By Day 2 and about Mile 69 of our bike ride up the Mesabi Trail, my friend Jim and I had already experienced a scenic overload. But when we hit the brand-new Hwy. 53 bridge over the Rouchleau Mine Pit on the edge of Virginia, Minn. — now the highest bridge in Minnesota — we had to stop and stare.
More than 300 million tons of iron ore were extracted from this open pit over 84 years, resulting in a gaping trench between deep crimson cliffs. Two hundred and four feet below us — twice the clearance of the Mendota Bridge — was the surface of the lake that had filled in the pit, which has a dark turquoise hue due to minerals in the water.
It was hard to fathom that this canyon was carved not by natural forces, but by humans. But that’s the Mesabi Iron Range for you.
The Virginia bridge is big news not only for drivers in northern Minnesota, but also for cyclists, reconnecting the west and east portions of the Mesabi Trail for the first time in three years. With news of the bridge’s opening, I was inspired to take on the trail for the first time. For companionship and competition, I enlisted my bike-touring buddy Jim Ruiz, a musician and librarian.
The Mesabi Trail’s slogan is “From the Mississippi to the Boundary Waters.” The reality is a little more complicated. The western trailhead is indeed in Grand Rapids, on the banks of the young Mississippi. The contiguous paved portion runs 75 miles to McKinley, Minn., with additional fragments on the way to Ely, the gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In between, some improvising is necessary.
Jim and I took the motto as a challenge, so we set aside three days in June for the full 135-plus-mile trek. We would bisect spacious St. Louis County, an area larger than Connecticut. We would cross two different continental divides, the St. Lawrence and the Laurentian. And I would get my first immersive look at the Iron Range.
I booked three nights of lodging, and scheduled the Mesabi Trail’s convenient shuttle service to bring us back to the start. Three days felt like plenty of time to ride that distance, but as I’d soon learn, with the rugged topography and steady stream of trailside towns and sights, we would need all three.
Mine Street, U.S.A.
On Saturday morning, we loaded our steel-frame road bikes and bursting trunk bags and drove the three hours to Grand Rapids, Judy Garland’s birthplace. We purchased our $5 Mesabi passes at Itasca Trail Sports on the main drag, then parked at the trailhead at the Itasca County Fairgrounds, where a 4-H horsemanship clinic was underway.
As we started on the woodsy trail, I was thrust into the stark visuals of the Iron Range. Turquoise- and teal-colored pit lakes surrounded us, flanked by massive, geometric bluffs of vermilion stone and clay. Red earth, tailings from the mining process, sits in the pine-covered tall “dumps” that now define the Range landscape.
For a southern Minnesota native, this was my first time truly exploring the main streets (or Mine Streets) and the back roads of the Range, which always seemed like a mysterious outlier in the state’s geography. The Merritt Brothers first discovered iron ore here in 1890. Generations of new immigrants would come to the area — Finns, Slovenes, Italians and many others — tracking the booms and busts of the industry. Taconite mining remains essential.
Against this backdrop, the Mesabi Trail was conceived by a nonprofit club of cyclists and boosters. Today, it’s an impressive achievement, with a strong support system behind it. This is no straight railroad-conversion trail. It’s forged out of a funky combination of old mining and logging roads, abandoned county routes, city streets, a few railbeds and plenty of freshly blazed path. In other words, it’s surprising, unpredictable and rarely flat.
Just as you’re gaining some good downhill speed — which you’ll be needing for the next inevitable ascent — a sudden hairpin turn or a floating bridge might rob you of momentum. This is still Minnesota, though, so no climb is too long.
Meanwhile, the trail links more than a dozen old mining towns, some with giveaway names such as Marble, Taconite and Calumet. Many of their turn-of-the-century houses were rentals for miners. In Nashwauk (pop. 960), we pedaled through blocks of the old homes, leading to a mine overlook and — unexpectedly — a Mexican restaurant called Mucho Si. We chowed down on tacos and enchiladas, and learned that the proprietor was a Puerto Vallarta native. Jim, of Mexican-American heritage himself, was impressed with the perfectly “popped” texture of the rice, which reminded him of his grandmother’s.
These towns felt very quiet for a Saturday. Not so as the sun came out in Keewatin (pop. 1,034), which featured a library tucked into the post office, a credit union, a United Steelworkers local, a bar called Bernie’s Main Dry, and Indian frybread for sale at the community center for $4. Keewatin is still a headquarters for United States Steel. One gentleman, lounging on the sidewalk outside the American Legion, waved and called out, “Enjoy your day!” We all were.
The iron capital
After five hours, we pulled into Hibbing, the largest city on the Range (16,093). Two top attractions appeared immediately: the Hull-Rust-Mahoning Mine, the world’s largest open pit mine, and the Greyhound Bus Museum, which traces the company’s humble origins transporting miners around Hibbing in the 1910s. Some vintage buses were visible outside, but the mine is closed to the public for 2018. So we headed to the Hibbing Park Hotel and the best $75 hotel stay I’ve had this century.
The 1970s-era lodging isn’t much to look at, but it was a perfect crash pad, with a wedding reception and 95th birthday party making it a hot spot. Between Hibbing’s well-kept 1920s neighborhoods (including the childhood home of Bob Dylan), the outsized grandeur of the 1919 Hibbing High School and photos of the town’s heyday on the walls of the hotel restaurant, I got the sense of a city holding onto a proud, prosperous past. But Saturday night was relatively quiet.
Except for the racing. We biked to the Hibbing Raceway, where Wissota stock cars skidded around a banked clay track, miraculously avoiding collisions. For dinner, a friend and Hibbing native recommended Sammy’s Pizza, a 1954 Italian-American institution on Howard Street. We washed it down at the shiny new BoomTown Brewery, which had 18 original beers on tap. My Strawberry Blonde was served with a full strawberry garnish.
When we got back to our hotel, we ran into the bride from the wedding, smoking outside Grandma’s Bar as the final heats of race night rumbled in the distance.
“You know, whenever you’re on a bike vacation,” said Jim on Sunday, somewhat self-evidently, “it’s when you’re actually on your bike that’s the best part of the day.”
I didn’t know if he was commenting on my penchant for stopping every few miles for an overlook or a photo op. We started the day exploring the ghost town on the edge of Hibbing and tried in vain to find a legal in-road to the closed mine. We moved on to Chisholm, home of the imposing 85-foot Iron Man, a 1987 tribute to miners. We stopped at a swimming hole in tiny Buhl. It was a sparkling day, with the green and blue on the trail matching the colors of my bike jersey.
In Virginia, we refueled on organic protein and carbs from the new, metro-caliber Natural Harvest Food Co-op, and exited town over that new Rouchleau bridge. Turtles sunned themselves on an elevated trailside. ATV trails crisscrossed ours, riders waving. The Iron Range is an ATV world — we were just biking through it.
The Mesabi’s 75 miles of uninterrupted pavement ends at McKinley. We had heard from trail supporters that one landowner has been reluctant to provide right of way to help complete the trail. Six miles of shoulder along Hwy. 135 proved adequate to get to Biwabik, a charming German-style hamlet. The Range’s blue-collar grit was starting to give way to the land of vacation homes, resorts and outdoor adventurers.
I had scored a gem for Sunday night: a compact, two-story log cabin. It was built by a Finnish craftsman around 1890 and meticulously refurbished as a modern tiny house by owner Shawn Callahan, a mechanical engineer and bicyclist, for his Green Gate Guest Houses. Bike-related art highlighted the two floors. I claimed the bed upstairs, and Jim took the sofa on the main level.
After checking in, we backtracked to Biwabik for a veggie-crammed pizza and Castle Danger beers at the locally loved mom-and-pop Vi’s Pizza. (If there is one single Iron Range cuisine, it’s pizza.) Then it was back to our cabin to watch dozens of fireflies from the broad, covered porch. A six-pack would have been nice.
On the road again
We woke up Monday to a terrifying sight on my weather app: a line of strong thunderstorms coming our way. We had 45 miles to go with few services, and while we both enjoy riding in rain, we’d rather avoid a downpour. I wanted to check out the mountain biking trails at the nearby Giants Ridge resort, but we decided to make tracks to Ely. With a dearth of breakfast options, morning hot dogs at the Giants Ridge golf course stand would have to do.
We had one final stretch of Mesabi asphalt, and it was a good one — winding and rising through five miles of deep woods before spilling out again onto Hwy. 135. Someday, the trail might look like this all the way to Ely. For now, road riders can make their way to the storied village of Embarrass, famous for its French lumberjack-derived name and for arguably being the coldest place in Minnesota. We eyeballed the ramshackle Embarrass River Trading Post, a Finnish homestead museum and a monument of a thermometer.
For the rest of the way, our trail map labeled County Road 21 a “MnDOT Designated Bike Route” to Ely. We rode the wide shoulder, eventually entering the serene high ground of Superior National Forest. Jim sprinted a mile or two ahead, claiming he needed to exceed 20 mph to evade the black flies that were buzzing him. I didn’t share the problem; I just couldn’t believe how tired and thirsty I was.
Finally we took the long, rewarding descent into Ely. The storm clouds had parted, as the town hummed with outfitters transporting canoes in and out of the BWCA. We had cycled from one world to another. After passing a dozen signs reading “We Support Mining — Mining Supports Us,” I spotted one in Ely that said, “I Support Mining and the Environment.”
We checked into the Grand Ely Lodge, where I took a victory lap by kayaking around seven or eight islets in Shagawa Lake. For dinner, we headed to the kitschy Ely Steak House for a tender baked walleye. I have no idea whether this trip was a net calorie loss or gain, but when you bike almost 150 miles, you get hungry. At least it wasn’t pizza again.