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Mesabi Trail has record-breaking 2022, sees more cyclists

Lead Summary

The Mesabi Trail saw record-breaking cyclist use this year, with trail counters recording 286,171cyclists from January through October.
This shatters the previous record of 248,219 set in 2020 by nearly 40,000. Cyclists using the trail have more than doubled from when trail counters began tracking in 2008, which recorded 123,273 cyclists.
Overall trail use is assumed to be much higher, as cyclist trail counters are strategically placed and do not account for walkers, joggers, hikers, and inline skaters who also use the trail, which stretches from the Mississippi River in Grand Rapids, MN, to the gateway of the BWCA in Ely.
To date, 150 miles are paved with another six or so slated to be complete by next spring. When the paving is complete in 2024, the Mesabi Trail will be the longest continuously paved trail in Minnesota.
“It’s been exciting to watch the Mesabi Trail grow in popularity as an outdoor recreation destination,” said St. Louis County Commissioner Paul McDonald. “We look forward to welcoming even more cyclists from across the country to experience our outdoor adventures and diverse landscapes along all 162 paved miles in 2024.”
Four newly defined segments - Mississippi (Grand Rapids to Nashwauk), Mesabi (Nashwauk to Gilbert), Laurentian (Biwabik to Tower), and Vermilion (Tower to Ely) - offer opportunities to experience vastly different natural and manmade landscapes unique to the Iron Range.
Cyclists can see everything from glacial lakes to active mines, hardwood forests to tall pines, and lush wetlands to dramatic rock cuts. With the changing landscapes come diverse and seasonally changing flora and fauna and a variety of backcountry wildlife including whitetail deer, black bears, moose, wolves, bobcats, and waterfowl.
The Mesabi Trail is a challenging paved trail experience you can’t find anywhere else in Minnesota. There are curves and switchbacks, approximately 3,300 feet of elevation change over the full distance, and multiple hills of up to 8% grade that make for sustained climbs and seriously fun downhills.
“It is not just a long, straight, rail-to-trail conversion, and cyclists are noticing,” said McDonald. “Mesabi Trail has a variety of terrain and elevations, with a combination of hills and forest, scenic views, and 28 Iron Range towns.”
This connectivity provides an unmatched quality of life for those who live and work in the Iron Range.
Residents not only enjoy using the trail for walking, cycling, eBicycling, and jogging, but also for visiting neighboring communities. The trail provides opportunity for residents to enjoy the Range’s most precious resource - its great outdoors - as well as attracts visitors and new residents who enjoy a similar lifestyle, support local businesses, and may one day invest in new businesses in Iron Range communities.
Cyclists do more than pedal through towns. They often explore each community’s history and recreational adventures, locally sourced eats and craft brews, retail stores, bike shops, and lodging options, providing a boost to the area economy.
“The increase in trail use has undoubtedly contributed to economic growth in our trail towns, said McDonald. “And the community connectivity the trail provides means that growth is shared throughout the region.”
The 2016 University of Minnesota’s Profile of Mesabi Visitors study estimated that Mesabi Trail visitors spend an average of $143.90 per person, per day during their visit to the region. This includes money spent on lodging, food and beverage, transportation, rentals, tours, and fuel.
Nearly 40 years ago, residents of the Mesabi region started discussing a way to connect their towns with a trail—a trail that could not only bring together Iron Range communities but also showcase the region’s majestic forests and breathtaking iron ore formations.
During this time, the Regional Railroad Authority had been acquiring abandoned railroad grades to preserve former railroads for future transportation use, which helped launch the rails-to-trails program and the Mesabi Trail. The first section of trail was built between Virginia and Parkville in 1996.
Over the course of 27 years of planning, acquiring easements, leases, and purchasing lands, and talking to private land owners, the trail has grown to the 150 paved miles it is today. By 2024, the full trail is expected to be complete offering a grand total of 162 challenging miles.
The trail was made possible by St. Louis and Itasca counties railroad authorities joining together to secure funding from a number of sources: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and federal grants, state bonding, Railroad Authority, the Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation (IRRR), the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) by way of the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (ENRTF) and the Minnesota Legacy Fund - many also provide ongoing funding for trail maintenance.
Trail maintenance is also supported through the sale of three-day and annual Wheel Passes online and at local vendors.
Wheel Passes are required for trail users ages 18 and older on wheels (i.e., inline skates, bicycles, eBicycles, and skateboards).
McDonald said, “As we begin to promote the complete Mesabi Trail paved trail experience as a national and international tourism destination, we expect to see even more new and returning visitors seeking a cycling adventure unlike anywhere else.”

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