Winter too often means planning vacations to southern locales for jet skiing, sailing and snorkeling. But here in Minnesota’s North Country, you’ll find a pair of recreational secrets for outdoor enthusiasts seeking a different type of adventure: fat tire biking and snowmobiling.
You want exhilaration? Try roaring down a winter trail with crisp air expanding your lungs, anticipating a bull moose or gray wolf just around the next corner. Haul through a sweeping wilderness turn as you master the 140-horsepower snowmobile engine underneath you. And stop fretting the cold: With advancements in sled heating systems and clothing, these sports can be enjoyed in surprising warmth and comfort.
Minnesota arguably has the greatest assemblage of snowmobile and fat tire biking destinations in the lower 48, maybe even North America. From the scenic North Shore of Lake Superior, to the quiet solitude of the borderlands around Voyageurs National Park and International Falls, to festive, welcoming communities in the Mesabi Iron Range, you can find a trail that suits your recreational mood.
Incredible Snowmobiling Opportunities
Minnesota contains 22,000 miles of snowmobile trails, almost entirely interconnected by the state’s unique grants-in-aid system, which relies on clubs and other enthusiasts to maintain and groom trails. Top areas include Ely, International Falls, the Iron Range and Cook County in the state’s northeast corner.
Many trails crisscross Cook County, but two deserve special mention: the Gunflint Trail system and North Shore trails. The former begins in the spectacular Lake Superior coastal community of Grand Marais and gains elevation inland while connecting to other area trails.
While snowmobiling on the North Shore, you may see moose, deer, wolves, pine martens, lynx and fox. You’re near the eastern portion of the gorgeous and vast Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), where snowmobiling and other motorized activity is prohibited, but adjacent state and national lands, like the Superior National Forest, are accessible and just as impressive.
Spend a day cruising the area and you’ll understand how Minnesota earned its moniker as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” In fact, bring an ice rod and auger and try your hand at ice fishing for aggressive northern pike, gorgeous lake trout or the state fish—the handsome and tasty walleye.
The 146-mile natural surface North Shore Trail runs from Duluth to Grand Marais, and thanks to its spectacular views on the ridgeline overlooking Lake Superior, it should be on every sledder’s must-ride list. Rugged and beautiful, the trail is remarkably remote in places, so pack food and monitor that gas gauge. Spur trails offer opportunities to exit and refuel.
Heading west, International Falls forms a unique border community with Fort Frances, Canada, across the Rainy River. The nearby Voyageurs National Park provides the snowmobiling gem of this region. Voyageurs has snowmobiling written into its charter, and the National Park Service stakes and grooms trails all winter.
You’ll find lots of lake-top riding here, plus the incredible Chain of Lakes Trail, which seasoned sledders consider a retro ride. Not a high-speed route, the narrow trail runs just wide enough around some trees to get your skis through. It’s incredible theater and feels just like snowmobiling during the sport’s infancy 50-plus years ago.
The Fat Biking Scene
As recently as five years ago, seeing a fat bike—an off-road style two-wheeler with wheel-width ranging from 3 to 5 inches—would’ve prompted double takes almost anywhere in the Upper Midwest. That’s changed seemingly overnight as the responsiveness, smoothness and off-road capabilities of these bikes, especially in snow, has become legendary.
Brian Peterson, former editor of Northland Outdoors, proudly shares that his traditional mountain bike has collected dust since he bought a fat-tire seven-speed two winters ago. A former downhill skier driven from the sport by aging knees, Peterson enjoys the same thrill and rush aboard his comfortable fat bike that he enjoyed racing down the slopes on sticks.
“They’re basically a monster truck of mountain bikes, and they can go anywhere through 4, 5, even 6 inches of new powder,” he said. “Plus I can burn 1,000 calories an hour. Tearing down a forested winter slope is every bit as thrilling as skiing. It’s really become my go-to winter activity.”
Two state parks in northeast Minnesota—Jay Cooke near Duluth and Split Rock on the North Shore—offer 5.4 and 8.7 miles, respectively, of groomed fat-bike trails. Expect additional miles to come online as the state works feverishly to satisfy growing winter-biking demands.
Some downhill ski areas also have begun embracing fat bikes for winter riding, complete with chairlift access, including Spirit Mountain in the Proctor/Duluth area and Giants Ridge at the edge of the Iron Range near Biwabik. Expect more ski operators to fuel this trend.
The Duluth area offers an amazing array of trails where off-road cyclists can challenge themselves over ridgelines and rocks on more than 45 miles of single-track trails. Top systems include Mission Creek (accessible via Chambers Grove Park); Hartley Park off Woodland Avenue; the 4.5-mile Lester Park loop; and the intermediate to advanced Piedmont Trail off Skyline Parkway. Grooming conditions vary throughout the winter, so keep an eye on updated trail status around the region.
Farther northwest in the heavily forested Grand Rapids area, several locations cater to fat-tire enthusiasts with trails, including the Mt. Itasca Winter Sports Center near Coleraine. The Forest History Center in Grand Rapids has several easily accessible short trails for newcomers to the sport that provide great views of the Mississippi River, and the city’s American Legion Memorial Park also welcomes fat bikers with an expansive trail system on the city’s northwest side overlooking Hale Lake.
Though groomed snowmobile and ski trails may look like obvious fat biking destinations, most of these trails are not open to other uses due to safety concerns and the fact their grooming costs are paid through user fees. Fat biking is not allowed on most snowmobile trails including the grants-in-aid trail system. The Minnesota DNR requests that as a general rule, cyclists avoid fat biking on any snowmobile trail.
Forget the beaches this winter when looking to burn vacation hours. Instead, build some character and head north into the snow belt. You might just have the time of your life.
Find more things to do, places to stay and resources for planning your winter getaway to Northeast Minnesota.