New Mountain Biking Opportunities in Ely, Minnesota

Recreation

It started eight years ago, when Scott Anderson, Steve Lampman and some other friends from Ely took a weed whacker and began to clear brush beneath a powerline outside of town. They wanted more places to ride their mountain bikes, and with Minnesota DNR’s permission, were intent on creating their own trails.

After some time clearing brush and packing down gravel to make a trail, the work got stalled. Despite the delay, they did not abandon their plans. In fact, this marked the beginning of a much larger project. With the help of the Forest Service and DNR, Anderson and his team hired a company that specializes in designing and building mountain bike trails from Grand Marais called Dirt Candy to put lines on the map and plot out a much longer mountain biking route. With a route and a proposal in hand, they were granted permission to build a mountain bike trail.

Kid riding on a dirt bike trail

Constructing and maintaining a mountain bike trail involves more than a few shovels and an urge to ride. A proper trail requires a good bit of planning. Not only does it need to be engineered to stand up to the abuse of bikes, erosion, and the battering of northern Minnesota weather, but a good trail need turns, ramps, jumps, rock features and more. To create a truly world-class riding experience, it would cost between $30,000 and $40,000 a mile. This would be an investment of time and money.

Fortunately, Scott and his friends weren’t the only ones excited to build mountain bike trails around Ely. The city of Ely kicked in $25,000, which was matched by the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB), a federal grant for recreational trails as well as other sources, including $230,000 raised by the Ely Ski and Bike Club. This wide-ranging, community effort led to the completion of 9.4 miles of world-class mountain biking trails that can be accessed straight from town.

A group of cyclists take a corner, on a trail in the woods

What began as a trail for locals to go out and have fun, turned into a way to attract visitors and grow Ely’s outdoor economy. Mountain biking, which began with a group of people jerry-rigging old motorcycle parts onto bikes to go down hills and through forests in the late 1970s, has steadily grown in popularity. In the past decade, the number of mountain bikers has exploded, and all over the state of Minnesota, regions and municipalities have realized that building trails to attract riders to their area is a powerful economic driver.

In Minnesota, the development of mountain bike trails has been particularly important to the economies of former mining towns. Ride areas such as Giant’s Ridge in Biwabik, Cuyuna near Crosby and Ironton, and Redhead in Chisolm, have helped revive these towns and made them a destination for bikers across the country. As Anderson sees it, building and promoting mountain biking trails is a natural fit for Ely. With its reputation as the gateway to the Boundary Waters, the community already has the amenities and infrastructure to support the increased tourism that would come from the trails. “The potential is enormous,” Anderson says.

After building the trails, they had money left over from the initial rounds of fundraising. As the money was earmarked for trail building, folks naturally set about dreaming of future trails. One of the motives to build more trails came from the International Mountain Bike Association, which states that for a town to attract outside riders, they needed at least twenty miles of trails. For Anderson and others involved with trail building, they set this as their goal: To double the amount of bikeable trails and put Ely on the map.

A kid standing on a rock next to 2 mountain bikes in the woods reaches their arms skyward.

This summer, the crew from Dirt Candy will plot out an additional ten miles of future trails that will wind through federal and DNR land. These trails will not only expand the riding opportunities in Ely, but will eventually connect to the Mesabi, Prospector Trail and Trezona Trails, making them a part of a longer system of bike routes that wind through the north country.

In addition to taking ownership of the growing network of trails, the Ely Ski and Bike club has helped organize a school team with Ely high school. And there will be a Friday night race series that will run through the summer, for both kids and adults.

What began as a project for a few hobbyists in town is rapidly growing into a town fixture, a training ground for future competitors and world class riders.

The potential Anderson and his friends saw many years ago is being realized.

Perhaps the most heartening sign is how the entire community, from dedicated snowmobilers to passionate wilderness advocates, have banded around the trails. “In this day and age, it’s rare for anything to have this much support,” says Anderson. “But we really seem to have hit on something that the entire community can get behind.”

SO YOU WANT TO BIKE ELY …

• Trail reports, maps and travel directions: elynordic.org/trails or check out

the apps from Trailbot or Trailforks for maps

• Need to rent a bike? Ely Bike and Kicksled is a great resource for info on where to ride. 218-365-2453 or elybikeandkicksled.com

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