Old Minnesota mine pits become mountain bike destinations
Redhead Mountain Bike Park at the Minnesota Discovery Center boasts 15 miles of single-track trail. That will double soon.
CHISHOLM, Minn. — Cory Oseland grew up mountain biking and dirt biking in abandoned iron ore mine pits along Minnesota's Iron Range
"(The pits) were a recreational tool for most of us, and we tried to not trespass, but that was kind of our area. That was our forest growing up," said Oseland, who was raised in nearby Aurora.
But since the Redhead Mountain Bike Park in Chisholm opened in June, the Duluth resident and Ski Hut bike shop employee has been returning to the Range to ride the old mine pits under the Minnesota Discovery Center.
"It's coming full-circle again," Oseland said.
Pete Kero, vice president of the Iron Range Off Road Cyclists, said it's been a 10-year effort to open such a trail system.
"(The mine pits) are great mountain biking. They make for really great terrain, good draining soils, all of that, but there wasn't really a legal way for us to do that at the time or it hadn't been a formal trail. It was just informal riding back in those areas," Kero said. "And so that was our process: to try to find a location that had landowners that were willing to give it a try."
The former mines, a patchwork of land owned by the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, city of Chisholm and Superior Mineral Resources, became the spot.
Repurposing old mines
Redhead is built around the former Glen and Leonard-Burt mine pits, boasting more than 15 miles of single-track trails along the sides of the pits and down into the lakes that now fill the bottom, onto jagged waste rocks left behind by the mining companies and through red iron dust that coats bikes and cyclists' legs.
Mining hasn't occurred there for decades, but it is adjacent to the Minnesota Discovery Center, formerly named Iron World, and the St. Louis County Fairgrounds.
Kero said it's a way to use the land that would otherwise be off-limits.
"We're trying it as a recreational experiment in a way because we still live in a mining landscape," Kero said. "There may come a day when mining returns to some of these areas, but in the intermediate time periods, there's something we can do to get recreation benefit out of these lands."
Although 15 miles of trail are open now, another 5-8 miles are under construction and should be ready later this year. More construction will continue next year. Once complete, there should be about 34 miles of trails total, Kero said.
Other trail systems in Minnesota — Tioga Recreation Area in Cohasset and Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trails near Ironton and Crosby — have also been built on former mines.
In a news release shortly before the trail's opening, Mark Phillips, Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation commissioner, said Redhead had the potential to "add quality of life for local residents, attract tourism spending, and be a business recruiting tool for the health care and other large industries.”
The agency, funded by taconite taxes, helped the project through grants to the city of Chisholm.
“The reuse of mining-impacted lands for recreation can have significant and positive economic impacts in rural areas,” Phillips said.
If you build it, will they come?
Expectations for Redhead are big. The Chisholm Chamber of Commerce estimates more than 25,000 cyclists could visit and bring $2 million into the community.
Less than two months after opening, it seems to be working. The trailhead parking lot has been full on weekends with riders from Duluth and the Twin Cities.
Kero said the mountain bike trails at Redhead, Tioga and Giants Ridge in Biwabik were all planned together with the idea of turning the Iron Range into a destination for cyclists that's also within a short drive from hundreds more miles of trails in Cuyuna, the North Shore and Duluth.
He's already hearing about people making long weekend trips and spending a day at each system.
"It's working out exactly as we hoped to provide diversity of experience and really draw people to the Range to experience everything we've got to offer here," Kero said.
Benji Neff, director of mountain sports at Giants Ridge, said this summer has been the busiest for mountain biking since the chairlift began hauling riders to the top of the ski hill in August 2018. He's seeing people take weekend biking trips to the region, but some have opted for even longer trips.
"You zoom out a little bit further and you throw Cuyuna in the mix and you throw Duluth in the mix, and holy cow, that's one heck of a circuit to go on your mountain bike two-week vacation," Neff said. "But yes, people are making a three-day trip — one day at each of the three Mesaba Range places."
For Oseland and Nina Fredrickson, Redhead is another option outside of Duluth they can take advantage when finding a babysitter for their 20-month-year-old.
"You can easily get here, ride as much as you want and get home in time," Fredrickson said.
Added Osland: "World-class riding within an hour of your home for a lot of the Arrowhead Region."