Cycling the Skyline
By Molly Hoeg
This is home territory. In fact, Skyline Parkway crosses the foot of my driveway. I grew up going on family drives along Skyline, a Scenic Byway that runs the length of Duluth at the crest of the hill. More recently, I’ve made it an annual cycling ritual to traverse its length, but this was the first time I’d truly done it end to end. Skyline Parkway was built in stages, primarily between the 1880s and 1940s. It grew from the center, reaching outward to the city’s east and west limits. As a result, there is great diversity in its environs. I was about to experience one of its extremes.
Traveling from west to east, I started at Beck’s Road. This piece was new to me, but I already knew what lay ahead. As soon as I entered the Snively-Magney Natural Area the parkway became a rough gravel road with plenty of hills. But I was rewarded for the extra effort and bumpy ride with intense quiet, a patchwork of greenery shading the road, and wilderness seclusion.
The view from Bardon’s Peak Overlook clinched it, commanding well over 180-degrees of scenery. Down below the St. Louis River snaked through the landscape, presenting a real-life map of its journey into the harbor. On that rare calm day, glossy smooth water mirrored its surroundings. The awe carried me up and down the hills through the Spirit Mountain recreation area and back onto blessed pavement.
I tend to think of Skyline Parkway in sections, perhaps representing segments of construction and the loose connections that link them together. Once past the Thompson Hill Information Center, I entered another woodsy stretch. But this was different. It was an urban wilderness. The road snaked atop the hill, teasing me with brief views of the river and harbor through the leaves or occasional gaps in the trees. Dipping inland a hairpin curve took me along Keene Creek, accompanied by the music of splashing water tripping over rocks in the woodland stream.
For the longest time Enger Tower perched on the hilltop, a miniature turret in the distance. Yet suddenly I was there. A short hill took me to the base of the tower and the center of a lush Japanese garden. Visitors wandered the sculptured grounds and climbed the tower while I savored a break from cycling. Resting atop a giant boulder seemed appropriate. The same monolithic rocks are a signature characteristic of Skyline, lining the parkway as a protective barrier.
Beyond Enger lay a transition portion, passing the center of town and the Park Point strip of land stretching out in the distance to enclose the Duluth harbor. This was neighborhood cycling, ranging from opulent houses perched on the edge of the hill with spectacular views to crowded narrow homes built upwards to grab glimpses of the lake. A dive back into the woods took me over Chester Creek and more waterfall sounds before suddenly landing at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. Appropriately named “the gap,” this section pragmatically travels the perimeter of campus and makes its way over to the next scenic segment, Hawk Ridge.
Once again on the wooded lip of the hill the surface transitioned to a firm dirt road, reminding me that I was passing through a Nature Reserve. With two large overlooks, I had plenty of opportunity to ogle the sweeping panorama. The main viewing spot is also home to the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, which is a major attraction for avid birders and sightseers when tens of thousands of migrating hawks and other raptors pass overhead daily in the fall. Hiking and mountain biking are also popular on the abundant trails that traverse the area. But nobody can resist the view. This time verdant neighborhoods lay below cloaked in a canopy of leafy trees, and beyond was an endless expanse of blue. Lake Superior glistened in the sunshine and massive shipping vessels shrank to toy size in its vast waters.
It was time to come down off the hill, and Seven Bridges Road provided a secluded conduit for coasting down to lake level. Criss-crossing Amity Creek, the smooth twisty, windy road actually passed over eight stone arch bridges. The stately structures were originally built in 1912, faced with stone from the creek bed or quarried nearby and topped with pink granite from St. Cloud. All have been recently restored or rebuilt. Trees met overhead and trails led enticingly into the woods on each side.
My final destination awaited. Brighton Beach seemed an appropriate finale, its topography ranging from tabletop boulders to malleable rock beaches and Lake Superior lapping at its shore. In twenty-five memorable miles a whole city had passed under my bicycle tires while I perused the sights below. I can’t wait to do it again.
This story first appeared in the 2018 fall edition of Minnesota Trails Magazine
Molly Hoeg is a freelance writer and outdoor fitness enthusiast from Duluth Minnesota. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her outdoors, running, cycling and cross-country skiing, or pampering her five grandchildren. Since retiring, Molly and her husband, Rich, have taken up bicycle touring, spending about a month each year traveling on their own by bicycle and have pedaled over 11,000 miles together. Molly blogs about their trips at SuperiorFootprints.org and is writing a book about the ups and downs of constant togetherness at 12 miles an hour.