Some ATV riders in northeast Minnesota are rejoicing after a couple of stretches of the state’s iconic Gunflint Trail opened to them.
Class 1 ATVs — typically the lighter kind that riders straddle — are now allowed on a little over 4 miles of the paved road after the Cook County Board passed a controversial measure recently. The open-air vehicles are approved to ride on the far right side and shoulder in two sections of the road, each approximately 2 miles long. Both sections are far outside the city of Grand Marais, where the trail begins.
The move came after the U.S. Forest Service opened more of its roads to ATVs in the area, officials said. Citing good safety records where the vehicles are allowed on other Cook County roads, riders asked the board to allow them access to the Gunflint as a connector between the newly opened forest roads. They also touted it as an opportunity for riders to access several businesses along the thoroughfare.
The trail, a paved 57-mile road formally called Cook County 12, winds north and west through forest and around lakes near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Under a state law, all of the Gunflint Trail was already opened to the larger and heavier Class 2 ATVs, where passenger and driver typically ride side-by-side.
The sections now open to the lighter vehicles are from Pine Mountain Road to South Brule Road and from Lima Grade to County Road 92.
County Commissioner Heidi Doo-Kirk said opening the trail segments to more ATVs was a difficult decision. She ended up favoring it along with three other commissioners in a 4-1 vote.
“There’s a concern when there’s a change,” she said. “People on the Gunflint Trail aren’t accustomed to ATVs and they don’t know what’s going to happen and there’s just fear.”
Commenters on an Internet petition to “Preserve the Gunflint Trail” cited safety, environmental and economic reasons for keeping the trail off limits.
Visitors “come to the Gunflint Trail for the unique opportunity to experience life without the noise and commotion found in almost every other vacation destination,” wrote one Grand Marais resident. “If that uniqueness is destroyed, the tourist dollars will also go away.”
Rhonda Silence, secretary of the Cook County ATV Club, said drivers of cars, trucks and other vehicles already need to be alert for all types of potential hazards on the Gunflint, including hikers, bikers, skate skiers, deer, bear and moose.
County ordinance says all ATVs must have a side mirror so riders can see traffic as they are riding, she added. “You can see traffic and you can pull over.”
ATV riders use the small vehicles not only for fun, but also to get around, proponents said, and they are not louder than a regular car.
The ordinance will be up for review in a year. Doo-Kirk said that if there are too many violations — people riding the entire trail or ripping up the ditches, for instance — she will vote against extending the access.
In the meantime, she and other commissioners wanted to give people who can’t bike or walk a chance to experience the trail outside, she said.
“It’s an iconic road that everyone should be able to enjoy the way that they would like to enjoy it,” she said. “It gives a lot of people a lot of opportunity that they’ve been missing.”