‘People said it was a terrible idea, that we had no chance. Some of us believed it.’ -Aaron Hautala
The Old Cuyuna
Meth labs. Abandoned trailers. For decades, Cuyuna was a dead zone.
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 the iron mining that for decades kept the area alive.
“After the mines shut down there was not much left here,” said Aaron Hautala, 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.”
Hautala was born on the Iron Range and has a vision for the potential it holds as a mountain biking destination.
A dead zone no more, 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.
Hautala and the “Red Dirt Family,” as they are affectionately known, saw the potential of building bike trails a decade ago. The tacky dirt, rolling North Woods terrain, and groomed (snow) singletrack for fat tires each winter could become a biking mecca.
First locally, then throughout the region, the trails gained distinction. They may well become an International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) Gold Level destination, a tag reserved only for the most sought-after MTB locales.
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, a year-round wonderland. Hills pop from the lake shores, steep climbs on old tailing piles, hints of the mining days not long past.
The “Red Dirt Family” is not only cyclists. The 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, the volunteer group who work to 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
In the past, the locals often told Hautala that biking trails couldn’t turn around these old mining towns.
“But it’s already happening,” he said.
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.
Incoming destination cyclists will provide enough support for another phase of investment in the surrounding community. For example, hotels and other businesses could soon be needed to support new visitors.
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.
So far it’s only an outline of what it might be, but it looks to us like the dream of Hautala and others is coming true.