They move and make mountains in Northern Minnesota. The mountains are not snow covered, alpine peaks, but instead are iron ore rich deposits that are milled into mountains of marble sized taconite pellets, ship-bound for steel mills, and soon to become the steel alloys used for everything from your pickup chassis to your high-strength ATV frame. After over 100 years of feeding the country’s growth, the Mesabi Range of Northern Minnesota (often simply called “The Range”) is speckled with beautiful lakes, some hundreds of feet deep that have flooded former mines, and teeming with wildlife. Mining created another interesting geographical feature, though. Discarded overburden and tailings piles grew into small mountains of a man-made variety, and Mother-Nature quickly moved in and reclaimed the area. It was also the perfect opportunity for off-road recreation.
Even though Minnesota is home to both Arctic Cat and Polaris, the state never had an officially recognized ride area until the Iron Range Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area was opened in 2002. Before then it was a playground for local riders who were having a blast riding up, down and around the huge waste rock stockpiles. When the mining operations ceased and through the urging of local riders and plenty of their labor, a park was born.
Today the Iron Range Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area is 1200 acres of hills, rocks, twisting trails, mud holes, and scenic views to keep any ATV or Side x Side rider happy. Officially, 800 acres of the park are dedicated to riding, while the remaining area is kept as a buffer strip for the neighbors. One feature that really got our attention was that if you find a great location for a new trail, by suggesting it to park rangers, they’ll evaluate the possibilities and do their best to make it happen! We know of no other trail system in the country where that is possible. Then again, this entire park and trail system is continually evolving with the help of clubs, local and state officials, and rider input backed up by hard work. In Minnesota, they still know how to work with the neighbors!
Since local riders helped build the trails at the Iron Range OHV area, they gave them names as well. Today you can ride trails called Yo-Yo Hill, Moon Dust Basin, Ted’s Revenge, and Roller Coaster. Thankfully, the trails are well marked with color coded signs signaling level of difficulty and the type of vehicle each trail is designed for. A green sign means an easy trail, blue means intermediate, and black trails are the most extreme with plenty of rocks and steep hills. During our last Range ride, some were so steep and rough they should practically be marked with a postcard box for your next of kin. “Dear Mom, I’m about to attempt the hill known as Ski Jump. Thanks for everything!” It’s not just the steep hills that present a challenge to riders though; they’ve got MOUNTAINS of rocks!
If you like technical rock climbing over everything from baseball to sofa-sized boulders, this is the place for you! In some areas you won’t even see the dirt! Where you do find the dirt, it is a deep red thanks to the iron content in the soil. It’s fun to ride on and it can get a bit dusty if it doesn’t rain for a while. It is not the ideal place to wear your new, white riding jersey or for your sweetie to be sporting a sparkling white tee-shirt. Dark colors are best in the Range to avoid the inevitable stains.
Every riding area needs a mud hole and they’ve got one in Gilbert! We made several runs through the red colored water and you’ll want to pick your lines carefully. It’s always fun to challenge yourself by sloshing through a water hole. As with every ride area, there are always spectators at the water’s edge awaiting any disaster, cell phones out and ready to record the mayhem.
One thing we really liked about the Iron Range OHV area is they’ve got an on-site wash bay for cleaning your machines! It’s a really great feature, but so is the on-site DNR office with classrooms for training new riders. The most amazing thing about the Iron Range OHV area is that there is no fee to ride! All you need is to have your machine registered. Riders born after July 1st of ’87 must complete a simple but informative training course. Riders 12-15 are required to complete the training course and an additional CD training tool. Thankfully, the area is open year round except for a couple weeks of firearm deer season, but hours are limited to weekends in the winter. The deer and wildlife don’t seem to mind the riding at all, and can regularly be spotted roaming the trails. As with most riding areas, sound is a big issue and 99db is the limit. There’s no reason to be any louder.
SMALL TOWN FRIENDLY
Virginia, Eveleth, Mountain Iron, and Gilbert make up what is known as the Quad-Cities of the Iron Range, with Gilbert being the epicenter of Iron Range riding since the Iron Range OHV area is just outside town. The area still very much has a small town feel, but there are restaurants, three gas stations, and two campgrounds that are easy to get to from the trail. A proposed 2500 acre expansion of the Range riding area puts it right in behind one of the fuel service stations, and plans are in the works for more connecting trails as well as opening snowmobile trails like the 165-mile Taconite trail. Besides the ATV and Side x Side trails, the area offers several interesting places to visit such as:
- Lake Ore-Be-Gone. A huge, deep man-made lake created when an old mine area was allowed to flood.
- The U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth
- The Soudan Underground Mine
- Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisolm
- The Hull Rust Mine Viewing area (The world’s largest)
During our last visit, we checked out the Hockey Hall of Fame. Later in the day we opted for a self-guided mining operation tour, hoping to get a prime view. We got one and more! As we rounded a corner, we were headed straight for the underside of a truck the size of a two-story house, and we immediately darted to the side to escape the rampaging behemoth. Better to take the official tour than the self-guided one!
NEW TRAILS and A BRIDGE IN THE SKY
While expanded trail and road access now makes it much easier for riders to travel between rides areas, new trails are being opened as well, including one over the tallest bridge in the state. With a huge deposit of high grade ore directly under a major highway, a previous agreement to reroute the highway was put into action. The new Highway 53 Bridge over the cavernous Rouchleau mine will send cars 200’ over the water below for a quarter mile. It will also send ATV riders. For the first time anywhere, ATVs, Side x Sides, snowmobiles, bicycle riders, and even pedestrians will get their own 14’ wide lane, allowing for uninterrupted use of the Mesabi Trail. It will surely be a bridge and a view like no other.
THE GREEN LIGHT
The Highway 53 bridge crossing isn’t the only major change for ATV and Side x Side riders. St. Louis County covers much of the Iron Range territory, and recently they’ve adopted a policy opening road sides to ATV & Side x Side travel. That means 3000 miles of additional access! This is huge advantage for local business and makes the area very attractive to riders. It’s just so much easier if you can ride from campground to trail head, then drop in for fuel or food throughout your adventure. Be aware that some roads in cities might still be closed to riding, but you don’t want to be on busy streets anyway. You’ll also need to obey speed limits and all other rules of the road.
In other parts of the country that have adopted a roadside travel policy, such as Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, it’s proven to be an overwhelming success. Most riders simply want access to fuel, food, and trails, and initial worries about road shoulder wear, or worse, accidents, have proven unfounded. It works for riders and business owners alike.
RIDE & RALLY
It’s always fun to be part of an organized event, and the Iron Range Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area offers several throughout the year.
- June 4: The Gilbert OHV Park will celebrate the 125th anniversary of MN state parks. Displays, guided rides, skills competitions, and cake!
- July 23-24: The Gilbert Cup, a dirt bike competition hosted by the Upper Midwest Trails Association
- July 14-17th: Crawl for the Cure, where off-road enthusiasts raise money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Two days of guided trail rides, a pig roast, camping, bonfires and activities for kids. A pretty sweet family weekend opportunity!
PLAY & STAY
We can’t wait to get back to the trail system of the Iron Range and its friendly towns. The area is beautiful, wild, welcoming, and there are great things happening for ATV and Side x Side riders on the Range. Just the way we like it!
www.ironrange.org– Great site with downloadable maps and plenty of info on Range riding. Includes info on local campgrounds, hotels, and even parts.
www.irontrail.org/recreation/atv-ohv/ohv-park/– Detailed info. Links to everything in the Range
www.dnr.state.mn.us/ohv/trail_detail.html?id=13– Minnesota DNR site. Rules, regs, ride areas