TVL Cuyuna Recreation Area one of state's best-kept secrets

By Greg Sellnow

CROSBY, Minn. -- The central lakes region around Brainerd is one of the state's most popular summer recreation areas.

In fact, it could be argued that, for those who value solitude, the region is way TOO popular. Half-million-dollar "cabins" are springing up around even the region's smallest and most remote lakes. And from sunup to sundown the roar of personal watercraft and power boats drown out the mating calls of loons and gentle waves lapping at the dock.

However, there is an alternative to the highly developed, commercialized -- and noisy -- lakeshores in the region.


Perhaps the best-kept recreational secret in the region is the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, which includes a mining museum and a series of small, clear lakes that are amply stocked with trout, panfish and northerns.

The recreation area covers 4,500 acres and 26 miles of shoreline in the Cuyuna Iron Range, which produced iron ore and other minerals for the nation's steel industry from just after the turn of the century until the last of its mines closed in 1980.

The mines were the lifeblood of the small, side-by-side communities of Crosby and Ironton until the mining industry in the state fell on hard times in the 1970s. After the miners left, state and local officials started to look at productive ways to use the nine deep mine pits in the range, which were gradually filling with water from underground springs.

"Initially, the IRRRB (Iron Range Rehabilitation and Resources Board) planted some trees and created some public access roads," said Cuyuna Recreation Area Manager Steve Weber. "There was some talk of fish farming, or another commercial venture. But the locals wanted more than that."

So, officials from Crosby, Ironton and the state of Minnesota in 1988 created a cooperative group -- the Cuyuna Range Mineland Joint Powers Board -- to acquire property on the range and turn it into a recreation area for anglers, campers, hikers and other outdoorsmen.

Since then, the board has slowly been buying up private property in the region, which also includes six small natural lakes.

There are no formal campsites or fire rings in the recreation area, but rustic camping is permitted on state land.

By next spring, the board hopes to have reopened a private, 30-site campground it has purchased outside the area's largest pit lake, Portsmouth.


But state and local officials would like to keep the region mostly free of homes, roads, campgrounds and public beaches. "Our goal is to have minimal development," Weber said. "Down the road there's a possibility the area could be mined again, so we have to leave that option open."

Although the market for the region's iron ore is not likely to return, the Cuyuna Range also contains large stores of magnesium that could be mined someday, he said.

In the meantime, the region is already providing enjoyment for anglers who don't mind getting their cars and pickups dirty on the range's rutted mining roads. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources annually stocks the lakes with 50,000 rainbow, brown and brook trout. Although the lakes also have been stocked with panfish and northerns, they are only open to fishing during the regular lake trout season, which begins in early May and ends on Halloween.

Because the lakes are so clear -- under the right weather conditions you can see up to 50 feet down -- they are popular among scuba divers and snorkelers.

However, if you live in a mixed family (some members who fish and others who don't) there are plenty of non-angling recreational opportunities in and around the Cuyuna Recreation Area.

At Croft Mine Historical Park -- the product of a separate public joint powers board -- you can explore the region's mining past by looking at Cuyuna Range artifacts and documents. You can even take a simulated tour of a mine shaft.

The park also includes a large playground and picnic area. If that's not enough, you can venture 15 miles down the road to Brainerd, where the Paul Bunyan Amusement Center and a variety of other entertainment options are available.

The closest formal campground is at Serpent Lake Park in Crosby, a full-service camping facility operated by the city of Crosby.


If you have a place you'd like to see in Destinations, please call 252-1111, category 8638, the Life &; Leisure line, and leave a message. We'll try to schedule your suggestion for an upcoming feature.

The Cuyuna Country Recreation Area is 15 miles northeast of Brainerd just off State Highway 210. The park, which is still in the development stages, is open to hikers and anglers through Halloween.

The region's pit lakes are stocked with panfish, northerns and trout and are open for fishing from shore or by boat (some landings are accessible only with a four-wheel-drive vehicle) May 11-Oct. 31. A state fishing license and trout stamp are required. Information: (218) 546-5926.

Croft Mine Historical Park, which includes a mining museum, is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Information: 1-800-950-2898.

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