With all the news of recent or pending losses of access to blue ribbon trails, it’s great to learn of all the grassroots efforts to provide people quality riding opportunities, especially in less populated areas where small but dedicated bands of locals work tirelessly to secure access and subsequently build and maintain quality trails. These trails provide local residents the opportunity to enjoy our sport without having to commit the time and dollars necessary to travel to more established cycling destinations. And while these trail systems may not be as grand as the likes of 18 Road or Tsali, the locals are rightfully proud of them, and love to share their creations with any interested passer by.
On a recent trip through the upper Midwest, I was fortunate enough to have the time to explore a few such trails, and found it to be a marvelous experience. Mixed in among the now widely-known destinations like Copper Harbor, South Marquette, CAMBA and Cuyuna, were a handful of unknown, one-of-a-kind trails in places few other than those who live there would seek out. I left most with a big smile on my face, significantly enriched by both the riding experience itself as well as the shared love and camaraderie I enjoyed with the locals who built and maintain these unknown gems.
Movil Maze, Bemidji, MN
The first of these I hit was the Movil Maze trail just north of Bemidji, MN. Bemidji has a strong outdoor flavor to it, but that is overwhelmingly fishing-related. Certainly the fresh water fishing in Northern Minnesota is among the best in the world, but thanks to some newfound local diversity, the North Country isn’t just for fishing anymore.
I was fortunate to make contact with Northern Cycle wrench Jerry Smith, who gave me the tour of Bemidji’s best bike venue. A Copper Harbor veteran, Jerry has been heavily involved in helping Bemidji raise its non-motorized off road quotient and Movil Maze, largely built by Tom Damon, is the centerpiece of these efforts. While Bemidji doesn’t have the natural assets to be the next Copper Harbor, the locals have done a stellar job making the best of what they have, and the labor of love shows in a fast, flowy and well-maintained trail system that is a positive joy to ride, thanks to securing access to and developing one of the area’s many cross country ski systems. Rather than most XC ski areas turned bike route in the summer, the bike trail is independent of the ski trails and it rides like the purpose built bike trail that it is, just coincidentally lying on the same property as the ski trails.
After getting acquainted in the parking lot, Jerry and riding buddy/fellow trail advocate Cory Boushee blazed out onto their trail, and I had to use every bit of cornering skill and burst of speed I could muster just to keep them in my sights. Despite worrying about holding them back, I found the trail to be hugely inviting and the deep, dark northwoods were gorgeous.
There is really only one significant climb to speak of, and even that was nothing like the climbs I face at home in Colorado. But elevation was gained, and in a rather entertaining way. The trail is exceptionally well-designed to make that elevation gain just as strenuous as you would like, allowing the rider to adjust the pain level with the pace. All that easy or more difficult climbing carefully stores up what vertical relief the area has to offer for an excellent downhill finish. To top things off, near the finish is a modest but well-rounded skills park complete with a jump line, pumptrack and two serious hucks. At the end of the day, I was quite pleased to have spent the first part of my journey through our North Country in Bemidji.
Maple Hill, Hibbing, MN
After touring much of the upper Midwest, including multi-day, non-cycling trips in Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area, topped off by stops at all the area’s big name venues (Copper Harbor being my favorite, and the entire Upper Peninsula of Michigan being a region I fell in love with), I bookended the trip back in northern Minnesota with a stop at the Maple Hill trail system just south of the rough-hewn mining town of Hibbing. Hibbing is home to one of the world’s largest open pit mines, measuring fully 1.5 miles across and 3.5 miles wide. The town’s history is steeped in mining, and it sees little of the outdoor tourism that most other northern Minnesota towns receive. But, like Bemidji, a dedicated group of local cyclists has been working hard to provide cycling opportunities for their residents and the lucky MTB visitors to the area.
I originally stopped at Maple HIll because it was conveniently on my way, not because of any reputation it had as a great trail. Having no expectations going in, I was pleasantly surprised, even a little shocked, at the fun this trail divvied up. Local trail advocate and builder Jeremy Lind explained that the trail had just received a visit from the IMBA Trail Care Crew, and I was enjoying some of the results. Maple Hill had both elements of its original construction and a slightly more modern IMBA flavor, making for a wonderfully-diverse ride in a fairly compact area. Along with the IMBA Care Crew, Jeremy, his brother Matt, fellow local Bruce Walli, and others have put a lot of sweat equity into turning these bigger-than-I-expected hills into a rippin’ good place to ride a bike.
But their organization, the Iron Range Off Road Cyclists, isn’t stopping there. I got word, unfortunately too late to fit into my trip, of a supposedly equally-outstanding riding area called Lookout Mountain outside the nearby town of Virginia, largely built by IROC cyclists Frank Roark and Erik Carlson. Well, that just further solidified my desire to go back, a phenomenon I experience on almost every trip upon learning of all the goodies I didn’t have time to explore. I hadn’t expected to experience this phenomenon on this trip, thinking I’d get my fill of the limited opportunities there, but people like Jerry Smith, Jeremy Lind, and many others like them, have proven otherwise, all the while smashing my prejudices about Midwest riding.
Winman Trail, Manitowish Waters, WI
I found the WinMan Trail outside Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, to be equally entertaining. What was most amazing there was that, even when pulling into the parking lot on a perfect weather weekend, there was only one other vehicle there, which was gone by the time I returned. In an hour and a half of riding, I never saw another soul. So I had this very remote feeling, exceptionally well-designed and hugely-fun trail system all to myself. WinMan has a nice smattering of natural features incorporated into the trail, but usually with a ridearound, making it the perfect place for growing cyclists to up their skills in a nonthreatening environment. It would also make a great trail for riders of mixed abilities to ride together. Unfortunately, I was unable to hook up with any Manitowish locals, so I didn’t get the story behind the trails, but I can attest that, whatever led to it, the result is superb.
My overall takeaway from my trip is that, anywhere there are people who love to turn cranks, and are willing to put forth the effort, there can be great mountain bike trails. While we may all want to make those classic pilgrimages to Moab, Bend, or Crested Butte, we need great trails at home to keep the fire alive, whether we plan to travel or not. And while the common scenario is for Midwesterners to head for the Rockies or the desert Southwest, I, as a Coloradoan, had an equally satisfying time reversing the usual path and enjoying the variety my Midwestern brethren had laid out. Thanks to Jerry, Jeremy and all others like them!