Despite our unmistakable lack of actual mountains (sorry Eagle Mountain, you’re an overgrown hill), Minnesota has been home to a rich tradition of mountain biking dating back to the early ‘90s. Our state’s emphasis on conservation and the outdoors has created a robust network of trails that crisscross the state and metro area, while advocacy organizations like Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists (MORC) work to keep those trails well-maintained for riders. Whether you’re a trail-riding newbie or an experienced dirt ripper, our state has plenty to offer off-road.
For riders in the Twin Cities metro area, the MTB trails at Theodore Wirth Regional Park are a common entry point and a beloved local hang. Just a few minutes from Downtown Minneapolis, “Theo” features 12 miles of trails spread across several easily digestible loops. Primarily made up of tight, flowing singletrack ranging from beginner to intermediate difficulty, Theo also features the more technically difficult Brownie Lake Trail for challenge-seekers. Add in a beautiful new Trailhead facility, a conveniently located bike shop (Venture North), and an abundance of hiking trails and swimming opportunities nearby, and you start to realize why Theo is one of the most popular (and often crowded) metro-area trail networks.
Once you’ve conquered Theo, it’s time to step-up to what many consider to be the Twin Cities’ most technically challenging trail network: Lebanon Hills in Eagan. Featuring 12 miles of trails, “Leb” may be best known for its nefariously difficult X and XX Loop, which present riders with all manner of rock gardens, log crossings, teeth-rattling drops, and grinding hill climbs. If that all sounds a little gnarly, fear not, Leb’s thoughtful stacked-loop design keeps the most difficult trails in the center of the park, allowing less-experienced riders to cruise around the outer loops with relative ease.
Out east in Woodbury, the relatively new trail system at Carver Lake Park has quickly become a local favorite thanks to its 10 miles of zoomy, flowing singletrack broken up by several fun obstacles both natural and man-made, including a smattering of trapeze-like wooden obstacles that MTB riders call “skinnies.” Not too far away, St. Paul’s Battle Creek Trail is a favorite of more old-school riders who applaud the trail’s challenging climbs and don’t mind navigating the park’s somewhat lax trail markings.
If you’re a natural navigator drawn more to the wilderness-exploration aspect of mountain biking than the berms and rocks, you’d do well to check out the Minnesota River Bottoms, a roughly 11 mile stretch of natural trail along the Minnesota River floodplain between the Bloomington Ferry Bridge and Fort Snelling. Beloved by hikers and bikers alike for its gorgeous river scenery and ever-changing landscape, the River Bottoms provide plenty of opportunities to pull over and enjoy the wilderness. Extra challenges can be found in the form of sneaky rogue trails and loose, sandy conditions that often necessitate the use of a wider tire, especially in the wintertime when fatbike riders descend on the trail in droves.
Ask a Minnesota dirt warrior about the Cuyuna Lakes Trail System and you’re likely to hear the same breathless enthusiasm that local music fans show for First Avenue. Hewn into the red Iron Range dirt of a former mining area, Cuyuna’s 30-plus miles of trail boast an embarrassment of charismatic and memorable rides across four distinct trail “units” named after abandoned mines in the area. From the loping, slalom-like descent of Sand Hog Mountain in the more beginner-friendly Mahnomen unit to the maniacally craggy, seemingly impassible Timber Chute in the more technical Yawkey unit.
The only other part of the state to rank higher on the International Mountain Bike Association’s list than Cuyuna? It’s Duluth, of course. Peppered with a wealth of well-maintained trail networks and a veritable treasure trove of rogue trails (you didn’t hear it from us), Duluth is also home to an inspiring testament to the sweat equity of our state’s MTB community: the Duluth Traverse trail. Imagine if Minneapolis’ Greenway was made up of dirt rather than pavement, and you’re about halfway to realizing the wonders of the “DT,” which stretches across the entirety of Duluth and connects nearly every significant MTB trail network in the area.
While its slopes are closed for summer 2020 due to COVID concerns, Spirit Mountain is a favorite of thrill-seeking downhill MTB riders thanks to its ample, chairlift-equipped gravity runs. Situated just northeast of Duluth, Lester Park is smooth and inviting for newer riders, who should also check out the urban jungle of Hartley Park, one of Duluth’s oldest trails just a stone’s throw away from the UMD campus. The relatively new Mission Creek Trail Center is a modern marvel of machine-built dirt that swishes through the lush white pine forests just east of Jay Cooke State Park and features a jumpy, frame-endangering loop called Flyover Country. The twin trail systems of Piedmont & Brewer sit just off the city’s majestic Skyline Parkway and offer a nice mix of approachable scenic trails and more challenging fair. Just before you crack a beer to reward yourself for a long day of riding, take a shot at Brewer’s Homebrew Trail, which provides stellar views after a substantial climb, and slabs of chunky Duluth granite to keep you on your toes.