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Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trails with the Whole Family

I’ve been dreaming of taking on an intense mountain biking adventure since the day I was born. Just kidding. I literally got my first mountain bike less than six months ago and I’m a total chicken sh*t on mountain bike trails. But I DO love trying new things. And this was one of those things. So my husband, who actually HAS been dreaming of this kind of biking adventure since birth, decided a trip to Cuyuna Lakes Recreation Area in Crosby, MN, was going to happen this past Fall.

And I’m so SO SO SO happy it did.

“Shred the Red.”
That’s the tagline used by the Cuyuna state recreation area’s mountain bike trails and it is super fitting. OK, I don’t “shred” (in fact, my 12-year old had to tell me what that even meant), but all five of us (ranging in ages 5 through 41) enjoyed the serenity, the fall colors and especially the red dirt that caked our bike tires and tennis shoes by the end of each day. MplsStPaul Magazine calls Cuyuna the “upper Midwest’s mountain biking North Star” with its 30 miles of red dirt trails, panoramic views, calm lakes, and an endless canopy of tree coverage. And more importantly for me, when planning a family trip to somewhere like this, we found it to be PERFECT for all skill levels and nerve ranges. We each got our own true mountain biking experience up there.

I am ready to go back, like, tomorrow. It was truly beautiful, adventurous, and suitable for all of us no matter our degree of chicken sh*ttiness.

Here’s how we did three days at Cuyuna Lake Mountain Bike Trails near Crosby, Minnesota, with our family:

First things first – we booked an Airbnb. The Cuyuna State Recreation area, which spans the cities of Ironton, Crosby and Riverton and sits just east of Brainerd and Nisswa, leaves a lot of room for folks to rent out their cute little homes to cyclists and nature lovers alike. We snagged a little green two-bedroom gem less than one mile from the main parking lot, allowing us to actually bike to the trails instead of loading up the car with five bikes twice a day (insert my husband’s sigh of relief). We’d hop on the Cuyuna Lake Trail and head into Miner’s Mountain Rally Center, the main central point within the park with a simple (and more complex) training course our kiddos thoroughly enjoyed. Our Airbnb was “technically” in Ironton (on Irene Street, to be exact) and I would rent it again and again (plus a fire pit in the back to enjoy at night and a garage to safely store our bikes).

The drive from our Minneapolis home to Crosby was about 2.5 hours, so not bad at all. In fact, we all agreed that we could easily leave in the morning, bike all day, and drive home that same night and it would 100% be worth it.

The Crosby area, which was not as lively and adorable a decade ago, has really grown into itself since the mountain bike trails opened to cyclists in 2011. There are coffee shops and restaurants and antiques and bike shops and food trucks, not to mention playgrounds, hiking paths, a gorgeous state trail and Fall colors to die for.

We arrived in Crosby by noon and everyone was “staaaaarving.” And what do you feed children when they’re “staaaaarving?” Pizza. The answer is always pizza.

Right on Main Street in Crosby is a yummy little pizza shop called Rafferty’s, a cozy go-to that smells like wood-fired goodness, offers gluten-free crusts, and sells a good number of local craft brewskis. We were very happy with our choice and actually came back for a second lunch a couple days later. Oh, and there are some crane machines and video games in the back so parents – be warned.

After pizza, we settled in to our Airbnb but were being begged by our kids to “just go mountain biking already.” So we did. Because they run this show and we’re just along for the ride, I guess.

We started at the training course, which is a tight circle with some ins and outs and very subtle ups and downs. You can make this as hard or easy as you want it to be but it is a great spot to warm up the legs and prepare your body for some bigger single tracks.

The first ride out it was myself, two 10-year olds and two five-year olds. While they were running on adrenaline, there was some impending nerves, especially in the older girls, so I though the best place to start was the green-marked Galloping Goose trail. This trail sits alongside the Cuyuna State Trail, a paved trail that has the red dirt mountain bike trails cutting through it so you can choose when to get on them and can easily get off them. This got them confident and after a matter of minutes, we were all flying along the dirt trails and getting up and down the hills as best we could (many times getting off to walk because, hey, 5-year old legs are short). There was a lot of stopping and starting, but it was still so enjoyable to fly down the hills and overlook the lakes on either side of Galloping Goose.

While we were doing this, the older guys managed to navigate 8 out of the 11 miles of Galloping Goose which goes around the entire lake in a loop. This trail is the best because it can be green the entire way (green is easiest, followed by blue and then red being the most difficult), but you can also selectively take offshoots to blue or red. Those offshoots link directly back to the main green, so it’s really manageable if you have more experienced or motivated young kids. Our 12-year olds thought it was rad. They “shred the red” a lot that day.

Depending on where your lodging is at, it’s nice to just pop back to grab a quick lunch to save money and fuel up for the next round out, should you choose to go bike again. Or pack snacks or a cooler and just dine al fresco in the parking lot.

After an evening of tacos and TV and a full day of biking and smiling, we all crashed early to prepare for the following day.

The next day was a fun split of activities – which included checking out the towns and doing some shopping, biking the Yawkeye mountain biking area, playing on the Crosby playground, eating at a food truck and going for a run– all extremely enjoyable!

The town of Crosby feels a little like a quaint and quiet ski town, with a Main Street hosting restaurants, antique stores, coffee and ice cream, a brewery, and of course bike repair, retail and rental shops. One of the cutest coffee shops was Red Raven, also a fan-favorite bike rental and repair shop. My son said his pumpkin spice latte was “the best in the whole world” (and he’s a pro, trust me). Rentals from Red Raven can set you back anywhere from $40-100/day depending on the bike your rent.

Another bike rental, repair and merch option is Cykl right in Ironton. Their rentals are a tiny bit more expensive, but they offer 24 hour rentals rather than having to have the bike back by store close, which is nice.

A couple other can’t-miss spots on the main Crosby drag include:

  • Victual – an adorable gourmet grocery store that feels more like a Minnesota-themed gift shop. And rumor has it, it has the best ice cream ever. Only one kid in our whole party got the ice cream and this continues to be my biggest regret of the whole trip. Note to Self: Always get the ice cream.
  • Cuyuna Brewing Company – exactly as it sounds. Beer, a relatively-small inside, some outdoor seating, and plenty of IPAs and Ales to choose from. Oh, and root beer for the littles.
  • Hallett Antique Emporium – nope, no website for these guys. It’s 3 levels of antiques with a smell comparable to Grandma’s attic, but it’s awesome. Even our group of pre-teen boys found plenty of interesting treasures here.

Once the kids were wiped from shopping (this did not take long, in case you were wondering), we headed over to the playground – Crosby Memorial Park. This was truly a beautiful playground, right on the water, gigantic in size, and there was a humungous sculpture of a sea serpent in the beach area. Yup. A big green sea serpent.

The kids spent an hour or more playing tag at the playground before we all decided we should probably squeeze in some mountain biking too that day. So off we went to gear back up and head to our next destination.

The dads wanted to check out an area near Cuyuna called the Yawkeye Unit, just 5 minutes north of Crosby, so we drove there with the bikes on the back ready to see some new trails.

The parking lot – Croft Mine – was the center for all the trails we needed as a family of beginners. We would leave from the parking lot and arrive back at the parking lot, which was a lovely way to never lose anybody.

There were a number of trails to choose from here, all one way, and we started with one we thought was going to be the easiest – Trout Trail. This one turned out to be really quite rocky and, I’m not sure if it was the rocks or the fact that our youngest was exceptionally whiny, but this was my least favorite of the day. It was a good length and we could all handle it easily, but some of us just wanted fruit snacks and that’ll ruin life when you’re five.

After Trout we did Haul Road Trail. A LOT. Haul Road is super cool because it’s a decent challenge but one that can be done by all age ranges. What I loved about this trail was that you weren’t married to the full trail. If you get tired (or whiny), there’s the choice to take the Yawkeye Return trail back to the parking lot instead of continuing on the (pretty long) Haul Road. My husband and daughter did manage to do the full trail which he said was the highlight of the trip because the view overlooking Manuel Mine was unbelievable. I never did manage to get to Manuel Mine because I was divvying up fruit snacks and apples back at the car trying to keep from losing my mind. We also walked down to a very serene lake and played with sticks and mud for awhile.

Oh, and for those who like a bit more of a challenge, my husband did Bobsled Trail and said it was awesome for intermediate people like himself.

After Yawkeye, we packed up the bikes and headed back to the house to chill. Chilling, for all parents who may not know this, is not a child’s strong suit. So me and the two older kids hopped back onto our bikes in Ironton and checked out a new side trail we ran into by accident.

Because this was my favorite trail of the trip, I’ll tell you where it was but don’t judge me when you get on it and you’re like, “ummm, this is weak” because, yes, maybe it was less of an up-and-down challenge but we sped with rollercoaster speed and the kids thought it was SO fun. Also, very good for their confidence.

Instead of taking the Miner’s Mountain Road into the Mahnomen Unit parking lot, we took the Cuyuna State Trail east on the pavement until we saw a dirt path that is the Drag Line South trail. It takes you directly along Serpent Creek with clever bumps and turns. We enjoyed this ride for a solid 30 minutes. The thing I didn’t know (there’s always something) was that Drag Line South leads in to Drag Line North and that changes from a green to a blue rather quickly and is a one-way shot around (what felt like) the world’s biggest lake. We did wind up turning around and walking our bikes the wrong way for 1/4 mile to get back to our comfort zone (the sidewalk). My oldest was ready to take it on, but my middle kid was like, “Nope, mom. I need a bath and a box of Ritz Crackers. We gots to go” and I was like, “Same, sister. Same.”

I have to say though, that bike ride with 2/3 of my kids got me some of the prettiest photos I took the whole time. Water, sunset, trees, and smiles. Just amazing.

Just when you think the day is done, it’s not. My husband is legendarily obsessed with sunsets. No matter where we are, he finds a sunset spot that is going to be “amazing” and we find that spot at the exact correct time. It’s his thing, and it’s kind of cute. In case you’re wondering, his spot at Cuyuna was nice and close – and, yes, it was gorgeous. We drove up to the top of Miner’s Mountain (it’s two-way traffic, but probably shouldn’t be. Be careful.) and parked in the lot to unload for the view. Worth every second of the drive! The photos speak for themselves, but it really was surreal. And cold. But mostly surreal.

That was the end of that day. It ended on a high note and everyone felt fulfilled and accomplished and pretty darn proud of that day’s accomplishments. I still regretted not getting the Victual ice cream but I’ll get over that. Eventually.

The next day was departure day. We let everyone sleep in while my husband and I packed up, loaded bikes, cleaned up and vowed to come back in the very near future. Getting on the road early allowed us enough time to stop at Mille Lacs Kathio State Park. We had been to this park before but the fire observation tower was closed so we wanted to go back. Sure are glad we did!

Once you enter the park, follow the map to the 100-foot Fire Tower. The entire park is lovely, but we were there to climb. And climb we did. This thing is no joke high. My oldest has a subtle fear of heights and I actually thought he was going to vomit at the top (he did not, in case you were wondering). With the combination of the leaf color, the solitude, and the climb to the top – it was memorable icing on our Cuyuna cake.

Depending on what season you go, it’s important to remember proper gear. For reference – and please remember, this was our first trip to Cuyuna – this is what our family packed that we definitely needed:

  • helmets and bikes (duh)
  • base layers to stay warm
  • tight gloves
  • buffs for our necks or ears (we got cold, even under our helmets)
  • light jackets and sweatshirts
  • water bottles and snacks (a parental no-brainer)
  • backpack to wear when riding (filled with, yet again, snacks)
  • first-aid kit
  • extra clothes in case mud happens
  • board games and slippers (I’m a sucker for slippers after a long day)
  • Minnesota State Park permit (this is required for Cuyuna State Rec are but not for the Yawkeye Unit)

While this trip was one of the best I’ve taken any Fall in my recent history, here are the takeaways I learned:

  1. If you’re biking with kids, remember – they are kids. Be patient with them. Mountain biking is hard for adults, so when your legs are shorter and muscles are smaller, it’s even harder. This is not the Olympics. It’s a family trip.
  2. That is all. That’s super important and will save you frustration and tears. The end.

My family has already booked our VRBO home for this coming June and I’m even more excited to try it all again, mostly because I no longer feel like a complete chicken sh*t on the trails. I mean, still a little bit, but not nearly as much as before.

If you are interested in mountain biking, even in the least, this will become an addictive vacation in the best possible way. Highly recommend. 5 stars. Have fun and embrace the adventure of nature!

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3 Comments

  • Reply
    Caree
    03/07/2022 at 8:02 am

    Link to your ABnB plz? Or did I miss it?
    This looks like such an awesome trip! I am a big chicken too… I like biking and prefer nice flat Rails to Trails, but I like trying new things too so maybe we’ll give this a go. My husband mountain biked in his younger days (much much younger ;p ) We have 2 boys; a 10 yr old that is an excellent rider (and a bit of a daredevil with zero impulse control so I feel like I’d be bandaging him up for days) and a 5 yr old that doesn’t ride without training wheels at all yet. Maybe this will be the inspiration to get him riding so we could do this trip this fall. Great post!

  • Reply
    careee
    03/07/2022 at 10:22 am

    Also did you do this over MEA weekend? Wondering when to time this to hit the fall colors the best (I know that’s kinda variable).

    • Reply
      Nate
      03/07/2022 at 12:43 pm

      The AIRBNB we stayed is no longer being rented out. And yes, we did go over MEA Weekend. It was touch cold so if you did try and go I would say mid-late September would be the absolute best, although it would be busier and more prime season then.

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