Biking & Hiking in Minnesota’s Iron Range
An unforgettable ride along the scenic and historic Mesabi Trail
By Holly McCaughan
A few years ago, my husband, Chris, and I finally invested in a couple of top-quality bikes, and we’d done quite a bit of cycling on trails near our home. We were hungry for new areas to explore, so when some fellow cycling buddies sang the praises of the Minnesota Iron Range’s Mesabi Trail™, we immediately booked a trip.
This premier bike trail winds 120 miles through some of the most scenic areas of northeastern Minnesota. And the region’s extensive mining history intrigued us both. So one Friday afternoon, we loaded up our bikes and headed north.
We stopped to pick up a few groceries before arriving in Biwabik to check in to the Villas at Giants Ridge. Stepping inside our cozy suite, we were immediately enveloped in its “up north” cabin style, admiring the spacious living room, full kitchen and dining area, plus the lovely river stone fireplace. Chris and I stepped out onto our private balcony to take in sparkling panoramas of Wynne Lake and the surrounding woods, alight with natural beauty.
Hitting the trail
After a relaxing evening, we arose early the next morning, excited to start our exploration of the Mesabi Trail. We’d arranged for the convenient shuttle service to carry us and our bikes to the town of Hibbing to begin our ride.
Our shuttle driver mentioned that the Hull Rust Mahoning Mine View is on the way to the trailhead, but it is temporarily closed for relocation. He recommended we come back in the summer of 2018 when it is scheduled to reopen. Known as the Grand Canyon of the North, the mine is more than eight miles long, 3.5 miles wide and 850 feet deep, making it one of the world’s largest open-pit mines. We knew it would be a must-see on our next trip.
We began our ride, traveling east along the asphalt-paved Mesabi Trail. It carried us over hills, around curves and through wooded areas that opened onto grassy meadows. We rolled past surprising manmade landscapes, too, such as an abandoned steam shovel surrounded by clumps of wildflowers and mountains of slag, lush with regrowth forest.
At one point, the trail rolled us right into the Minnesota Discovery Center parking lot. The massive museum complex is filled with artifacts and exhibits that tell the fascinating story of the Iron Range and its people.
We paused at the crown of a steep hill overlooking Chisholm, letting the soothing, late-spring breezes cool us. A bit beyond Buhl, we rode through a corridor of trees before passing a beautiful mine-pit lake. The surrounding red cliffs reflected off its turquoise waters like stripes of fire agate. We continued through Mountain Iron, home of Mesabi’s first mining operation in the late 19th century. By the time we arrived in The Queen City of Virginia (our final destination for the day), the hunger pangs had set in.
Savory smells wafting from the kitchen of The Shop Coffeehouse & 218 Taphouse made our stomachs growl even louder. After finding sustenance in the form of craft beers and a perfectly singed wood-fired pizza, we roamed the town’s eclectic mix of shops before taking the shuttle back to Giants Ridge for the night.
Rolling onward and upward
The next day, we took the shuttle back to Virginia to continue our ride, picking up the trail where we’d left off the previous day. The path led us along Highway 53 over Virginia Bridge, the tallest bridge in Minnesota. We stood 200 feet above Rocheleau Pit’s aquamarine waters, the 1,100-foot-long bridge affording us breathtaking views. My falcon-eyed husband pointed out a majestic peregrine falcon perched atop a red cliff in the distance.
In Gilbert, we took a southwest trail spur to Eveleth and Fayal Pond. The route spilled over with natural wonders as we passed crystal-clear Lake Ore-Be-Gone and wound among shimmering poplars and fragrant pine. Circling back, we rode on, finally returning to Giants Ridge.
We were exhilarated from our ride and not yet ready for our outdoor adventures to end. So, after a quick lunch, we decided to do some hiking. Giants Ridge offers four hiking trails that run through alpine landscapes and the untouched beauty of Superior National Forest. We chose the Northface trail, which brought us to the rocky crest of the Laurentian Divide. We soaked up stunning mountaintop vistas overlooking glittering Wynne and Sabin lakes. We descended via the Sleeping Giant Trail, which led us directly to the Burnt Onion Kitchen & Brews.
Dinner is served
Diners may sit inside the restaurant’s charming chalet setting or outside on the deck. We opted for the latter, so we could enjoy more of the gorgeous alpine scenery. Chris and I sipped glasses of Cabernet while looking over the menu, and when we saw the first item listed under “Starters,” our eyes met in unspoken agreement. We love Brie! Served with crostini, it came topped with raspberry preserves and toasted almonds.
For dinner, I chose a salad made with grilled pear, caramelized pecans and blue cheese, drizzled with honey white balsamic vinaigrette. Chris ordered the signature Burnt Onion Soup, topped with caramelized onions and melted Swiss and provolone cheeses, followed by a Cuban panini stuffed with pulled pork, smoked ham, Swiss and spicy pickles.
As we relaxed over coffee after dinner, Chris flashed a very satisfied smile at me from across the table. I knew exactly what he was thinking. Even with the build-up from our friends, this trip had been beyond our expectations. Cycling and hiking through the Iron Range’s gorgeous scenery had been fantastic, but the added element of an up-close look at the region’s mining heritage had really pushed the whole experience over the top, creating a truly memorable, one-of-a-kind vacation.
Plan an unforgettable trip to Minnesota’s Iron Range.