IRONTON, MINN. -- Jim McCarvill had just finished an adrenaline-fused ride on his mountain bike down a twisting bobsled-like trail at the nationally acclaimed Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area.
“I absolutely love it,’’ said McCarvill, 64, of Richfield, an avid mountain biker who traversed the rugged trails here nearly a dozen times last year.
He’s among those not surprised that thousands of two-wheeled enthusiasts have been flocking to the former iron-mining area of Crosby, Ironton and Cuyuna, two hours north of the Twin Cities, since the 25-mile trail system opened in 2011. Visits to the 5,000-acre recreation area, which also boasts boating, fishing, camping, scuba diving and hiking (bike trails are open to hikers), have increased from 118,000 in 2010 — before the trails opened — to 164,000 last year, up nearly 40 percent.
“People all over the country are coming here and loving it,’’ McCarvill said before pedaling off.
Erika Rivers, new head of the Department of Natural Resources parks and trails division, also isn’t surprised.
“It’s on the map nationally as a destination,’’ she said. “We’re seeing people from all over. It’s one of those sports that’s really ‘next generation.’ The 18- to 30-year-old demographic has embraced it.’’
As have older bikers.
Cuyuna Country has become so popular that work began this week on a $1.2 million project to handle the growing number of visitors. Another 96 parking spots will be added, along with changing facilities, a picnic shelter, bike-wash station and restroom.
“It will redefine the park,’’ said Nick Statz, trail manager.
Meanwhile, three yurts — round tents set on insulated wood platforms and furnished with bunk beds, tables, chairs and a wood stove — also are being built near one of the trails, adding another attraction to Cuyuna. Available year-round, they sleep up to six, and bikers will be able to hit the trail right outside the door.
Bikers are embraced
Not everyone envisioned an old-iron mining area of northern Minnesota becoming a mountain bike mecca.
“The community was skeptical,’’ said Statz, one of the founders of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew, the local mountain bike club instrumental in developing the trail system on abandoned mining land and responsible for much of the maintenance. “They had tried different ways to pump up the economy after the mines closed, with limited success.’’
Now the towns believe. Signs welcome mountain bikers, and vehicles loaded with bikes are common.
The recreation area’s 25-site campground often is filled on weekends.
“It was never a problem getting a campsite’’ before mountain biking arrived, said Jenny Lust, a park employee. “Every weekend was full last year.’’
Said Statz: “It’s been a huge economic boost for the community. It’s not a fad. We’ve seen steady growth.’’
And the bikers don’t stop coming when the snow flies. Statz packs the trails in the winter using a two-wheel-drive motorcycle. Die-hards on fat-tired bikes come cruising along, ignoring the cold.