The now-dormant iron ore mines at Cuyuna were once the region’s main economic engine, and in a roundabout way, they still are.
Although the mines closed for good back in 1984—abandoned like so many other industrial sites across America during that time—over the past 10 years, something unexpected happened. Something magical. The mines were reborn as mountain bike trails and, once again, they beckoned people to Cuyuna.
“They made lemonade with the lemons they were dealt after mining left the town,” says Minneapolis bicyclist Natalia Mendez. “I think it’s really smart.”
Mendez isn’t alone in that opinion. Mountain biking, and the tourism dollars that come along with it, has transformed the entire Cuyuna Lakes area. According to a survey from the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew, around 25,000 people ride the trails every year, bringing about $2 million of economic activity with them. Pretty impressive for a town of around 300 people.
The trails are busiest during summer, but according to Emily Smoak—another Minneapolis-based rider—winter is her favorite time of year to ride. “It’s funny how you might think the best weather is warmer weather, but it’s not,” she says, describing a recent trip to Cuyuna. “I think the perfect weather would be 24 degrees and crisp blue skies.”
More than 25 miles of Cuyuna’s flowing, mixed-difficulty singletrack trails are “groomed” for winter fat biking. If it’s your first time riding a fat bike on groomed trails, check out the beginner-friendly Galloping Goose Trail before testing your skills elsewhere. Formerly known as “Easy Street,” this 6-mile loop around Huntington Mine Lake is the perfect introduction for riders still getting familiar with the sport.
More advanced riders often prefer the higher-difficulty trails found in the Yawkey Trail Unit, including the fan favorite, Bobsled. One of the most popular and talked-about trails at Cuyuna, Bobsled starts with a short but steep climb up the ridge overlooking Yawkey Mine Lake. Stop to take in the view from the top, then follow the trail into the woods for a breakneck-paced, berm-filled, adrenaline-fueled rocket ride back down to the bottom. Ride this trail with a fresh layer of snow on the ground, and you won’t have any doubts about how Bobsled earned its name.
White-knuckled trails like Bobsled are outliers, though, according to Crosby resident Patrick Stoffel. “I’d say about 80 percent of the trail system is pretty family friendly, and there isn’t really any way to accidentally ride a skill level you’re not ready for. It’s pretty clearly marked.”
And Stoffel would know. Together with his wife Julie McGinnis, Stoffel co-owns the Red Raven Bike Shop & Cafe in downtown Crosby, which means helping new riders enjoy the trails is practically baked into his job description.
Like many other businesses in Crosby, Red Raven opened within the last 5 years, during the winter of 2015. In most four-season towns, it ranks somewhere between unusual and impossible for a bike shop to open in the middle of January.
But Crosby is not most towns.
Now headed into its fourth season, Stoffel describes their first winter as an unexpected success. Despite a nasty freeze-thaw cycle that closed the trails for over a month of the season, “we studded up five bikes, and it turned out demand for rentals was pretty high,” he laughs. “I’ve got a bunch more fat bikes for rent this year.”
Red Raven is one of more than a dozen new businesses to open in the Cuyuna Lakes area over the last 5 years. Many of the formerly abandoned red brick storefronts downtown have been reborn, and there’s now a craft brewery, farm-to-table restaurant, wellness studio, tattoo parlor, bookstore and gift shop, among other things. It seems the only thing growing faster than Cuyuna’s trail system is downtown Crosby.
One of the more eye-catching new businesses in town is True North Basecamp, which has made a splash online with its endlessly Instagrammable “north woods industrial” rental cabins. Each of the six, 275-square-foot cabins at True North has one full- and three twin-sized beds, high-speed internet access, integrated USB charging ports, and temperature control for year-round comfort—the perfect blend of wilderness and Wi-Fi.
For a more rustic stay, book one of three Minnesota DNR yurts overlooking Yakwey Mine Lake. Built from a Spartan template of insulated canvas tents, wood floors and woodstoves, think of these yurts like winter camping lite: Similar to a true, backcountry experience, but with bunk beds, shelter and a wood stove to smooth out some of the more intimidating aspects of camping in the cold. Each yurt can house seven guests and, in true Minnesota Nice fashion, logs to feed the wood stove are complimentary all winter.