If you haven’t heard much of Redhead Mountain Bike Park yet, you will soon. Over the course of five months last year—in the middle of a global pandemic, no less—more than 15,000 people visited Chisholm to ride the region’s newest mountain bike trails. Downtown storefronts that had been vacant for years suddenly had interested buyers. This October, the Minnesota High School Cycling League will host a race at Redhead, bringing up to 3,000 people and $500,000 of potential spending to this small Iron Range town.
“These communities haven’t seen much significant change in decades,” says Jordan Metsa, fund development and marketing coordinator for the Minnesota Discovery Center, which manages Redhead along with the City of Chisholm and the volunteer-run Iron Range Off-Road Cyclists (IROC) mountain bike club.
Citing another Minnesota mining town that’s been transformed by mountain biking, “Cuyuna led the way and showed the rest of northern Minnesota that the risk is worth it,” Metsa says. “They’ve reaped the full benefit of businesses coming in as a result.”
In Chisholm, one such business is 30West. Two young couples turned an old antique store into a fitness center in 2018 and will run Redhead’s on-site bike shop, offering gear, tune-ups, and bike rentals. The city hopes more new businesses will follow and existing businesses will grow, attracting more visitors and new residents for years to come.
Redhead has 25 miles of purpose-built trails so far, which circumnavigate a former mining pit and descend to the sparkling blue water below. Leashed dogs, hikers, trail runners, and e-bikers are also welcome. Kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards can be rented at the water’s edge.
At the adjacent Discovery Center (one of the largest museums north of the Twin Cities), a food truck, food court, and full-service restaurant, the Rustic Pig, are open on different days of the week, with live music on Thursday nights and fine dining on Fridays.
Forty-five minutes east, Giants Ridge in Biwabik continues to up its mountain biking game. The well-known ski and golf resort opened its first lift-served mountain biking trails (a chair lift carries you and your bike to the top) in 2018, and it just added nearly 10 miles of cross-country single track. Rentals and riding clinics are available, making the resort accessible to beginners as well as dominators of the double black diamonds.
“The build quality of our trails is just as good as you would find at Winter Park or another big-name, lift-served mountain bike park; they truly are world-class,” says Benji Neff, director of mountain sports at Giants Ridge and a member of IROC.
It would be easy for the two parks to consider each other as competition. But that’s not the northern Minnesota way. Metsa and Neff see themselves as part of a larger mountain biking destination, combining with the Tioga Recreation Area near Grand Rapids and Cuyuna near Crosby for over 112 miles of high-caliber riding. A new four-way partnership between these locations is aptly named Ride the Range.
“We’re challenging rural America to take a second look at their land and judge it for its merit,” said Metsa. “People thought this land was useless and wrote it off. We see a really bright future for the Iron Range.”
If paved pedaling is more your speed, the Mesabi Trail offers 130 miles of it, with another 16 miles slated for completion this summer. The longest segment (75 miles) runs east from Grand Rapids to McKinley, passing by Hill Annex Mine State Park, over Minnesota’s tallest bridge in Virginia, and through several Iron Range towns. A three-day pass is only $5; buy one online or at dozens of businesses along the trail, including Giants Ridge.
The Mesabi Trail’s annual tour event has been broken into three separate, smaller tours this year. The first one, on July 31, starts and ends at Redhead.