Economic developers finding recreational uses for mining-impacted land across Iron Range
CHISHOLM – It's kind of like the Grand Canyon of the north — with mountain bike trails around its perimeter.
The Redhead Mountain Bike Park, being built on 1,225-acres of former Iron Range mineland, is shaping up to arguably be the most scenic and unequaled mountain bike park in the Midwest.
Or, as mountain bikers might say: It’s totally rad.
“It's amazing,” said Jim Plummer, of the Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation Department of Mining and Reclamation. “The terrain, the beauty, the water. It's absolutely breathtaking. I'm in awe of it, I really am.”
The mountain bike park is being constructed amidst a chain of played-out former natural iron ore pits near the Minnesota Discovery Center alongside Highway 169 in Chisholm. Containing clear blue water, the string of mine pits at one time included the Pillsbury, Glen, Leonard, Leonard-Burt, Monroe-Tenner, Dunwoody, and others.
Construction began July 22. When complete, the park will feature up to 35.9 miles of single-track mountain bike trails running under, around, through, and over, some of the Iron Range's most stunning topography.
“It's incredible,” said Scott Linnenburger, principal at Kay-Linn Enterprises in Boulder, Colo., the company designing and constructing the park. “Being down in the pit is an experience that a lot of people never get to have on a trail. There isn't anything like it.”
About 15 miles of trail are being built this year, said Linnenburger. Another 15 miles will be completed next year. It's expected that trails will open to the public in summer 2020.
The clear, aqua-colored mine pit water, surrounded by steep iron ore-colored rock walls and forests, frame the extensive trail system. It's the rugged, yet beautiful topography, along with the mining history, that make the park one-of-a-kind.
“We have nine crews working there right now,” said Linnenburger, whose company has designed and built about 600 miles of mountain bike trails across the nation over the past 15 years. “They are just super excited to work in that landscape and that's not always the case. One of the guys said, 'This is the best site I've ever worked on’.”
The park will include beginner, intermediate and advanced trails. Beginner trails will start near Minnesota Discovery Center and its Glen Location, said Linnenburger.
A trolley runs from Minnesota Discovery Center to the Glen Location, which features historical mining-related exhibits.
“Where else can you ride a train to get to the beginning of mountain bike trails?” said Linnenburger.
It's hoped that visitors to the park will also spend time at Minnesota Discovery Center, said Donna Johnson, the facility’s executive director. The center, a museum featuring the history of the Iron Range, will serve as a trail head to the park.
“First and foremost, it's an opportunity to bring people here who might not otherwise choose to visit,” said Johnson. “We've opened a new restaurant, The Rustic Pig, and we hope to capitalize on that by people being able to come into the restaurant.”
Mountain bike riders will have access to the Discovery Center's parking lot, restrooms, and possibly showers in the amphitheater, said Johnson. Developing a children's mountain biking skills class at the Discovery Center, is also under consideration, said Johnson. With the opening of the park, it's hoped that Minnesota Discovery Center can host bicycle expos, hold more concerts in the amphitheater, and, perhaps, offer camping opportunities, she said.
Interpretative plaques along the trail system re planned, which would reflect history of Iron Range mining and of the land.
Individual trails within the park may be named after area mines or the names of mining communities. Benches and other amenities along the trail will be built from rock from within the park.
“Sustainable building practices are going to be used, which will help minimize trail maintenance,” said Linda Johnson, Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation director of mining and property development.
“The city (Chisholm) would like to have the history of mining reflected along the trails so mountain bikers will know what they are looking at.”
The vast majority of the property on which the park is being built, is owned by the IRRR. Some tax-forfeited land managed by St. Louis County is also part of the park. The trail lands are being leased to the city of Chisholm, which will be responsible for trail maintenance.
“The main thing is the economic impact,” said Chisholm Mayor John Champa. “It would be nice to be able to bring people into our area from outside the area. As we know from the other mountain bike park on the other part of the Range (Cuyuna), there were several new business that opened up there, so we're hoping we can get some new businesses as well.”
The city may need funding to buy specialized equipment for trail maintenance, which could be pursued through the IRRR, Champa said.
The agency has invested $1.777 million in the project for planning, design and construction.
The park's geology should help trails at the Redhead to better withstand adverse weather conditions compared to some other mountain bike parks, Plummer said.
“Riders will be right on top of the natural iron ore, which not only provides the visual experience, but also allows for better draining,” said Plummer. “The soils compact well and hold up well in inclement weather. With that, it's likely that the park will each year be one of the first Minnesota bike parks to open and the last to close.”
Mountain bikers of all ages will find the Redhead to be the perfect place, Linnenburger said. A variety of trails are being built to meet the skill levels of all riders, he added.
“For mountain bike enthusiasts who are looking for places to ride, the Redhead is going to quickly develop a reputation,” said Linnenburger. “A lot of people think that mountain bike trails are not accessible to them, but we're trying to change that so the whole family can utilize it.”
There are thousands of acres of former mineland across the Iron Range.
The re-use of mineland has for decades focused largely on reclamation such as re-vegetation, tree planting, fish stocking, and re-shaping “wedding cake-shaped,” mine dumps. There's even been new housing developments built on former mineland. That type of reclamation is still being done.
However, economic developers in recent years recognized the value of re-using mineland for recreational activities. Those developments improve the quality of life for local residents, attract visitors, and boosts economic activity.
Boat launches, beaches, campgrounds, ATV riding areas, disc golf courses, bicycle trails, and mine views, have sprung up across the Iron Range on former mineland.
Planners and developers are being careful not to construct projects on existing iron formations, where future mining could occur. Projects being built on former minelands are planned in ways that allow any potential future mining to take priority.
Linda Johnson credits IRRR Commissioner Mark Phillips for his vision on quality of life investments.
“A lot of Mark's message has been quality of life, which helps attract and retain businesses and improves the quality of life for residents,” she said. “Changing these minelands into outdoor recreational opportunities attracts tourists and changes how our region is perceived.”
Successful development of the Cuyuna Mountain Bike Trail System at Crosby helped ignite a push to build more mountain bike parks in northeastern Minnesota. The goal is to turn the region into a mountain biking destination.
“Before the mountain bike system was built, there weren't many new businesses in Crosby,” said Linnenburger. “Now, there's something like 16 new businesses there and it's a vibrant town. It's incredible to see what's happened in Crosby due to that trail system being built, so it will be interesting to see what happens up here.”
Two other major mountain bike projects are opening and under development within the IRRR service area.
Nineteen miles of new mountain bike trail opened in late August at the Tioga Recreation Area near Cohasset. About half of those trails are built on iron ore overburden piles, the other half in forests.
Giants Ridge Recreation Area in Biwabik is opening a third gravity-flow trail this fall and a comprehensive cross country mountain bike trail system is under development, which could host Minnesota high school championships Linnenburger said.
When the Giants Ridge mountain bike trail development is complete, it will comprise eight gravity-fed trails and 25 miles of cross country mountain bike trails. That will make Giants Ridge the largest lift-served mountain bike park in the Midwest.