An Iron Range Weekend
New Trails on Minnesota’s Iron Range
The Mesabi Trail has long been a favorite of Iron Range visitors and needs no special introduction. Its 135 miles of paved trail through gritty mining towns and rugged scenery make for a one-of a-kind trip that keeps getting better and better as the trail nears its projected final length of about 155 miles in the next three to five years. But the Iron Range is also experiencing a recent boom in mountain bike trail construction, which I talked about in my editor’s column for the 2020 spring edition of Trails. (Dust Off Your Mountain Bike, p.4) Read it here.
On June 12, the Redhead Mountain Bike Park opened with an initial 15 miles on the 600-acre grounds of the Minnesota Discovery Center. That alone was reason to go, but the Mesabi Trail had also seen recent growth with a new section north of Giants Ridge, which includes a three-quarter-mile long floating bridge across a wetland. It was time to hitch up the mobile office, cram in fat and trail bikes and pay both trails a visit.
We headquartered at Veterans Park Campground in Eveleth, which Jen and I remembered well from an epic, weeklong bikepacking trip on the Mesabi Trail years ago. It’s right on a connecting spur to the main trail. All you have to do is roll out of the gate and you’re right on the Mesabi. The campground has about 50 spots in a wooded and grassy park on Ely Lake. At $25 a night for water and electricity hookups, it made the perfect base camp for a weekend on the Iron Range.
Day 1: Redhead Mountain Bike Park
map courtesy of Minnesota Discovery Center
At a gravel lot next to the Discovery Center, a few dozen people were milling around, unloading bikes and checking out the booths of local bike shops. It was a low-key, soft opening, but there was still excitement about the long-awaited trail opening. Joe Sacco of the Iron Range Off Road Cyclists (IROC) was taking a break from riding his full-suspension Trek Stache 8 and said “I’ve been waiting for this for 30 years”.
We met Jim Plummer from the Iron Range Resource and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) at the Minnesota Discovery Center on opening day. He’s been closely involved with the planning of Redhead and knew the trails well. On his recommendation, Jen and I started out with an easier ride on the High Road, North Star Loop and Spell Bound Loop Trails. We took High Road going east past the St. Louis County Fairgrounds (which I later learned may be the location of a future campground) and dropped down toward the mine lake through a series of switchbacks.
After hooking up with the North Star Loop and riding through a wooded area, the trail suddenly opened up at the edge of the lake. Both of us pulled the brakes hard and said something like “Woa”. We had descended significantly, but at this point were probably still 100 feet or so above the bright blue water. Just how deep was this valley? We hung out there a while and took in the view. To the east, the canyon continued, uninterrupted, as far as we could see.
We continued following the rim, descending gradually and stopped again at a land bridge between the unnamed lakes. To the west we could barely make out a small waterfall across the lake. (I later found out more about that). From this point the North Star Loop rolled up and down, but soon began the gradual climb out of the valley and even included crossing a rock face with water trickling across it. The last trail was the Spell Bound Loop which started out as a fun, zippy flow trail and finished back at the entrance after a hard climb on the last few hundred feet. This whole excursion took us about two hours, but it included lots of stops to look around.
After a lunch break, we set out again, this time on more advanced territory. Joe and Jim both thought we needed to see Fractured Falls, so off we went, joined by Pat Cassingham, IROC’s trail boss. This time it was Spellbound Loop counterclockwise, and it turned out it was much more fun this way. Steep drops alternated with banked corners and small jumps without me having to do much of anything but hang on. Once I got the tire pressure dialed in on Max, my fatbike, the many rock gardens along the way became much less sketchy to navigate. I didn’t know the iron pig had that much life in it!
We rolled down the Glen Line and took a hard left on Fractured Falls Trail. That one was rated expert, and if I know anything, it’s that I’m not. Especially not on a 45-pound steel behemoth loaded with camera gear. I took a deep breath and followed the lead. There were lots of “Woas” and “Waas” and “Jeezs”, and some other choice words coming from my mouth between breaths, but I held on tight and climbed and jumped the numerous rock piles deeper and deeper into the valley. We stopped at a small lake at the bottom of the ravine where we met Gary Sjoquist (Board member and founder of the Minnesota High School Cycling League, among other things) and his wife Connie.
Our little group put down the bikes and walked around to get a good look at the bottom of the narrow ravine. “You just don’t have scenery like this in Minnesota”, Gary said. We were surrounded by sheer, red rock walls and if I had to guess, they were about 50 feet tall. It was noticeably cooler and darker down there. A little stream trickled along the trail and disappeared into the undergrowth. It really was like nothing I had ever seen in Minnesota. The closest thing I could think of was some remote canyon on the Superior Hiking Trail, but with red cliffs, instead.
We pressed on and there was another surprise just around the corner: Our little stream reappeared, flowed under the trail and spilled into the valley below. We were at the western edge of the lake we had been to earlier and this was the waterfall I saw in the distance. The view of the cliffs and the lake were amazing and Jim and Joe had not oversold it. My legs and lungs were burning, but it was totally worth it.
Unfortunately, the journey continued with a monster climb and that’s where my age, the extra pounds and the iron pig’s load reached critical mass and I had to walk it. The rest of the ride was kind of a blur, with me taking a few panting breaks and occasionally walking, but everyone was very good about not leaving me behind. Pat slowed it down and frequently kept me in his sights, especially when I blurted out things like “Crud!”, “Dagnabbit!” and “Fudge!” while navigating another tricky section. I’m pretty sure I said it just like that. I do remember passing by what’s called the Glen location, a collection of restored, remnant buildings and machinery from the mining days. It’s accessible from the Discovery Center via a trolley train and the plan is to eventually have this train transport riders and their bikes to the farther areas of the park. Back in the parking lot there were high fives and cheers all around. We said goodbye to Redhead, but I know it won’t be my last visit. I have some unfinished business with a couple of hills.
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Day 2: Mesabi Trail
After the hard riding at Redhead both of us crashed as soon as the sun went down, and we rolled out of bed early the next day. That meant plenty of time for our famous camping waffle sandwiches for breakfast. (See recipe here). The plan was to bike the Mesabi Trail to the newest section north of Giants Ridge. It had just opened in the late fall of 2019 and includes a three-quarter-mile-long, floating bog bridge. Of course, we’d be passing through Gilbert and that meant a stop at Koshar’s Sausage Kitchen. Our legs felt heavy as we pedaled up the connecting spur from the campground, but that soon went away, because we were excited for what the day had in store: Awesome weather, new scenery and introducing our bikes Sandy (Jen) and Dave (Jan) to the Mesabi Trail.
After about four miles we arrived at Koshar’s. If you’ve not been there, make a trip to Gilbert just for that. It’s an old-fashion meat market that’s been in the family since 1921. They have everything you’d expect at a meat market, but they’re famous for their Slovenian rice sausage. The market is tucked into a quaint two-story building on Broadway, Gilbert’s main street. Step inside and you’ll travel back in time a few decades. First, the aroma of smoked meat will hit your nose. Then you’ll see the wood floors, tin tiles on the walls and rolling racks packed with sausages. While you wait your turn at the counter, you’ll notice the old-timey butcher equipment and Gilbert High School memorabilia displays on the walls. A chart of a cow tells you where what cut of beef comes from. The display cases are packed with meat products of all kinds, some familiar and some not.
We went straight for the usual: One salami, one pepperoni, each about 15″ long and conveniently hanging on the wall behind the counter. Also, hot and regular sausage strips, which are small, hard, smoked links, cut into thin strips so they resemble beef jerky. Back on the street, we stowed our bounty into our bags and strapped the salami and pepperoni to our top tubes with zip ties in true bikepacking fashion. Yes, we planned the zip tie thing.
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Back on the trail, our next goal was the town of McKinley, which was only about another four miles away. After a while I began to wonder when we’d get there. We had definitely gone more than four miles, but I was too lazy to dig out the map. Eventually, we started going up a steep hill, then down an even steeper hill and picking up speed. Jen was yelling something behind me, but I couldn’t hear her. It wasn’t until I saw the bridge that I realized what had happened. We went the wrong way in Gilbert and were heading toward Virginia. Here, the Mesabi Trail crosses over Rouchleau Mine Lake on Minnesota’s tallest bridge. It’s an impressive span of over 1,100 feet that’s more than 200 feet above the water. The trail is totally separated from vehicle traffic. Rouchleau Mine Lake isn’t bad, either. It’s about a half mile wide, five miles long, and up to 450 feet deep. We hung out here for a moment, and then began the climb back up to where we came.
This little detour had just added 14 miles to our itinerary, which would come into play later. We finally made it to McKinley and took the road for about five miles to get to Biwabik. That section of the Mesabi Trail will be paved sometime in the future. After an obligatory selfie with Honk the Moose in Biwabik, we headed toward Giants Ridge through a very scenic setting on a rolling and undulating Mesabi Trail. It was the opening day for their new lift-served, downhill mountain bike trails and riders were queuing up to get a ride to the top. Last time I visited here, the trail ended at the bridge that crosses the narrows between Sabin and Wynne Lake. Once we crossed it this time, it was all new territory. While we were chugging along, we noticed that the scenery was definitely changing. The trail was flanked with mossy conifers and a sprinkle of birch trees. Small, boggy ponds filled with black water appeared in the woods and lichen-covered rock outcroppings interrupted the greenery. It was reminiscent of the landscape of the Boundary Waters. It made sense. We were only 20 miles away from Ely, on the doorstep of the Wilderness. It was only about five miles from Giants Ridge to Highway 135, where the trail used to end. From there, we were told it was another mile or so to the floating bridge.
What we didn’t know was that just before the bridge, the trail humped over the highest point in the area, the Laurentian Divide. That meant a steady climb of almost 300 feet over the next six miles. On the way there, it really sank in how thoroughly we had blown up our legs at Redhead the day before. The six-mile ride turned into a battle as we ground our way up, sometimes at speeds as low as 5 miles an hour. But we had come here to see the floating bridge, so we pressed on. Just when we thought the climbing was over, there was one more steep hill to huff up. What a view there was on the top of the Laurentian Divide! It was sunny, without clouds in the sky and I swear I could see all the way to Ely. We had not yet reached the bridge and from that point on the trail angled sharply downward for the first time in six miles. We picked up speed as we rolled downhill and the trail turned left. Around the corner it became clear that we were about to scream down an even steeper drop and lose all the elevation we had gained in the last hour, all in less than a mile. It was a straight shot down to the swamp and I could barely make out another rider on the bottom of the hill. My only thought was “Man, I have to go back up this thing on the way home.”
The bridge itself was just crazy. It’s three quarters of a mile long, let that sink in. At 10 miles an hour, it takes almost five minutes to cross the whole thing. It bends at about the quarter-mile mark, but standing there, you cannot see the end. It just disappears into the horizon. (Side note: The bridge was built by a local company, only a few miles from where it’s installed).
The way back up the huge hill was not fun, but we made the way back to Giants Ridge in about half the time it took the other direction. There, we hunkered down and did some heavy thinking. We had over 45 miles in so far, our legs were heavy, we were exhausted, it was 4:45 pm and we had almost 20 miles left to go back to Veterans Park in Eveleth. After some soul searching we decided to get a ride back. Let it be known that this is only the second time ever Jen and I have taken a mulligan while biking. Luckily, a good friend offered us and the bikes a lift and about an hour later we were back in Eveleth, cracked a beer and hit the showers. So, ANW, if you’re reading this, may the Madonna del Ghisallo smile upon you, wherever your bike travels take you. We owe you one.
The next day we decided to take a day off from biking and, instead just linger around headquarters and plan our next adventure from the comfort of a camp chair.
A repeat of our weeklong bikepacking trip from a few years ago is not out of the question.