By John Lauritsen

IRONTON, Minn. (WCCO) — In the early 1900s, it was iron ore that brought people to the Cuyuna Range. Speed ahead 100 years and now it’s the trails that have become the destination.

“Ten years ago the mountain bike trails opened, and about 34 years ago the idea started,” Aaron Hautala said.

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Hautala is former president of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew, a club that’s grown to over 300 members. He said years ago, wives and daughters wanted to protect the land their husbands and sons used to mine. So they came up with the idea of using human-powered sports to preserve Mother Nature.

“When I talk around the country they say, ‘OK, you turned a mining area into mountain biking. How did that work?’ Even when the trails opened, I didn’t understand how amazing they were going to be,” Hautala said.

Federal and state funding along with a great deal of fundraising helped build 55 scenic miles of one-way track. As the trails grew in popularity so did business in towns like Crosby, Ironton, Rivertown, and Cuyuna.

“The word I’ve heard used that I really like, is ‘renaissance,'” Hautala said. “I moved here 11 years ago and from 11 years to right now there’s well over 25 new businesses. They weren’t there before.”

“I graduated in 2004 and there really wasn’t anything to stick around for,” cyclist Mari Kivisto said. “Today you can walk down main street and we have coffee shops, bike shops, a homemade ice cream shop, pizza and eateries.”

New resorts like Cuyuna Cove, with their cabins on stilts, cater to out-door enthusiasts. There are new residents, too. Jim McCarvill moved to the range from Minneapolis. He said the area is bustling.

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“Last weekend it was packed,” he said. “The restaurants were full.”

So were the trails. But when you have 50+ plus miles there’s always room for more cyclists. There are trails for beginners and trails for experts. With its “very difficult” designation, Cruser’s Kettle has a few bumps in the road.

“All the sudden you’ll be riding and there will be a rock drop or a rock step-up or there’s a rock feature that’s extended that you are going to ride,” Hautala said.

It’s the type of mountain biking you see out west. But the goal is to get mountain bikers states away to consider the Midwest, particularly Cuyuna. It may be happening already. Last year during the pandemic, 160,000 cyclists biked these trails — easily setting a record.

Many of those visitors came from other states, and it’s all thanks to the mountain biking believers that paved the way.

“If you take the whole 55 miles, depending on who you are, you will find a place that you love,” Hautala said.

By the end of next year, 20 more miles of trail will be added, meaning there will be more than 70 miles of biking on the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trails. Paddle boarding, kayaking and hiking have also become popular in the area.

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John Lauritsen