Minnesota’s Cuyuna Lakes mountain bike trails open

You’d never know this ultra-clear lake near Crosby was formerly a mine pit.

Former mines transform into a premiere playground

Jenny Smith heading through Boot Camp.

One of Minnesota’s best-kept secrets, the Cuyuna Lakes State Recreation Area, won’t be under the radar much longer. The buzz has been building for years among mountain biking fans. License plates from across the country already have showed up in the parking lot since some of the rugged new trails opened just before Memorial Day weekend.

They’re spectacular–and that’s just the Boot Camp section for beginners. My son and I did about eight miles on May 27 with guidance from Jenny Smith, owner of Crosby’s Cycle Path and Paddle. It’s a blast.

We love the exhilaration of swooping around corners, riding into dips and rattling down hills. Terrain goes from pines to birch and hardwoods, from sand and soil to the red dirt and jagged rocks from iron mining days.

For hard-core mountain bikers, who can rumble and launch across 250-foot slag piles, it’s an adventurous 22-mile, tire-shredding nirvana.

From diving and kayaking to IMBA destination
The International Mountain Biking Association has been working with the Minnesota Department of Nature Resources for years to carve trails through the former iron mine property. It sounds gritty and industrial, but it’s surprisingly gorgeous. The hills created by excavating ore rise up steep and wooded, while the 500-foot pits below them form 17 emerald-green lakes. It feels like a mini Boundary Waters Canoe Area, but much closer to the Twin Cities.

How clear is it? This is one of the most popular spots for Scuba diving in the state. Really. Check out the excursions and beginner classes through the Minnesota Dive School in Brainerd, which also does dive trips to Lake Superior.

It’s also amazing for kayaking. On my first paddle here about three years ago, I have to admit the thought of a 500-foot drop below me was a little creepy. But then the surrounding beauty takes over, and it’s pure fun.

You’ll find a few anglers here, too, as the deep, extra-cold water supports trout. And if you need an ideal way to cool off after a sweaty good ride, there’s nothing like a mine lake.

Celebrate the trails’ grand opening

Keep an eye out for iron ore and interesting rocks.

The trails’ official grand opening and the first Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Festival is June 10-12. Hans “No Way” Rey, a California-based German mountain biker who travels the world, will be part of the fun. He’s doing an extreme skill demonstration in the Yawkey Expert Skills Area and an outdoor big screen movie of his global mountain biking adventures that have taken him to pyramids, jungles and the ancient Petra ruins.

There will be a Night Ride, Grand Tour, Kids Bike Parade, Kids Bike Race, Trek Time Trial, and the Kryptonight Crusher cross-country race.  Not surprisingly, Red Bull will be there, too, along with assorted bonfires, live music and beer and wine to make it an official party.

A few Cuyuna Trail tips:
Bike with a buddy. 
The terrain is rugged and remote. Local EMT crews have gone through special training to deal with trail emergencies, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy task–especially if no one knows you’re there.

Wear long pants or leggings. You’ll protect your legs better and shield yourself from the poison ivy. One crash off the trail, and you may be swimming in it.

Take extra tire tubes. Some of the most extreme areas have the highest potential for tire-shredding terrain.

Start with an expert.
If you’ve never tried mountain biking, go with someone who can coach you through it. Jenny at Cycle Path & Paddle also may be adding some family mountain bike sessions or do some women-only sessions as the summer progresses.

My first time on a mountain was on North Dakota’s Maah Daah Hey Trail. It took about half an hour for me to loosen the death grip I had on the brakes. Cuyuna’s boot camp session isn’t quite as challenging, but if you’re brand-new, you need to feel comfortable enough to trust momentum, let it carry you down the hills and back up the next one.

Trust me. You don’t have to be a Red-Bull-slammin’ extremist to enjoy this exhilarating sport. It’s a joy ride no matter what level you’re at.

If you need pavement beneath your wheels, Cuyuna has a fine paved trail system, as well, and you’ll get some of the same picturesque views of the mine lakes and forest–just not the whoops of triumph when zooming up and down mountain bike trails. Consider it a mostly silent sport.

For maps, details on the celebration, and info on rustic campsites, check for updates through the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.