At Cuyuna, MTB Trails Revitalize ‘Forgotten Region’

‘People said it was a terrible idea, that we had no chance. Some of us believed it.’ -Aaron Hautala

cuyuna mountain biking

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2016 by Tom Puzak; it’s updated here after several subsequent trips to Cuyuna, as a part of our ‘Great Urban Outdoors’ project with YETI.

The Old Cuyuna

For decades, times were hard in Cuyuna.

“After the mines shut down there was not much left here,” Aaron Hautala explained, president of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew. “The land was being used as a garbage dump, or worse. There were a lot of empty buildings and empty faces around.”

But here exists the Cuyuna Lakes area in north-central Minnesota. The lakes are not natural, unlike the state’s other 10,000-plus bodies of water. Instead, the lakes of Cuyuna are manmade, dredged holes in the Earth. Some are 600 feet deep, the result of decades of iron mining.

Hautala was born on the Iron Range and has a vision for the potential it holds as a mountain biking destination.

The town of Cuyuna, population 332, built world-class mountain bike trails, and things changed. The secret of its red-purple dirt trails spread quickly, and people started to dream again, thanks to the Cuyuna Country Recreation Area.

The Dream

Hautala and the “Red Dirt Family,” as they are affectionately known, saw the potential of building bike trails about a decade ago. The tacky dirt, rolling North Woods terrain, and groomed (snow) singletrack for fat bikes in the winter could become a biking mecca.

Fat biking Cuyuna
Bikers roll into Crosby, Minn., after a day fat biking Cuyuna trails

First locally, then throughout the region, the trails gained distinction. They may soon become an International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) Gold Level destination, a tag reserved only for the most sought-after MTB locales.

Building Trails

It takes 25 miles for a mountain bike trail to be legit. Build 25 miles with enough beauty and challenge, and you get the attention of riders within a “day trip” drive.

“But each new mile needs to be better than the last,” Hautala said. They have to keep improving if they hope to become the “Mountain Bike U.S.A.” he envisions.

It might sound easy to build bike trails. But to build at this level required $750,000 and hundreds of volunteer hours to get the first 25 miles completed.

The result is a swooping system of singletrack. The trails bob through a Minnesota forest, through each season’s distinct differences. Hills pop from the lake shores, most of which are old mine tailing piles, hints of the mining days not long past.

Cuyuna Lakes

Working Together

The “Red Dirt Family” is not only cyclists. Local people who see the bikers as a positive change in the area are also part of the family.

“Partnerships,” Hautala said. “That’s how we get things done. We have to work together.”

Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists (MORC) were the first trail builders to partner up with the Cuyuna Crew. Together they raise funds, plan and execute trail expansions. With trail-building expertise from MORC, Cuyuna built its first 25 miles in about five years.

It’s only one-third of a master plan for over 75 miles of trail, but the small mining towns around the trail (Crosby, Ironton, and Cuyuna) are already transforming.

Mountain Biking Cuyuna
Cuyuna trails get their purple and red hues from the high iron content of the abandoned ore mines

With tourism dollars from the Twin Cities and beyond, the development is working. The more trails built, the more the local economy will benefit. Simply put, the model is: “If you build it, they will come.”

The Benefit Of Bike Business

45NRTH, a Minneapolis-based bike accessory manufacturer, also holds a partnership with the Cuyuna trails. It’s the only bike company that makes cycling gear exclusively for winter, and Cuyuna is a top winter fat biking destination.

Buy-in from companies like this have propelled the Cuyuna area past “just another mountain bike trail.” Events they sponsor, like the 45NRTH Whiteout, bring riders from far away. Those riders will return again if they like what they see.

45NRTH Cuyuna
At True North Basecamp, 45NRTH prepares for a post-ride campfire after a day fat biking

45NRTH is looking at the bigger picture: invest in a sport as a whole, with Cuyuna as one example. It’s a strategy to embed a brand into the culture of a sport and to help it grow.

The New Cuyuna

Fortunately for the Cuyuna area, one visit and most riders are sold and will return again and again.

Winter Biking Cuyuna

Formerly empty buildings are now bike shops. Bike tourism has helped spur new investments and development, including 14 new businesses that opened since the trails opened five years ago. Of note are the Red Raven coffee shop, the Red House media company, and the Cuyuna Brewery (try the new Yawkey Red Ale).

Another newcomer, True North Basecamp, opened in 2015. This adventure center includes multiple “eco” cabins, a campground, and a connection to the Cuyuna trail network.

The Resort That Adventure Built: 'True North' Basecamp
The Resort That Adventure Built: 'True North' Basecamp
Just feet from groomed fat bike trails in the winter or mountain bike singletrack in summer, a new resort in northern Minnesota redefines the cabin in the woods as an adventure haven. Welcome to True North Basecamp. Read more…

It’s been shown that the trails have reliably produced tourism and infused cash into the area. Because of this, an additional $670,000 has already been raised for the construction of an additional 14 miles to be completed in the next two years, with hopefully more in the pipeline.

Cuyuna Brewing
Cuyuna Brewing was founded in response to a study that showed a local brewery was at the top of visiting bikers’ wish lists

In the past local residents often told Hautala that biking trails couldn’t turn around these old mining towns.

“But it’s already happening,” he said.

Cuyuna Brewing

More Miles? The Future Cuyuna

There are currently enough trails for one to two days of riding for the average cyclist. But the goal is to expand to 75 miles of trails, making an area where anyone could ride for a weekend without repeating a run. That much trail will make Cuyuna a national-caliber MTB destination.

These “destination” cyclists will provide enough support for another phase of investment. For example, hotels, additional restaurants and other businesses will soon be needed to support these new visitors. Since we first published this article nine months ago a new restaurant, and many new “airBNB” homes have opened their doors.

Crosby's Red Raven, Opening Soon
Crosby’s Red Raven is a cyclists paradise, offering good coffee, food from scratch, and bikes in the back

What will these forgotten mining towns look like after 75 miles of trails are here? Mountain Bike U.S.A.? It’s far from that right now. But the people of the Iron Range are chasing new dreams and working together to rebuild.

Despite many naysayers and challenges, the dream of Hautala and others is coming true.

–This article is part of ‘The Great Urban Outdoors’ series sponsored by YETI. Learn more about its Rambler Jugs and other new products here.