Duluth: The Envy of All Outdoorists?

A recent spate of smart and strategic recreation development has earned the Minnesota town a reputation as “the next great place.”

By Allison Woods November 25, 2015

More town than city (population 86,000), Duluth is nestled on the shores of Lake Superior. Its long, skinny shape puts the entire populace within three miles of the lake or the St. Louis River. Minneapolis–St. Paul lie 136 miles to the south, making Duluth a popular weekend destination for urbanites in the Twin Cities. This once-booming steel town fell into decline after iron ore deposits were depleted in the 1950s. In 1972, the U.S. Steel Duluth Works plant closed for good, and other ancillary industries were shuttered soon thereafter. An aging population put Duluth behind the curve in terms of skilled workers.

What they wanted: A four-season, multi-sport city, complete with expansive views, affordable housing and a vibrant downtown cultural scene.

How they got it: “Duluth residents have always loved their outdoor recreation. We’re fortunate enough to have considerable natural assets right in the city, so we took what we had and maximized it,” says Mayor Don Ness. “We’ve always fished and hunted, and now we’re trying more ‘silent sports’ such as kayaking, hiking and climbing. We’re using tourism taxes (a 0.5% tax on downtown hotel rooms and restaurant meals) to generate revenue to revitalize the St. Louis River Corridor. The neighborhood around the old steel mill, Morgan Park, has tons of older housing stock that’s quite affordable [average price: $109,000, versus $144,900 in Duluth overall], and it’s adjacent to Spirit Mountain, the publicly owned, in-city ski hill. We’re targeting that neighborhood [and others along the St. Louis river corridor] for growth.”

The city also built recreation infrastructure. A lot of it. The crown jewel is the Duluth Traverse, a nearly complete 45-mile single-track trail that runs the length of the city. It’s part of a 100-mile bike trail system (scheduled completion, 2017) that caters to all ability levels, and reaches right into the neighborhoods. Spirit Mountain has been expanded to become a multi-sport year-round outdoor recreation complex. Additional local outdoor recreation opportunities include nordic skiing, fly fishing (trout and salmon), dog sledding, and the world’s largest freshwater surfing scene, right on Lake Superior.

What’s next: Long-abandoned Casket Quarry—once the source of stone for railroad beds—has been a locals’ hotspot for ice climbing since the 1970s. Local leaders, along with the Duluth Climbers Coalition, hope to create West Duluth Climbing Park, a green space for all users, with a focus on rock and ice climbing.


With moisture comes ice! Rumors of a good ice season @ Casket are floating around… 😉

A photo posted by Kraig Decker (@climbduluth) on

Key takeaways: Identify your city’s natural assets. Develop funding strategies and target areas with low cost/high potential. Engage citizens in the development and improvement process.