Those of us who live in what is commonly referred to as “Lake Country” are very fortunate to have year-round recreational opportunities. Visitors from all areas of the state and country venture “Up North” to experience what we have right here in our own backyard.

The outdoor lifestyle is what attracted this former weekender to become an Aitkin resident six years ago. Having worked at local newspapers and now in my new role as the Executive Director at the Cuyuna Lakes Chamber of Commerce in Crosby, I can see there are many exciting things happening throughout the area.

The Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area trail system near Crosby and Ironton is creating an energetic momentum that can be felt across the region. In 2018, CCSRA was listed as the fourth top Central Minnesota attraction in the state by Explore Minnesota, with 185,613 visitors.

Economically, surrounding businesses and towns are benefitting from the increase in visitors throughout all seasons to utilize the trails. According to IQ magazine, a recent survey says 25,000 cyclists a year ride the trails, adding an estimated $2 million to the local economy. The same survey predicts that number will increase to $21 million once the trails are expanded to the planned 75-mile total.

CCSRA trails offer over 25 miles of paved and single track riding for beginners to pros. During winter, nearly 40 miles of packed multi-use trails are available for fat biking, with 20 miles of trail groomed specifically for a premier fat biking experience.

Not a biker? No problem! Groomed single track trails are beautiful settings for skiing and snowshoeing in the winter. Birdwatchers and nature photographers, don’t forget to pack your cameras.

Plan a cozy overnight stay for up to seven people in one of three yurts located on Yawkey Mine Lake in CCSRA. Yurts are insulated canvas tents, equipped with bunkbeds, a table, chairs with woodstoves and wood floors. They are available year-round.

Discussions have already begun between local officials to connect the trail systems between Aitkin and Deerwood as part of the loop through Crosby, Brainerd and Bemidji. I attended a meeting last October at Aitkin City Hall, where many people seemed to support the project in its earliest stages of planning.

It’s true that Aitkin doesn’t have the terrain created by the abandoned mine pits in Cuyuna Lakes, that were eventually reclaimed by nature and reinvented into trails worthy of national acclaim. Aitkin does, however, have the Mississippi and Ripple Rivers flowing through the heart of its county seat.

Many tourists come to travel the Great River Road National Scenic Byway, which follows the Mississippi River from its source, Lake Itasca, south 3,000 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps promoting the water trails is Aitkin’s key to unlocking its own tourism boom, much like that being experienced in Cuyuna Lakes with the biking.

Connecting the two would create the ultimate regional travel experience. This is why I also serve on the Aitkin Area Chamber of Commerce’s River Trails Committee. The group held its first fun float during last year’s Riverboat Days celebration. It turned out to be a huge success with more than 60 participants paddling from the Aitkin City Park to the Aitkin County Park. For many, it was their first experience on the rivers, and many commented they would return in 2020, or even kayak or canoe the river route on their own.

The goal of the Cuyuna Lakes Chamber is for outdoor recreation to be the attraction for new businesses and industries to be established in the area resulting in additional jobs and revenue. We accomplish this through the support of our gracious members, and the contributions of Crow Wing County, and cities of Cuyuna, Ironton, Deerwood and Crosby.

It has taken years of hard work by the local community to help restore Cuyuna Lakes following the economic downfalls which came with the end of the mining era, and later of the Scorpion snowmobile industry. As you can see, with vision, commitment, creative solutions and a willingness to persevere –it can be done.

Brielle Bredsten is the director of the Cuyuna Lakes Chamber of Commerce.

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