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Split Rock Wilds mountain bike trails 'soft open' on North Shore

The 22-mile system is mostly challenging, rock and technical. But it does offer casual riders some smoother trails.

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Danny and Joni Warzala, from the Twin Cities, ride fat bikes on the Hwy 61 Trail on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, at the Split Rock Wilds mountain bike trail network near Beaver Bay. The Warzalas have a cabin near Two Harbors and this is the third time they have biked at these trails. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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BEAVER BAY, Minn. — Mountain bike riders either love or hate the new Split Rock Wilds trail system between Split Rock Lighthouse State Park and Beaver Bay in Minnesota.

"As you might expect with a trail that's very different than anything else in the area, it's very polarizing," said David Cizmas, a recreation forester for Lake County overseeing the project. "There's a very large cult that's just enthralled with this trail and with this trail system, but there's also a number of people that are like, 'I've never gotten my rear end handed to me by a trail in Minnesota before — I don't like it.'"

Built on county land, the 22-mile system of trails include a number of challenging features: an 850-foot-long rock garden — a trail made of boulders that riders are challenged to ride over; a flyover bridge that sends riders down a steep, curved deck with no railing; jump trails with gaps; steep, technical and rocky climbs; and endless rocks and drops.

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A flyover bridge on the OTM Trail rises over the Acer Trail seen on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, at the Split Rock Wilds mountain bike trail network near Beaver Bay. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

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It's a system where a full-suspension trail bike is best, Cizmas said.

And it's meant to stick out as a challenging system among all the new trails going up across Northeastern Minnesota. Most of what's going in is generally machine-built "flow" — smoother, winding trails that are more accessible to riders of different levels with a few advanced and even fewer expert trails mixed in.

But Split Rock Wilds is the opposite. It's an advanced trail with a few easy trails thrown in.

"We built it intentionally to feel very raw and be more of a traditional singletrack rather than your flow trail," Cizmas said.

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Late day light illuminates parts of the 850-foot-long rock garden called Joe's Diner seen on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, at the Split Rock Wilds mountain bike trail network near Beaver Bay. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

That isn't to say there aren't easier options available through gentle climbs and corners, across wide wooden bridges and over dirt as much as possible (there is only a thin layer of natural soil in the area, hence the rockiness of the more difficult trails).

Joni and Danny Warzala were riding their fat-tire bikes up and down the mile-long beginner green trail called Hwy 61 on Tuesday. The Twin Cities couple have a cabin near Two Harbors and regularly ride trails throughout Northeastern Minnesota.

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Joni Warzala, from the Twin Cities, rides a fat bike on the Hwy 61 trail on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, at the Split Rock Wilds mountain bike trail network near Beaver Bay. A fat bike is a mountain bike with tires wider than 3.8 inches. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

"There's not a lot of long climbs on this trail. It's a short climb. The wooden bridges are really leveling — even the rock bridges are short — and so they're really easy for beginner bikers," Joni said. "There's not a lot of technical on this trail."

But turn onto an intermediate blue or advanced black trail and that quickly changes.
When the new trailhead opens in the spring, more green trails on the southwestern end of the system will be more easily accessible.

Trailhead, campground expected in May 2022

Split Rock Wilds has had a "soft opening" with many of the riders hearing about it by word-of-mouth. Still, Cizmas said it's attracted more users than he expected.

The trail system will more officially open when the new campground at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park opens in May.

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Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

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Once open, the campsite, dubbed Shipwreck Creek Campground, will feature 46 electric drive-in sites and will serve also as Split Rock Wilds' main trailhead, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource's website.

For now, riders should access the trail by parking in Beaver Bay and taking the paved Gitchi-Gami State Trail to Cove Point Lodge. On the other side of Minnesota Highway 61, Cove Point has a gravel road next to giant Adirondack chairs and flag poles. Pedal up the gravel road (vehicles are not allowed on the road, which is Cove Point's property) until you reach several white signs on the right side marking the entrance to the trail system. An interactive map of the system can be found by searching "Split Rock Wilds" on trailforks.com or by using the Trailforks app on a smartphone.

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A mountain biker rides the Neovision trail on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, at the Split Rock Wilds mountain bike trail network near Beaver Bay. Neovision is one of the 28 trails in the 22-mile mountain biking trail network. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

For now, that's the only way in and out of the trail system.

The trail's current entrance warns users that if they trespass at the campground, which seems like an easy way to reconnect with the Gitchi-Gami Trail, it could force the trails to close or result in the rider receiving a citation.

The future

On Tuesday afternoon, Cizmas had pulled his two-wheel-drive motorbike with a chainsaw on the back over to the side of the trail to eat a bagel. He had been working on clearing trees that had fallen across the trail.

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Dave Cizmas, of Duluth, with Lake County Forestry, talks about the development of mountain bike trails during a lunch break Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, at the Split Rock Wilds mountain bike trail network near Beaver Bay. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

As construction to establish the trails winds down, maintenance will be a constant.

Cizmas said the county will likely hand much of those responsibilities off to a local club and a nonprofit.

Lake County Mountain Bike Trails has partnered with One Track Mind, or OTM, a nonprofit that aims to build, improve and maintain mountain bike trails and will provide regular, seasonal maintenance.

But new trails will likely be added. Cizmas said he'd like to see an advanced jump line and beginner jump line (expert and intermediate jumplines have already been built) and gravity enduro trails.

"The philosophy is no boring trail," Cizmas said. "So we're not going to build a trail for the sake of having miles."

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The off-ramp of a flyover bridge on the OTM Trails seen Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, at the Split Rock Wilds mountain bike trail network. The OTM Trail offers an intermediate jump line for riders in the area. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

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Joni Warzala, from the Twin Cities, talks about the new mountain bile trails while stopping during a ride on the Hwy 61 Trail on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, at the Split Rock Wilds mountain bike trail network. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

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A mountain biker navigates a long boardwalk Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, at the Split Rock Wilds mountain bike trail network. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jlovrien@duluthnews.com or 218-723-5332.
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