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Mountain biking in Cuyuna

Dirt boss Joel Hartman is one of the local bike club members who helps maintain the Cuyuna mountain bike park near Crosby-Ironton. From a high point at the end of a trail, he said future plans are to add a beach and picnic area to the state-owned recreation area to attract families. BRIAN BASHAM/TRIBUNE

As organizers of the Detroit Mountain Recreation Area are mulling possible mountain bike trails, they need look no further for inspiration than the flinty red trails of the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area near Ironton — a two-hour car drive eastward.

Now in its third year, the 25-mile trail system has seen annual growth to the extent that there was actually a traffic jam on one trail this summer, said “dirt boss” (trail maintenance guru) Joel Hartman, a member of the local mountain bike group.

The owner of a bike and kayak rental store in Ironton is selling her place in part because it’s so busy she doesn’t have time for recreation anymore, he said.

The Cuyuna trails are built in a former mining area, and they benefit from the terrain: The string of deep blue lakes are former mine pits that were dug out to form the hills that bikers now enjoy.

The Cuyuna trails have seen the number of visitors increase dramatically every year, said Aaron Hautala, president of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew.

“We had 10,000 the first year, 20,000 the second year,” and there is no count yet for this year, but the numbers appear to be way up, Hautala said.

“The first time I ever mountain biked in my life, I fell in love with it,” he added. “It’s like a dirt highway going through the woods, with berms, ups and downs — weaving and bobbing like a fighter plane, it’s a lot of fun.”

One of the trails has already won a “best trail” award from the International Mountain Bicycling Association.

Like Detroit Mountain, the Cuyuna area benefits from terrain that’s a natural fit for mountain biking.

“We have the perfect landscape for it,” Hautala said. “We didn’t have to bring in dirt or boulders, we just built the trail around it — which was a huge challenge, to say the least. Basically they were all built in one summer-fall season.”

In the same manner, designers will use the natural features in the 200-acre Detroit Mountain area to create at least 10 miles of mountain bike trails, said Tony Schmitz, a Detroit Mountain Recreation Area Board member.

He is a longtime mountain biking enthusiast, and helped build the three miles of trails at Mountain View Recreation Area on county land off Tower Road east of Detroit Lakes.

The Detroit Mountain Recreation Area group is in the final tricky lap of its fundraising campaign, aiming to raise the final $1 million needed to make the $7 million four-season recreation area a reality.

“We’re now putting together a trail committee,” Schmitz said, that will work with designers from the International Mountain Bicycling Association to decide the type of trails to use and the layout of the trail system.

“The majority of stuff will probably be ‘flowing trails’ like at Cuyuna,” Schmitz said, “mixed with classic style single track trails — that’s what we have at Mountain View Recreation Area.”

There may even be some gravity trails at Detroit Mountain, with ski lifts taking the bikers back up to the top, but that will require some serious cost-benefit analysis first, he added.

Spirit Mountain in Duluth recently opened a gravity trail system, and he said that will be closely studied.

The Cuyuna system has benefitted from a core group of relatively young, energetic and dedicated community volunteers (kind of like the Detroit Mountain group) who devote a lot of time to the trail system.

It requires constant maintenance. “They do fall apart,” Hautala said. “Branches need to be cut back – a big rainstorm can take out major trails and then we have to rally the troops (to repair them),” he said.

His dream is for Cuyuna to eventually have about 100 miles of trails, so bikers can stay for two or three days and never hit the same stretch of trail twice. With 5,000 acres in the state-owned Cuyuna recreation area, there’s no shortage of room.

“A ‘kinda good’ trail system isn’t going to cut it,” Hautala said. “We’re a believer that if you’re going to do it, make it the best quality you can.”

The economic impact is noticeable in the area, and not just at the busy Dairy Queen in Crosby or bike rental shop near the city park.

Hartman, the dirt boss, sells real estate for a living, and is starting to see some interest in “biking cabins,” or small houses near the bike system purchased as get-aways by mountain bike enthusiasts.

“You can see the growth (in riders),” Hautala said. “Economically, you know that’s going to have an impact.”

With the Heartland Trail eventually connecting Detroit Lakes to both Moorhead and Park Rapids, Schmitz is excited about the possibilities.

“What a great biking central this could be — there’s a lot of potential,” he said.

The desire to “bring back the Mountain” has always been about giving kids the same chance to have fun that their parents had — and kids won’t be left out of the mountain bike plan.

Schmitz said he hopes to see a bike park or “pump track” that would be almost like a mini BMX bike track for the little ones, to help them build skills and learn balance.

With its long slopes and wavy hills, its thick trees and open meadows, the Detroit Mountain Recreation Area will give trail designers plenty to work with.

More difficult “technical” areas will be built into the system, with alternate routes for the less experienced.

If the fundraising campaign is successful, International Mountain Bicycling Association designers will then visit the Mountain to help map out trails.

“We’re just excited for the next step,” Schmitz said.

For a closer look at the Cuyuna trail system, visit the website at

To donate to the Detroit Mountain campaign, go to, or the Bring Back Detroit Mountain page on Facebook. A link can also be found through Detroit Lakes Newspapers at