Picture the quintessential ski town. You can spend hours outside in the sun and snow, but after a long day on the slopes, you don’t have to go more than a few hundred feet for a hot meal and a cold drink. The locals are kind and quirky; the lodging is charming and cozy.
Substitute skis for bikes, and you just described the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, a north-central region that connects to a network of lakes and the small communities of Cuyuna, Crosby, Deerwood, and Ironton.
When Cuyuna’s once-thriving iron mine was abandoned in the mid-’80s, gradual decline and the potential for economic devastation and total obsoletion followed. A generation later, the region is reborn as an Outside magazine darling, thanks to a new system of mountain bike trails and the restaurants and lodging nearby.
In winter, it’s one of the best fat biking destinations in the Upper Midwest (and beyond). By summer, the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area’s trails fill with mountain bikers venturing to central Minnesota to “shred the red”—so coined because of the iron-rich dirt you’ll take home on your tires (and shoes, and shirt, and tent).
Aaron Hautala, advocate and leader of this era of growth in the Cuyuna region, says that today’s ski-town quality isn’t an accident: “It’s a downhill ski matrix.” The trails connect to the towns, and the lodging is out on the trail. The goal is to keep the people already living and working here, and attract new visitors to check out everything from decades-old antique stores to newbies like Rave Creamworks, an artisanal ice cream shop with a hot pink ceiling. “Hot pink in Crosby? That was radical,” Hautala says, laughing.
Even if you’re thinking, “I’m about as much a fat biker as I am an iron miner,” that’s fine. It’s possible to fill a trip to Cuyuna without lifting a pedal. The area is beautiful and a little otherworldly, but it’s only two hours from the Twin Cities metro. (That means that, yes, you probably still have cell reception—crucial for both knowing where you are in the woods and Instagramming photos from your getaway.)
During colder months, you can snowshoe the mountain bike trails, which is encouraged because it helps maintain the trails by packing the snow a bit differently than mechanized grooming equipment. Local ice fishing yields rainbow trout, brook trout, brown trout, and more, and we recommend a guided fishing expedition from Oars-N-Mine—that way you won’t get lost, and you might even catch some fish!
Mine lakes are a different beast than natural lakes, and even experienced anglers might need a hand figuring out the drop-offs and oceans depths. People also paddleboard and kayak the region’s lakes. Start with the clear blue water of the Huntington-Feigh or Pennington Mine Lakes, which are right next to each other and easily accessible by the Miner’s Mountain Rally Center parking lot.
If you don’t already own a fat bike, you can rent one at Red Raven in Crosby, where you can also get breakfast, lunch, and a beer. (“The Raven” stuffs eggs, grilled turkey, spicy fruit jam, and cheese on a flaky croissant that should fuel your outdoor adventure nicely.) Cykel in Ironton rents bikes, too, along with fun stuff like Hok skis—short little snowshoe-ski hybrids that are also allowed and encouraged on the trails.
The cool thing about this hidden-gem region is that it’s evolving all the time, changing to welcome all kinds of people for all kinds of adventures while staying true to its rough-and-tumble roots. There’s a new trail called Cruser’s Kettle, an eight-mile backcountry romp that’s not groomed for fat biking—just snowshoeing and skiing. “In the summer, hiking the trails is permitted and encouraged,” Hautala notes, adding that all trails are one-way traffic.
If you do prefer to pedal, there’s new stuff in the works for you, too. Soon, the four-mile Cuyuna Connector trail will—you guessed it!—connect the existing Yawkey Unit of trails to the city of Cuyuna. The Arco Unit will add another four miles, and the Maroco, another 10. All are scheduled to open in 2021. Then, in 2022, Sagamore will be constructed, adding another 10-ish miles of trail.
It won’t be long until Cuyuna and adjacent areas boast about 64 miles of trails, ranging from easy (green) to expert-level (black). You could spend three days on a bike and have no two rides that are quite the same—all but cementing its bid as a contender for a top mountain bike destination in the U.S.
Cuyuna’s overall feel is a little bit magical and a little bit out of time. It’s not a manufactured and plastic mountain-bike Disneyland. Really, the most well-groomed things might be the trails themselves. Life in these towns is a bit tough, authentic, and small—the wonderful Woodtick Inn in Cuyuna still hosts annual wood tick races—and if you go, you’re sure to have a true adventure.
“It’s not perfected—that’s not our goal, we don’t want that,” Hautala says. “There’s a little bit of a swagger to it still, and I think that’s OK.”
Après bike, create your own “Cuyuna triangle.” Start at a restaurant: Iron Range Eatery for farm-to-fork fare, Rafferty’s for wood-fired pizza, Trailside Tavern if you’re craving smoked brisket or a prime rib. Next, play your board game of choice while sipping a Yawkey Ale or Silver Dollar Lager at Cuyuna Brewing Company and grab a growler as you head out the door. Finally, pop by Victual. It’s like a gourmet country store, with a stellar selection of cheeses and other specialty snackables and spirits. Inside, you’ll find Rave Creamworks, home to impossibly rich artisan ice cream that’s so decadent and delicious you wouldn’t know it’s entirely lactose-free if we didn’t tell you so.
Should you prefer to stay out, Spalding House is a great late-night hang, with cheap tap beers and pulltabs you can accidentally spend a lot of money on. In a similar spirit, we highly endorse holing up in a booth at the Woodtick Inn in Cuyuna during your stay: great weekend meat raffles, perfectly cooked Heggies, friendly bartenders.
The ride in, ride out (or hike in, hike out) lodging in the region is growing. True North Basecamp offers charming lakefront cabins and wooded campsites; Red Rider Resort’s cute, treehouse-like cabins are nestled along the trails. There’s Cuyuna Cove, for those who want a little more glamp in their camp, and Crosby Lofts puts you within spitting distance of restaurants and cute antique shops. On the bit-more-rugged end of the spectrum, the state rents out three yurts, with wood stoves and twin bunks (but no electricity or indoor plumbing).