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Image of mountain biking.

Gears, Gravity, and Good Times

Minnesota has rolled out a world-class trail system for mountain bikers—on reclaimed mine land.

by Ashley Peters

The Screamer is the double-black diamond of mountain-bike trails. "Experts only!" the trail map cautions, and I wonder if my biking skills will get me through the day. I trace several other routes with my finger—Mucker Mountain, Ferrous Wheel, and Grub Stake—all nods to Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area's history of mining on the Cuyuna Range.

See video of the single-track trails

ais video

If you go

•Getting there: Go north from Ironton on County 30 until you see a sign for the SRA.

•Where to stay: Camp in the SRA, or in Crosby near Serpent Lake, or 20 miles north at Crow Wing State Forest.

•What to bring: Plenty of water, a must for strenuous climbs, and extra tire tubes.

•Bike rentals: Check Cycle Path & Paddle in Crosby for rental mountain bikes and kayaks.

•Fat-tire winter biking: Check the DNR website for when and where to ride when the snow flies.

•Mining history: Visit the Croft Mine Historical Site in the SRA.

•For more information: go to www.mndnr.gov/cuyuna.


View and download a trail map

ais trail map

Click to view. This is a PDF file. You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to download it.

Leaving the Twin Cities at 6:30 in the morning, I had driven 125 miles north to the SRA near Crosby and Ironton. It's a warm summer day, and I'm joined by Hansi Johnson, regional director of the International Mountain Bicycling Association, and a few riders from the local Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew, a division of Minnesota Off Road Cyclists. They're ready to go, so I fold up the map and strap on my helmet.

To our left, the sun is just above the trees and skipping its rays off Pennington Mine Lake. On our right, Huntington Mine Lake appears as a deep-blue carpet stretched below bluffs. There are six natural lakes within the 5,000-acre Cuyuna Country SRA. Groundwater and rain have filled open-mine pits, creating 15 additional lakes. The crystal-clear waters draw scuba divers to explore the fish, mining terraces, and relics of mining. Twenty-five miles of shoreline make perfect habitat for kayakers and canoeists. And 25 miles of single-track trail attract off-road cyclists.

We start biking west on Cuyuna Lakes State Trail—a paved path that stretches across the SRA's southern border and connects to portions of the single-track trail. Most of the single-track is one way, which allows cyclists to travel fast without worrying about a head-on collision. However, the track does demand a rider's full attention. Sharp curves, steep hills, and obstacles are all part of the experience and the fun.

We soon exit the paved trail and start out on Easy Street—our entry to the single-track network. This path of iron-rich earth runs deep-red down the middle and lighter red on either side. Johnson affectionately refers to the effect as the "bacon strip."

Officially opened in June 2011, the Cuyuna Lakes mountain-bike trail system offers something for every rider. Beginners can take a leisurely ride through woods and along scenic vistas. Tight turns and sweeping berms dare intermediates, and precipitous drops challenge the reflexes of advanced riders.

"Pro riders enjoy the technical features and the gravity-based riding," Johnson says, "but you've also got parents bringing their kids out to ride."

Cycling Through History.

Both humans and nature have shaped this hilly terrain. In the early 1900s, a surveyor named Cuyler Adams walked the property with his constant companion, a St. Bernard named Una. He correctly suspected underground deposits of iron were causing his compass needle to deflect. Eventually, the entire range became known as Cuyuna, a portmanteau of the names Cuyler and Una.

A mining company opened and shipped its first load of iron ore in 1911. The mines produced over 106 million tons before closing in the late 1970s.

Known locally as "the pits," the deserted land was pocked with open-pit mines, rusting mining machinery, and slag piles more than 200 feet high. Over the years the pits, some more than 500 feet deep, filled with water. Birch, aspen, shrubs, and grasses sprouted in the slag. Deer, rabbits, hawks, herons, and other wildlife took up residence.

The Department of Natural Resources established the Cuyuna Country SRA in 1993. Recognizing the potential for outstanding mountain biking among these steep hills, IMBA volunteer Tim Wegner and Gary Sjoquist of Quality Bicycle Products worked to help secure federal funding to build the trail.

Being new to mountain biking, DNR park manager Steve Weber said he wasn't sure what to expect. "The [MORC] guys even got me on a bike," he said, "and just about everyone in town is now riding. And businesses are interested because it means new visitors." The first year open, the trail had over 15,000 mountain bikers.

Annual visits to the SRA have jumped from about 80,000 in 2009 to nearly 150,000 in 2011.

Rolling On.

We continue east on Sidewinder and make loops in Mahnomen Unit. The trail wraps around hillsides and between red pines. Jagged boulders stand trailside. I shoot past wildflowers and sumac. My bike catches air—as both wheels leave the ground on a series of mounds, known as rollers, and then teeter on the edge of drop-offs.

Resting at an intersection, we examine a trail map. I joke about holding everyone up, but Nick Statz of the Cuyuna Lakes crew says, "You know, going fast is fun, but it's really about your experience. These trails are meant for all skill levels—I've seen older couples, kids, teenagers, you name it. If people are enjoying the trails, I'm happy."

I'm thankful for cooler air as we shoot into a valley. The guys are a few yards ahead of me, but I only hear what's directly below me. My knobby tires aren't crunching as many rocks; a forest of young basswood and birch soaks up sounds. A cotton-tailed rabbit watches me pass. Eventually, the trail's shallow incline heads skyward.

Miner's Mountain, Trammer, and several other routes all crisscross this passage on high ground between Huntington and Alstead mine lakes. The Screamer is here too, and there's no mistaking it. The beginning of the steep downhill is marked by two black diamonds with what look like lightning bolts. The grip I have on my handlebars loosens when I see we are staying to the right, passing it up.

We stop at Hopper Hill's overlook and catch our breath. Everyone's legs and tires are coated with red dust. We gaze at the green, undulating land, which wraps its arms around a very still lake. Though I didn't yell my way down a difficult descent, I did find an oasis.

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