Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Spirit Mountain nordic trails: The same, only better

The cross country ski trails at Duluth's Spirit Mountain have been an insider's mecca, a system of well-groomed trails in lovely hardwood forest that only a few folks seemed to know about. Those that knew it, loved it. If you didn't know it, well...

Over the summer, the Spirit ski trails got a major makeover, both physically and logistically. The trails are no longer managed by the Spirit Mountain ski hill, but are cared for by a partnership between the City of Duluth and the Duluth XC Ski Club (DXC).

DXC volunteers took a hard look at the trail system and came up with some significant improvements to the trail layout. What had been a set of nested ski loops, ranging from a 1 kilometer easy trail to an 11 kilometer gut-buster, is now a well-thought out network of trails for all skiers. New signs mark every intersection. DXC volunteers were out this fall clearing out the brush and filling in rough spots. The trail feels well-loved now, after many years of benign neglect.

My old fave, changed
In the old Spirit trail system, my personal favorite was the Pete Fosseide 5K trail, named after the guy who won the 153-mile ski race from Duluth to St. Paul in 1938. It was a perfect five-kilometer intermediate loop, running counter-clockwise through the oaks and maples. About two-thirds of that trail is still in place. However, about three kilometers in, the old "5K" disappears into a small maze of redirected trails. No problem, I found a way to stay on the basic loop using a short section of the advanced 11K. 

In the new map and signage, I went from Intersection E to Intersection I. E to I. Or, as I yelled going down the first steep and scary hill in the gloaming dusk, "E-I-I-I!!!"

If you go
The Spirit Mountain Nordic Center is right off Skyline Drive. From Exit 249 of Interstate 35, head toward the Spirit Mountain downhill area but stay on Skyline Drive. It's about one mile to the entrance to the Nordic Center on the right.

The trail is open daylight hours every day. The nordic chalet is open 3:30-5:30 weekdays and 9:00-4:30 weekends. Plan to come up to Spirit on Saturday, February 9 for Winter Trails Day, with free rentals and free lessons co-sponsored by DXC and local ski shops.

Due to a quirk in time and management, the Spirit Mountain trails this year are free to anyone to ski. You are of course encouraged to buy a Great Minnesota Ski Pass and/or join the DXC.

Monday, January 21, 2013

A N'ice time on the North Shore

Recent cold temps on the North Shore have brought back one of my absolute favorite parts of living along this freshwater sea: jagged colors of ice and thick wafting clouds of sea smoke. Turns out that even though it was 14 below on the Park Point beach this morning, I could still use my little digital camera to take a few pictures.

Climate change has meant that Lake Superior water is warmer than ever. Even with temps at double digits below zero in mid-January, the lake water resists that final nudge to ice. The lake water, about to finally freeze, moves slowly, thickly, but still it would rather evaporate into heavy clouds than turn solid. 

It's a cold snap
I'm not the only one out shooting shoreline photos in the cold. Grand Marais photographer and kayak guide Bryan Hansel has been busy..and cold...this winter. If you're on Facebook, I highly recommend "liking" Bryan's photography. You'll get nearly daily photos from the North Shore, including a lot of great shoreline ice photos in the last month or so. Bryan is also teaching a course in Lake Superior winter photography. This year's course is full, but with enough names on the waiting list he might run another session. Travis Novitsky of Grand Portage is getting some great shoreline shots as well; do check out his "waterfall" photo for a Lake Superior scene you've never seen before

Explore on your own
Come on down to the lakeshore almost anywhere now and you'll find dramatic, one-of-a-kind ice formations. Park Point is easy to get to; just go across Duluth's Aerial Lift Bridge and drive five more blocks to the beach access parking lot at the "S-curve" of Franklin Park. Up the shore, check out Two Harbors' Lighthouse Point, the beach at Gooseberry Falls State Park, or Artist's Point in Grand Marais. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Duluth cross country ski trails: 2013 winter update

When you think of skiing and precipitation, most people think about snow. But it's been rain that has affected our trails the most. The great Duluth flood of June 2012 has impacted cross country skiing in Duluth at least as much as this winter's snow. Here is your guide to Duluth's city ski trails in this post-flood winter, working from west to east.

Magney Ski Trail
At the far western end of Duluth is a large and wild 13 kilometers of ski trails that wind through the old-growth forests of a city scientific and natural area. Sadly, the June floods wiped out the stone bridge where Skyline Drive crosses over Stewart Creek, so there is no direct access to the Magney trailhead this year. Some very hearty skiers are skiing all the way into the Magney trails via the Spirit Mountain nordic ski trails, but that adds at least four kilometers just to get there. While the Duluth city groomers are maintaining the Magney trail, it's really open only for the most committed skiers. Read recent reports from here.

Piedmont Trail
Perched above West Duluth along the city's scenic ridgeline is this family-friendly 6 kilometers of trail, mostly double-tracked and well-suited for advanced beginner skiers. The flood did not affect the Piedmont trail long-term at all (a few small bridges were replaced this fall). Skiing has been decent so far this winter, with just enough snow for skiers to make their own tracks. Bonus for this year: thanks to the extra funding provided by Duluth's new parks fund, there's a porta-potty in the parking lot. Read recent reports from here

Chester Bowl
Wrapped around Duluth's urban family downhill ski run is a 3 kilometer advanced loop. Sadly, the June floods wiped out a critical bridge on the loop as well as parts of the trail. The city will groom a small loop in the open field area near the trailhead, but the Chester trails are closed for the winter. Read recent reports from here

Hartley Field
Tucked into the middle of eastern Duluth is the 660-acre wild area known as Hartley Field, with a nested set of ski loops totaling 5 kilometers. While these trails have not been groomed this year, skiers are still enjoying them. There was no damage from the floods, so really nothing is changed here...yet. Ski planners are considering a major reroute of the trail system. Red recent reports from here

Lester Park
On the city's eastern edge is this giant system with 18 kilometers of trails for all ages and abilities, including the city's only trails that are lit at night. The trail itself sustained moderate damage from the June floods, but those have all been fixed. The major impact of the flood is the closure of Seven Bridges Road, the most common access to the Lester system. If you drive up Seven Bridges Road (a.k.a. Occidental Boulevard) from Superior Street, you'll find the road completely closed just past the first of the seven bridges. As at Piedmont, there's a bonus porta-potty here for your comfort. From this new parking area, it's a short walk up a seldom-used snowmobile trail to the trails. Most skiers will start at Point A on the system now. The snow is shallower on the lower parts of the trail and gets deeper the further you ski up the hill and away from Lake Superior. Read recent reports from here

Remember, you can call the city's grooming hotline at (218) 730-4321 for current conditions.