles of steep climbs and tumbling descents are expected before the Traverse reaches completion.
“It’s the first of its kind,” Boyce said. “There are a lot of other cities that have a lot of bike trails. But just the fact that it’s stretching all the way across Duluth is something special.”
Kayaking at Glensheen
One hazy Sunday morning in August, a small group of kayakers and I drifted alongside staggering rust-hued cliffs hidden below Hwy. 61.
“People don’t realize when they’re on the road that there are these beautiful walls right beneath them,” said Matti Erpestad, another Day Tripper guide.
As we paddled along the shore, around the lake’s broad turn, we came into view of the historic Glensheen Historic Estate, a long-standing tourist attraction that many are now finding a new way to see: from the outdoors.
The tour had started at the carriage house, further down the property. Now, skimming the glassy surface, the sprawling red brick estate afforded the first impression it was always meant to give: Tiered white crested terraces with two sets of rising steps stretched out beyond a blooming garden and a fountain-graced pool. When the mansion was built in 1908, you see, many visitors were arriving not by road, but by boat.
We glided past the beach where those vessels would have docked and through a thin canal on the left side of the sprawling grounds. Suddenly, we emerged in a hidden cove, surrounded by steep rock banks, trees and ferns. In the middle of the shallow watering hole, where the Congdon family would swim in the summer, was a miniature island.
“A common picnic area,” Erpestad said.
It’s somewhat overgrown now, but I could imagine the grass manicured and the blankets spread with treats. With no wind, scarce clouds and temperatures in the high 70s, the Congdons surely would have been out on a day like this.
But to settle for boating and daydreaming — as we were — wasn’t much worse.
“Pretty much a perfect day for kayaking,” Erpestad said.
Not everyone is thrilled with the growth. On a bustling Saturday evening, a Yellow Cab driver grumbled that the flood of visitors has led to “price gouging.”
“Now, we’re all paying $10 for a beer,” she said.
But there’s no question that in the midst of its moment, the city is thriving.
In 2015, the most recent research data available, 6.7 million people visited Duluth, nearly doubling the 3.5 million annual visitors the city cited previously (the 2015 data represents the first comprehensive study in years). Now, a burst of new outdoors companies, restaurants and other businesses are cropping up to take advantage of the rising demand.
North Shore SUP (stand-up paddleboarding) was launched in 2012. The Duluth Experience Tour Co., which opened shop in 2013, added outdoors adventures to its lineup shortly after Day Tripper landed on the scene. Positive Energy Outdoors, which began in 2004, also has recently added fresh offerings.
The past few years have seen new hot spots emerging on the dining and drinking scene, too: Bent Paddle Brewing Co., a craft brewery and taproom, in 2013; Duluth’s Best Bread, an artisan bakery, in 2015; Northern Waters Restaurant, a more upscale offshoot of town staple Northern Waters Smokehaus, last year. Pier B Resort, a $30 million hotel, welcomed travelers in June.
Last year, a weekend at the height of the season was met by blue skies and plenty of bustle. Families strolled the Lakewalk, which runs more than 7 miles east from Canal Park. Teens jumped off Uncle Harvey’s Mausoleum — ruins protruding in Superior’s shallow water — and into the welcoming surf. Lines wrapped around the wooden halls at Dewitt-Seitz Marketplace in Canal Park for Smokehaus sandwiches. After dark, they extended similarly for PortLand Malt Shoppe ice cream cones near Leif Erikson Park.
And in Vikre Distillery, the cocktail scene simmered with bargoers decked in flannel and sipping drinks tinged with bitters, egg whites and muddled snap peas, among other things. Last year, USA Today named Vikre the nation’s best craft specialty spirits distillery.
The trail continues
The morning fog, melting over Duluth’s jutting hills, saturated our hair and jackets as we hiked.
With a canopy of tree cover overhead, my travel companion and I ascended Ely’s Peak, trekking up damp dirt trails, crossing over roots and rock ledges, hurdling fallen trees. We passed a pair of young women, hopping along easily in their workout gear.
At every plateau, I felt we’d reached the top. The rugged trail framed by shedding white birches would level onto smooth, moss-covered terraces and the forest would reveal the expanse below.
But then we’d shift our view and see the chunky rock footholds continuing upward, steeply.
Finally, we made it to the top. After gazing across those stunning sightlines, we’d started back from the peak when two older gentlemen with walking canes and backpacks pierced the wind-whipped quiet, trudging the opposite way.
How were they doing, we wanted to know.
“So far, so good,” one replied, huffing. “But it’s only 1 o’clock.”
The Superior Hiking Trail — which includes Ely’s Peak — continues 310 miles, from Jay Cooke State Park to the Canadian border, if hikers want the trek. And many do.
From the mass of Lake Superior to the boulder-laden cliffs that rise above it, Duluth’s bounty offers ample opportunities to sweat — and afterward unwind.
When we completed our hike, the sun peeked out from the clouds and the city had stirred to life. On the edge of the great lake, the brick patio at Canal Park Brewing filled faster than a shot glass in a rainstorm.
We found seats and eyed, lazily, the beauty around us. Then we tore into burgers and fries.