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Minnesota's Iron Range is home

Home on the Range
RELATED TOPICS: MINNESOTA | MIDWEST | TRAVEL | TRAILS
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Riders rest at the Mark Miskowski Memorial Shelter, a trailside stopping point on Hawk’s Trail between Eveleth and Cotton, in Minnesota’s Iron Range.
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Minnesota has its share of outstanding venues for snowmobiling and the legendary Mesabi Range is one, with an expansive network of trails to explore and enjoy. For those who like to cover big miles and experience a variety of scenery, this is the place.

Rich in riding
The Iron Range region around the towns of Virginia, Hibbing, Eveleth, Chisholm, Aurora, Biwabik and Mountain Iron is world famous for its rich deposits of iron ore. This area has been commercially mined since 1890. 

The Mesabi is the largest of Minnesota’s three iron ranges (the others are the Vermilion to the northeast and the Cuyuna to the southwest) and is more than 100 miles long and up to 3 miles wide. After 12 decades of mineral extraction, the signs of mining activity are evident on a grand scale, with a number of huge open pits and gargantuan rock piles dotting the landscape.
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When snowmobiling began booming in the late 1960s, Iron Range riders quickly embraced the sport, formed clubs and began creating trails. Today that network is impressive and there is a rich riding network of trails.

Sledding is recognized and appreciated as an important magnet for regional tourism too, and for many years the Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation Board has promoted snowmobiling as part of its mission to encourage economic development in the region.

My friend Todd Schei and I enjoyed two days of great riding here mid-season. We called ahead and connected with Carl Burt, president of the Eveleth Trailhawks club, who suggested we stay at the Pine View Inn, a trail-accessible motel in the city of Virginia. Club members Jim Gunderson and the husband and wife team of Larry and Susie Kwiatkowski rode with us the first day.

It was a cloudy, but pleasant, Monday morning when we left the motel. The trails were freshly groomed with virtually no other sleds to be seen, which made for ideal riding. Our hosts had chosen the town of Alborn as our destination, so we set off southward and headed for the Hawk’s Trail, a main route that connects Duluth with Eveleth and Virginia.

The first leg was through the heart of the city, an interesting route that took us past homes, businesses and parking lots, as well as a huge open pit on the town’s edge. The groomed trail was smooth, so it wasn’t long before we were cruising past Eveleth, another mining town several miles south of Virginia. The trail took us past the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, one of the area’s top attractions.

South of Eveleth we rode the new 4-mile Hawk’s Trail segment that was opened in late 2010. This is the final, much-needed section that completes the area’s trail network. Establishing this long-awaited link took 20 years and is testimony to the perseverance of Trailhawks club members like Burt, who doggedly pursued the goal until it came to fruition.
Creating the final segment involved the removal of 1,000 tree stumps, as well as construction of a $60,000 railroad underpass and a $480,000 recreational bridge over the Saint Louis River. 

As we continued on our southward odyssey, we were swallowed up by the forest as the serpentine trail made its way through the woods. We paused briefly at the Mark Miskowski Memorial Shelter, a beautiful log structure built by the Trailhawks as a way station for riders. 

After negotiating miles of twisting trail, we did some fast running on unplowed forest roads and a power line right of way. The final miles into Alborn were on several low dikes that made ideal snowmobile passages.

With lunch in mind, we pulled up at the Char Mars Tavern & Grill, a roadhouse known for its massive hamburgers. This is a popular pit stop for sledders and it was easy to see why.

Fortified for the return trip, we saddled back up and retraced our route. The highlight was stopping at the Miskowski Shelter. There a blaze was crackling in the fire pit, making it the perfect place to warm hands and enjoy time with our fellow riders. The rest of the afternoon went quickly and we returned to Virginia with 129 miles logged for the day.
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ALL OF THE MAJOR snowmobile routes in this area of Minnesota have names instead of numbers. This sign is at the junction of the Iron Ore and Taconite Spur Trails near the town of Embarrass.
Celebrity guide
Our guide for the second day was none other than David Karpik. He and his brothers are renowned in the snowmobile world as racers and innovators, creating the legendary FAST M series suspension and its ultimate expression, the Blade snowmobile. In addition to his continued involvement with Team FAST, he serves as an official Iron Range ambassador, maintaining a blog and riding with visitors when his schedule permits. Rounding out our foursome was local rider Ryan Salo.

We headed north from Virginia and it was soon apparent that this was going to be another great ride, with a comfortable 25-degree day and a well-groomed ribbon of white stretching in front of us. It wasn’t long before we connected with a segment of the Laurentian Trail, a route along the divide that sends waters either north to Hudson’s Bay or south to Lake Superior.

After a quick 13 miles on the Laurentian, we connected with one of Minnesota’s premier snowmobile routes, the Taconite Trail, a beautiful 165-mile recreational highway that runs from Grand Rapids to Ely. We turned east on the Taconite, heading for Lake Vermilion. The trail was smooth and our pace was quick, providing an exhilarating ride over undulating terrain with plenty of sweeping turns. Fun!

Approaching the lake, we branched off briefly on a segment of the Arrowhead Trail, which took us to our lunch stop, the Bay View Inn. We swapped trail stories over cheeseburgers and sodas and heard a few entertaining stories from Dave about days gone by, tossing in a few anecdotes of our own.

After lunch, Dave led us across a portion of Lake Vermilion, where the vast expanse of snow-covered ice encouraged us to open the throttle and feel the rush of Minnesota lake riding. Soon enough, we came ashore in Tower, where we gassed up the sleds. Ryan, who had to work later in the day, decided to head for home and take a shorter route, so we bid him farewell and followed Dave eastward on the Taconite Trail.

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decades of iron ore mining have left a number of huge open pits throughout this region that are impressive in their number, size and depth. Several continue as working mines. Here, Mike Carr rests aboard his trusty Pantera in one of the mines.
About a dozen miles before Ely, we turned south on the Taconite Spur Trail, heading homeward. This was yet another beautiful route through the woods, groomed to perfection. At Babbitt, we skirted the western edge of town and turned southwest for the run to Virginia, stopping for a photo at the junction with the Iron Ore Trail.

The afternoon light was fading as we passed the Giant’s Ridge ski resort and cruised by the nearby town of Biwabik, heading onto the Moose Trail toward Gilbert. Just before sunset, Dave veered off the main trail and took us on some unplowed roads so that we could see an iron ore pit up close. What a sight, and what a treat to see it from the seat of a snowmobile! 

Back on the main trail and pointed north, we said goodbye to Dave, who was heading to his home in Eveleth. It was getting dark as Todd and I motored slowly through Virginia, marveling at how well the route took us right through town. If more cities would allow an urban trail like this one, the snowmobile world would certainly be more interesting! 

We finished with 135 miles on our odometers, already savoring the great day of riding we’d had. Before heading out the next morning, we visited the Blade Motorsports facility in Eveleth where FAST suspensions and Blade snowmobiles are made. Yes, the legendary Blade is still being built, with new state-of-the-art models produced to order. Seeing the operation from the inside was fascinating - and all the more so with Dave as our guide.

The Iron Range deserves its reputation as a prime snowmobiling playground. The trail network is extensive and with so many connecting routes, mapping out a day of riding is easy, no matter what distance you desire. This region generally enjoys plenty of snowfall, so conditions are usually good –- and a comprehensive grooming program keeps them that way, making it a place well worth visiting.
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