MTB Trail Review: Cuyuna

I’ve only had my new ride since August so most of my riding has been around the Twin Cities with an exception just over the border in Wisconsin.  A couple of weekends ago I had the privilege of presenting at Super Hero Tech Camp and thought it’d be a perfect opportunity to haul my bike up north to ride in the iron range at Cuyuna.  Word on the trail was that this spot was not to be missed, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

The middle of a Thursday isn’t usually when you’ll see a lot of traffic on a trail (especially up north) so I had the trail mostly to myself.  Only two cars were in the parking lot as I pulled in around noon.  The day was cool and crisp and the chilliest ride I had done to date this year, though as it warmed up it worked out perfectly, accentuating the fall colors of the trees which lent itself to a very distinct Minnesotan autumn.

Though I only had a vague notion of where the trails were I was fortunate enough to snag the sole remaining trail map available at the trailhead.  Had I not been so fortunate, it’s very possible I would have ridden the same trails over and over, lost in repeating fashion.  Which I suppose can be both a good and bad thing, depending on how you look at it.

Time was of the essence (I did have a conference to get to, remember?) so I was focused on getting the most bang for my buck.  The Mahnomen Unit (inset B) seemed to offer exactly that.  I started with “Crusher”.  True to its name, it was a nice climb for someone who hadn’t been able to get out and ride.  For some reason I still can’t figure out, I ended up looping around and climbed Crusher at least three times, dominating (not) “Rocky Flats” and finally getting to “Miner’s MTN.”.  There were at least three times that made me stop and reflect on how awesome Cuyuna is, and Miner’s was one of those times.  After climbing up, you get to a point where there is a lookout (cars can get there too, but it’s better by pedal) and you can see no less than three lakes around you.  Although I had a lot of riding left to do and the clock was ticking, I did have to stop to take it in for a while and appreciate what the trail designers had intended.

One of the most beautiful parts of the trail

“Screamer” was a section that was just a blast to ride.  Steep with big banks and turns, it’s the kind of trail that forces you to pay attention.  Instead of wondering where the other trails are at or how to navigate to them, Screamer had my full and undivided attention from the start.  I appreciate that nuance of mountain biking.  There are times when you can coast, and there are times where on of the shortest sections of a trail demands that you listen to it or you’re not going to like the result.  It may exist, but I’m not sure that I’ve ridden a section in Minnesota that holds that much natural exhilaration and doesn’t need debris or perfectly placed obstacles.

Good advice

To round out my favorites, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include “Sidewinder” and “Roly Poly”.  Neither of these are particularly difficult or challenging, but they did bring a great smile to my face in a fun and exuberant way Screamer or Miner’s MTN did not.

I was running out of time but did manage to squeeze in the Portsmouth Unit (inset C) and basically just rode “Drag Line” around Portsmouth Mine Lake until I got to the state trail that would take me back to Mahnomen.  Even though it wasn’t as awesome, Portsmouth was still fun.  In fact, I don’t think my tires ever touched dirt that wasn’t fun for me, including all of the “easy” trails.

If you go, ride fast. But when you stop, take it all in.

Cuyuna is a different place.  It’s easily the most beautiful place I’ve ridden in Minnesota and has some of the more unique types of riding.  There weren’t any skills areas around that I knew of, but I’m totally fine with that.  It doesn’t need it.

What it needs to be is a place, a destination.  Judging by the “Mountain Bikers Welcome!” signs on some of the store fronts and bars I spotted while driving through Crosby and Ironton, it looks like that’s what it wants.  What’s more, it seems to have a vision.  On my ride back to my car on the state trail, I stopped briefly and chatted with Nick who maintains a lot of the trails.  He was putting stickers on some signs (all of the trails are very well-marked, by the way).  He spoke of Cuyuna with a tone that implied both a playful and reverential tone.  I congratulated him on the good work that was done on the trails and vowed that I’d be coming back next summer.  I missed not being able to stop by GPS 27 and take a dip in the Alstead Mine Lake then get back on the bike and ride some more.

He thanked me and seemed to be genuinely proud of what they’ve carved out of those iron hills.

Good.  They should be.