Adventure touring on a Border to Border OHV route

Mary Straka ( r ), OHV program consultant with DNR Parks and Trails, describes one of the route maps to participants.  Listening are Ron Danielson (l) and Roger Clark, park system manager for Itasca County. 

“You might expect pines and lakes,” Ron Potter said about the proposed adventure touring route across northern Minnesota, “but I think people are going to be surprised at the unique features all across the state.”  

Last summer, Potter drove across Minnesota, 673 miles from the northeast tip of the Arrowhead to the North Dakota border, to confirm a potential route for an unusual state project called the Border to Border Route (B2B). It’s seen as a back country adventure tour for road legal off highway vehicles over existing gravel, minimum maintenance and forest roads.  The route, when finalized, will be signed and mapped.  

The idea was originally suggested to the legislature in 2015 by the Minnesota 4 Wheel Drive Association (MN4WD). The idea of a scenic back roads touring route has been used by other states, like the Rustic Roads initiative in Wisconsin, to encourage tourism and use of rural roads. The B2B project would use money from off highway vehicle registrations and a portion of gas taxes to develop a route that would be challenging enough for off highway vehicle travel, yet also accessible in most places for those “daily drivers” wanting a slower paced way to tour back roads in northern Minnesota.

The legislature assigned the project to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).  The development of the actual route is being completed by the National Off Highway Vehicle Conservation Council (NOHVCC), which expects to have the final route proposal to the DNR by this May.  Potter is a project manager with the council.

Developing the route began in January 2017 with 11 public meetings across the northern third of Minnesota to gather suggestions.  After compiling this information, Potter drove the roads in his OHV to check on its suitability.  

The eastern section of the proposed route begins at Horseshoe Bay public access, high in Cook County along Lake Superior.  The route travels through the Superior National Forest through central Lake County and touches the Range cities of Babbitt, Ely and Tower as it passes through St. Louis County.

Opportunities for off road only recreation along the route are being explored, said Mary Straka, a consultant with the Parks and Trails division of the DNR, so an extended spur from the main route was added to provide access to the Iron Range OHV State Recreational Area near Gilbert.  

The route crosses into Itasca County just north of the McCarthy Beach State Park, meanders through the gravel roads of the Scenic area southeast of Bigfork and then travels west through the Chippewa National Forest.  Continuing west through north central and northwest Minnesota, the route turns north in Red Lake County and ends up on the North Dakota boundary near St. Vincent, a few miles south of the Canadian border.

“I think it will be a lot of fun for people,” said Potter.  “Minnesota is a very diverse state from east to west.” He referenced the rugged, rocky terrain in the northeast (which requires a high clearance vehicle) to the native prairies and historic structures in the west, even remnants of the old oxcart road that carried pioneers through the Red River area.

Project planners have also had to consider the unique characteristics of northern Minnesota.  There will be winter closures in some areas, said Straka, as some of the route will follow groomed snowmobile trails, as well as spring closures dictated by road conditions.  Hunter advisories will be issued seasonally.  

There is always the concern of inadvertent spread of invasives by travelers.  The answer to that, said Straka, is public education: Come in clean, leave clean and stay on the trail.  Staying on the trail is also important to forest managers, said Roger Clark, Itasca County Park System manager, as excessive use of forest roads crossing the route could lead to damage.  

To minimize that possibility, there will be a route map and well-defined signage, said Straka.  The project will also include a website with traveler information. 

After the route is finalized, the DNR will decide whether an environmental review is necessary and in what detail it is needed.  Since the project will follow existing roads and will not affect other uses along the route, required reviews may be minimal.  Depending on the process, the route is expected to be ready for use in 2019.

Planners expect that the new B2B route will appeal to a wide range of user groups.  Parts will be challenging enough for the adventurous OHV user.  There is also a growing group of outdoors enthusiasts who are no longer able to hike and are moving to OHV use.  The popularity of newer types of highway licensed OHVs like dual-sport bikes is increasing, and riders are looking for places to drive. Finally, there are those who would just like to take a self-guided tour of the countryside at a slower pace.

Planners are also hoping that it will create an increase in traffic for rural areas and increased revenues for off the beaten path eateries, lodging and points of interest.   

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