September–October 2021

Bucket List

Bike Across the Iron Range

The Mesabi Trail is a 130-mile paved trail that stretches from Grand Rapids nearly to Ely

Keith Goetzman

IT HAD ALREADY been an eventful day when we arrived at Bob Dylan’s childhood home in Hibbing on a September afternoon. My fellow cyclist Chris Rourke and I had ridden 40 miles from Grand Rapids, scarfed down heaping plates of Mexican food in Nashwauk, and all along the way admired the rusty red landscape, flaming fall foliage, and sleepy small towns of this taconite mining country. Our bike trip across Minnesota’s Iron Range was shaping up to be everything we’d hoped.

The Mesabi Trail, a 130-mile paved trail that stretches from Grand Rapids past Tower and nearly to Ely—where it will one day reach—is what enabled us to embark on this cross-range bikepacking trek while seldom riding on roads. We camped at private and public campgrounds along the way, including at our end point, Lake Vermilion–Soudan Underground Mine State Park.

Neither of us had ever spent much time on the Iron Range, so we’d been eager to immerse ourselves in this storied northern part of the state. We knew the region’s mining history would loom large, and it did, sometimes literally as waste rock piles or rusting relics along the route. We also knew this wasn’t a remote wilderness ride, since the trail spends plenty of time following the U.S. Highway 169 corridor. Still, the trailside views were often surprisingly sublime, enhanced by those bright splashes of autumn, and as we progressed northeast the land eventually grew wilder and more forested. We were mostly self-supported but got water, snacks, and meals in towns along the way.

In Hibbing, Chris and I, both Dylan fans, gawked solemnly at the neat blue house where one of Minnesota’s most famous sons once lived, took a few photos, and then kept on pedaling across the range. Like rolling stones, you might say.

Plan Your Ride

• For more information or to plan a trip, visit or call 877-637-2241.
• Riders older than 18 must have a Mesabi Trail wheel pass, available on the website or at area vendors. Cost is $5 for three days, $15 for an annual pass. (The Mesabi Trail is not DNR managed but gets state funds from the Legislative Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources and the Minnesota Environmental Trust Fund.)
• The Mesabi Trail Shuttle Service can transport riders and gear either way along the trail. Text 218-780-4541 or email [email protected] for information and reservations. The shuttle service can also help riders plan lodging, dining, and other stops and offers “sag wagon” supported rides.
• Riders interested in visiting farmers markets or local produce growers along their route can arrange visits through Northeast Agri-Cycle Tours (NEAT) on the trail website.

Tips for Range Riders

• This is not a straight, flat route. Hills can be steep—up to 8 percent grade in a few spots—and turns can be abrupt, but it’s well marked and easy to follow. E-bikes are allowed.
• The Mesabi Trail is still being completed on the eastern end. A stretch from McKinley to Biwabik takes riders onto a wide paved road shoulder for 3½ miles, and from Embarrass to Ely only a few sections are complete—but riders comfortable with some more road riding can go all the way to Ely.
• Scenic highlights along the route include the highest bridge in the state at Virginia, which you’ll cross, and a ¾-mile-long boardwalk through the Darwin Meyers Wildlife Management Area south of Embarrass.