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

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

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.

Aaron Hautala Cuyuna
Aaron Hautala fat biking on Cuyuna’s famous ‘groomed’ singletrack trails

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.

The Dream

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.

cuyuna mountain biking

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.

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, a year-round wonderland. Hills pop from the lake shores, steep climbs on old tailing piles, hints of the mining days not long past.

Cuyuna Lakes

Working Together

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.

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

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, the locals 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.

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.

Crosby's Red Raven, Opening Soon
Crosby’s Red Raven is opening soon, offering coffee, food, 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.

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.

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Contributing Editor Tom Puzak, a former attorney, found himself more interested in his bike than filing copies in triplicate. Now as GearJunkie's resident "bike junkie" he makes less money but enjoys a more creative work atmosphere. Puzak is based out of the Minneapolis office.

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