As old man winter descends upon us, a lot of people shutter to the idea of the months spent indoors. Others, they relish the season and welcome the snow. These snow junkies can't wait until there is enough cold and snow to fire up the sleds and hit the trails.
Northern Minnesota is a mecca of snowmobile trails. It is a riding destination for people all across the country. The main artery is the Taconite Trail which runs from Grand Rapids to Ely. Opening in 1986, this 165-mile Minnesota State trail serves as the main route across northern Minnesota. It intersects a network of trails maintained by local snowmobile clubs, Grand-in-Aid trails and the other mighty trail of the north, the Arrowhead State Trail by Lake Vermilion.
When deciding to head out on the sleds, the first step is to figure out where you, your family or your buddies are going to ride. The Taconite Trail offers a plenty of entrance points and parking. I prefer to start in right in Grand Rapids and make the trek to Ely, while planning a few stops along the way. Then, depending on how you ride and how early you start, either turnaround and head back for a 330+ mile day or spend the night in Ely and head home the next day to make it a full weekend ride.
As you head out of Grand Rapids and head north, you'll see how the Trail winds through the taconite and iron mines. The trail zig-sags around the massive pits and drilling operations, which are the heart and soul of the northern Minnesota landscape. The sites are impressive right from the start and always worth a second or third look as you cruise by. As you continue along the trial, you'll appreciate how well-groomed the trail is. It's a wide trail with sweeping turns that will bring out the rider in all of us. The feel of the smooth trial under your track and the free-flowing swooping corners allow for an effortless ride no matter what type of sled you are on.
Once a few miles out of Grand Rapids and the mining areas, you'll start to wind through forest areas of pine, aspen, birth, poplar and many other different species of trees. These forests, dotted with an abundance of lakes and streams, off picturesque views all the way up to Ely. The first stop along the way, as many riders like to support the local clubs, is Swampsiders Snowmobile Club. The Club is located on County Road 52 in Bigfork, just off the Taconite Trail on the Herb Brandstrom Trail. A convenient gas station up the road makes this an ideal spot to stop. The clubhouse offers home-cooked food, beverages, an antique snowmobile museum and some of the best comradery you'll find on the trial. The clubhouse is impressive with the loyal members serving the riders along with the names on the chairs and mugs on the walls. You'll be greeted by friendly faces as well as a very friendly black lab; all of whom appreciate you stopping by to support their club, the trails and the sport of snowmobiling. Swampsiders not only maintain their own trails but also the Taconite Trail in the area. Before you go, be sure to grab a Swampsider sweatshirt as a souvenir!
As you now have food in the belly and a full tank of gas, you continue your trek towards the northeast. This portion of the Taconite Trail offers terrain with rolling trees lines, along with frozen swamps and low lands which houses a wealth of wildlife. Many have stopped along the trail to take pictures of the world around them and to take in the wonderful fresh winter air northern Minnesota offers. This part of the trail is what many call the long haul. Well, it's not really a long-haul but it can be if you decide to make it that way and have a sled with proper gas mileage. Many like to do the long stretch of riding from Swampsiders Snowmobile Club, all the way to Tower, Minnesota. This stretch of trail covers roughly half of the 165-mile trail. This portion of the trip runs through three State and National forests. The trail winds you in and out of the George Washington State Forest, the Sturgeon River State Forest and the Superior National Forest. These three Forests showcase some of the best trailside shelters and quick break points along the way. All of these trail waysides and picnic areas offer scenic contours of the hills, lakes and rivers of this area.
The second stop on the trail is the town of Tower, MN. There are a variety of places to eat, lodging if needed, along with spots to get gas. A very popular place amongst riders is the Benchwarmer Grille along Highway 169. They offer a very large parking area for sleds and the convenient location makes getting on and off the trail a breeze. Benchwarmer Grille has a causal atmosphere, TVs, burgers, sandwiches, wings, steaks and beverages to meet the cravings of any rider. As you hit the trail for the last leg of the trek, the Taconite will wind you through Bear Island State Forest. This state forest is part of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) and is very rolling and rocky. You'll experience all types of terrain Minnesota and the Iron Range has to offer. The abundance of lakes in the area makes this some of the best riding the state has to offer. The trail isn't as wide as down by Grand Rapids but that doesn't take anything away from the ride as there are far less riders along this portion of trail. The wildlife in the area is amazing.
You many cross paths with deer, hawks, eagles, wolves and if you're lucky, even a moose! Many animals use the trail for walking when the snow is deep so be careful as you never know what is around the next corner. Once you hit Ely, you'll have a wide variety of choices of places to see and things to do. (see Christina Monson's Destination: Ely article on laketimemagazine.com). From food to shops, from people to pets, this little town has it all and they show it in the friendliest manner possible. Not being one to stay in town, there are many resorts and lodges in and around the Ely area that can be accessed via local snowmobile trails. One spot is the Silver Rapids Lodge located right off the Tomahawk Snowmobile Trail just east of town. The great food and drink choices will make you not want to leave. If you decide to spend the night, be sure to do some riding on the White Iron and Birch Lakes to the south. This is a long stretch of lakes that you'll surely be bummed if you miss the chance to slalom through such a paradise of untapped lake riding and scenic views.
As you plan your trip on the Taconite Trail, remember Minnesota snowmobiling season is December 1 through March 31. Year to year conditions vary, but best riding/trail conditions are usually between late December/early January to the middle of March. If you decide to do this route, be sure to call one of the many places to stay in Ely and book a room or cabin. You won't regret spending the night and experiencing this ride for all it's worth.
Until next time, ride safe and ride often.
By Dean Pasek