Like the many smaller rivers and streams that run together to form the mighty Mississippi, the Minnesota Heartland is an impressive confluence of elements.
It's where the hardwoods meet the prairie, home to many of our 10,000 lakes, and where the world-famous Mississippi River begins its long trip south. And linking it all together, scenic bike trails weave around crystal lakes and over wooded hills, providing many miles of paved and off-road adventures.
Plan your next trip to the Minnesota Heartland with these four unbelievable, unforgettable bicycling experiences in mind.
Establish Your Basecamp for Adventure at Cuyuna
The unmistakable, craterous and red Cuyuna landscape was forged from 70 years of iron ore mining, a long-time specialty here in northern Minnesota. But after the mines closed, Cuyuna sat dormant for over three decades – abandoned like so many other former industrial sites. In the years since, nature has worked to reclaim the area’s Mars-like topography: Water has filled the pits, and trees have once again rooted on the rugged landscape. In other words, perfect conditions for mountain biking.
Rehabilitated as the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area in 2011, the post-industrial landscape was transformed into a world-class adventure destination with more than 25 miles of purpose-built mountain bike trails ranging from moderate to extremely difficult. Several loops of singletrack were carved into the rocky terrain, circling mine lakes, winding through woods and over steep hills. Elevated areas offer outstanding views of the landscape’s many mine lakes and natural lakes. More than 20 miles of trails are groomed for winter fat biking, which has earned Cuyuna a reputation as one of the country’s premier year-round bicycling destinations.
Like the trails themselves, True North Basecamp offers that perfect blend of old and new, wilderness and Wi-Fi
Cuyuna is also notable for its incredible bike-friendly lodging. Overlooking one of the park’s open pit lakes, True North Basecamp provides a comfortable, trail-connected basecamp for adventure. Bring a tent and camp under the stars, or book one of their famous "north woods industrial" cabins. Each of the six 275-square-foot cabins has one full- and three twin-sized beds, Wi-Fi access, integrated USB charging ports, and temperature control for year-round comfort.
Like the trails themselves, True North Basecamp offers that perfect blend of old and new, wilderness and Wi-Fi.
Ride the Trail Where Everyone is Above Average
In today’s bustling world, where everyone is busy and even small cities seem to have traffic jams, the towns along the Lake Wobegon Trail are welcome reminders of a simpler era. Named for Garrison Keillor’s fictional Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon, the trail holds a special place in the hearts of many.
The 62-mile trail is roughly Y-shaped and connects many of the rural, small town communities north of St. Cloud that Keillor used as inspiration when creating Lake Wobegon.
Riding the flat, peaceful trail is a bucolic journey through central Minnesota’s abundant dairy farms, lakes and streams. The trail’s secluded northern arm travels across lush farmland (with views of quilted fields), rolling hills, gurgling streams and the famous village of Holdingford, the “Gateway to Lake Wobegon,” which Keillor himself described as the “most Wobegonic” town in the country. The trail will capture your imagination, summon your Minnesota pride and stay in your memory for many years to come. It’s the trail where everyone is above average, and it can only be found right here in central Minnesota.
The charms of Minnesota’s rural heartland are perfectly captured in the changing scenery, small towns and friendly locals you’ll encounter on this unforgettable ride. Start planning your trip today.
Begin Your Epic Mississippi River Bike Tour
Many great journeys begin humbly, and for people biking the Mississippi River Trail (MRT), the humble headwaters at Itasca State Park are no different: just a shallow stream, ankle-deep and barely moving at all. But as you cycle south along the Mississippi, the small river gradually becomes larger, picks up speed and grows into its awe-inspiring reputation. Although there are many places in Minnesota where you can ride the MRT, the river begins its long journey south at Itasca – and for people biking the river from end-to-end, it’s where your journey begins as well.
From the headwaters, you can choose between two routes: the “Explorer’s On-Road Route” east to Grand Rapids, or south along the Paul Bunyan Trail for the “Family Friendly State Trail Route.” The 200-mile “Explorer’s” route closely follows the river as it snakes through the ancient pine forests of the Mississippi north woods, consisting of predominantly asphalt roads and shoulders, with terrific views of the Mississippi River around every bend. On the flip side, the 100-mile “Family Friendly” route does not follow the river, instead focusing on connecting the many smaller river towns between Bemidji and Brainerd.
Whichever route you choose, road or trail, you’re sure to have an unforgettable time riding the MRT in northwest Minnesota.
Hit the Cowbell at Detroit Mountain
Known for its XC loops, Detroit Mountain is a ski area that has been adding yearly to its trail system. In a condensed area of only about 200 acres, it’s easy enough to get a 10-20 mile ride with all the various trails in the area.
The park contains 11 miles of machine built cross country flow trails that test your endurance, along with 4 unique downhill trails.
On the 1.3-mile fan-favorite "More Cowbell" XC trail, you'll get to slap two cowbells with each lap of the course. Combined with tons of switchbacks and rolling hills, it's one of the park's most popular trails.
On weekends, take advantage of Detroit Mountain's lift service to experience their gravity and feature filled jump trails. Point your tires downhill and “ride the roller coaster” back down on the contour flow trails. Named for their roller coaster-like twists, turns and elevation changes, the contour trails hug the side of the mountain through wooded areas and over berms, rollers and custom-built wood features.
Bring your own bike, or rent one at the Detroit Mountain Lodge. Full-suspension and hardtail mountain bikes are available for rent, along with fat bikes.
Brian Fanelli is a writer and editor for Explore Minnesota. When he isn't writing about life in The North, you'll find him browsing the sci-fi shelves in a local bookstore, biking one of Minnesota's spectacular trails or walking his Chihuahua around Minneapolis.
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