Considering more than 150 Olympians hail from Duluth – skiers and skaters in particular – it's no surprise the city has emerged as the Midwest's premier outdoors hot spot. Heaps of trails swipe the region. Mighty Lake Superior crashes its shore. Mountains pop out of the surrounding Northwoods. So what if it's 2 degrees Fahrenheit in winter? Duluth's adventure junkies just bundle up and go out to play (and drink beer).
By bike, kayak or snowshoe
A 100-mile mountain bike trail that spans the city? Riders are stoked for the Duluth Traverse (coggs.com), a single-track path that's opening bit by bit and linking several existing trails. When it's finished – the city is shooting for 80 percent completion by 2017 – no Duluthian will be more than five minutes from the route. Runners, hikers and snowshoers can also commune with the pines along the way.
When the white stuff falls, which is often since Duluth is one of the snowiest places in the nation, locals bust out their skis and snowboards and head to Spirit Mountain. Competitive types race in the night leagues, while slackers plop in a snow tube for their journey down the slopes.
The enormous, wave-frothed lake fronting the city can't be ignored once summer comes around. Lots of people hit the water via kayak. Duluth Experience (theduluthexperience.com) rents vessels if you don't have your own. The company also offers tours that glide along Superior's shore, as well as mountain biking jaunts for landlubbers. Gear and a local smoked fish lunch are part of the package.
You can see why Outside Magazine named Duluth the 'Best Town in the USA' for 2014. And we haven't even gotten to the Superior Hiking Trail (shta.org) yet. You know, the 290-mile path that leaves from town and follows the lake-hugging ridgeline to Canada, passing dramatic waterfalls, red-rock overlooks and the occasional moose and black bear en route.
It's awesome for several reasons. Trailheads with parking lots pop up every 5 to 10 miles, making it ideal for day hikes. A shuttle bus between lots eases life even more. Campsites and lodges abound for overnight hikers. And the whole footpath is free, with no reservations or permits required.
If you're short on time, you can trek part of the Superior Trail right in town. Near Canal Park, where iron-ore freighters bellow in and out of port, look for the boardwalk that everyone and their mother are on – it's actually part of the path. Trail markers dot the way to prove it.
Bob Dylan's road
Bob Dylan was born in Duluth, though the city is pretty laid-back about its famous son. Fans are on their own to find his birthplace (519 N 3rd Ave E), up a hill a few blocks northeast of downtown. The yellow duplex is a private residence (and unmarked), so all you can do is stare from the street. Dylan lived here until age six, and then his family moved out of town.
But Duluth stuck in his head. One of Dylan's most iconic albums is Highway 61 Revisited, named for the road that ran from Duluth to New Orleans, aka the fabled 'Blues Highway.' The record turns 50 years old in 2015, which may explain why 'Like a Rolling Stone' and 'Desolation Row' are in heavy rotation around here.
To drive Highway 61 today, steer north. The road was split several years ago, with the portion south of Duluth becoming US 61, and the portion north of town remaining Highway 61. The latter is a state scenic road that edges Lake Superior and meanders by red-tinged cliffs, forested beaches and mom-and-pop towns on a slowpoke journey to the Canadian border.
Where to fuel up
All this adventuring makes one hungry. And thirsty. Which explains the profusion of breweries bubbling up.
Fitger's (fitgers.com) has been around since the late 1800s. At one point it stopped making beer and carved the old brewery into a hotel, where you can now snooze. Then it began cooking up suds again, like the head-walloping winter saison, and adding bands to its lineup.
Two young couples recently opened Bent Paddle Brewing Company (bentpaddlebrewing.com), named for the canoeing implement they use to stir the mash. The no-frills tap room pours Venture, a pilsner brewed with Lake Superior water, and specialties such as Red Smoke Rye, a malty brew that evokes sitting around a campfire.
Thirsty Pagan (thirstypaganbrewing.com) is beloved for aggressive, spicy beers that wash down its hand-tossed pizzas. The brewery lies across the bridge in Superior, Wisconsin.
Returning downtown, Vikre Distillery (vikredistillery.com) creates gin with Northwoods-foraged botanicals, as well as aquavit, a Scandinavian spirit infused with caraway and cardamom. Sample them swirled in cocktails at Vikre's Canal Park tasting room.
For a killer meal, foodies travel from far and near to New Scenic Cafe (newsceniccafe.com), eight miles beyond Duluth on Highway 61. There, in a humble wood-paneled room, they fork into rustic salmon with creamed leeks or a slice of triple berry pie, served with a generous helping of lake views.