ELY — Virginia Jensen and Ruurd Schoolderman spend their winters gliding along Hidden Valley Recreation Area’s cross-country ski trails.
But now, Jensen, who lives in the Twin Cities but has a cabin near Ely, and Schoolderman, of Duluth, can spend their summers there on two wheels, riding the park’s recently completed system of mountain bike trails.
Construction on the 9.1-mile system began in 2020 with trails opening as they were completed. The final loop opened last month.
The singletrack trails are generally smooth with gentle climbs and long downhills. It’s interspersed with rock gardens and other features, while two loops feature a jump line and skills park.
“I’m a newer mountain biker … (the trails) are nice and flowy and not that hard,” Jensen said on a recent Friday afternoon ride. “I fell once last year, but I’ve been seated the whole time with no stops — for now.”
And for Ely, already a destination for outdoor enthusiasts, the trails fill a void. In the past decade, singletrack trails — wide enough for just one hiker or cyclist — have popped up on the Iron Range, Crosby-Ironton, the North Shore and Duluth. But this is the first for the Ely area.
“It’s nice to have it as an opportunity here with everything else that you can do,” said Schoolderman, of Duluth. “A good option to have.”
On any given summer day, vehicles with a canoe or two strapped to the roof can be seen lining downtown Ely streets. Most visitors are headed in or out of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
But more vehicles are sporting bike racks. Or, in the case of a camper van parked in the Hidden Valley trailhead parking recently, both a canoe on the roof and a bike rack on the hitch.
“Ely tourism has largely centered around people heading into the Boundary Waters for fishing and paddling,” Harold Langowski, Ely city clerk, said in a Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation news release announcing the trail system’s grand opening. “The city is now becoming known as a mountain biking destination as well.”
The project cost a total of $480,000, half of which was funded through IRRR’s Regional Trails grant program to the city. Federal grants and private donations paid for the rest.
Brett Ross, board chair of the Ely Nordic Ski and Bike Club, said the trails were the brainchild of retired dentist Scott Anderson.
Ross said six or seven years ago, he’d be running along the ski trails with his dogs when a sudden crashing sound would come from the woods.
“And Scott Anderson would come riding out on his mountain bike on basically deer trails going, ‘I think we can put singletrack in here,’” Ross said. “So that’s really where it grew.”
Anderson has long been a bike enthusiast and said he began pitching the idea after hearing that a community with 20 miles of a trail would become a destination for riders. While it’s just shy of half that right now (Anderson and Ross are already eyeing funding and plans to expand the trail system), Anderson is already seeing an impact.
Children bike past Anderson’s house when they ride from town to the trailhead.
“It’s a good sport. They’re outside, no motors … it’s attracted a lot of kids,” Anderson said.
Team Borealis, a mountain bike team made up of riders from sixth to 12th grades, formed in 2021 as a few of the loops were completed.
Head coach Mark Sponholz said Hidden Valley serves as the team’s home base, and where they practice most days, save for the occasional ride at Lookout Mountain in Virginia or Redhead Mountain Bike Park in Chisholm.
“The experience would be dramatically diminished if it wasn’t right there,” Sponholz said. “We’d be training a lot on ski trails, and then going to try and race singletrack and not have that sort of day-to-day experience and understanding what that looks like.”
And, the singletrack out there is just fun.
“There’s not a lot of trail,” Sponholz said. “But they’re some of the best trails that I’ve ridden anywhere in northern Minnesota.”
Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 218-723-5332.