FINLAND, Minn. — The trail was so new that the scent of fresh lumber still hung in the air from the bridges and the boardwalk, but there were already knobby tire tracks in the dust.

“It’s amazing how fast people find these trails, even before we put the word out. That’s how much people are looking for good places to ride,’’ said Ron Potter as he navigated his Polaris RZR side-by-side ATV along this new spur of the Prospector ATV trail system.

Potter, who lives just outside Ely, knows his ATV stuff. He retired from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources after 37 years, ending his career as program planner for the state’s trail systems. Now, Potter is not only president of the Prospector ATV Club but serves as president of the statewide All Terrain Vehicle Association of Minnesota, the umbrella group for all the state’s off-roading clubs. Potter also is working for Polaris Industries, expanding a free smartphone application that riders can use to see the most-updated maps of new trail systems.

Prospectors Trail Alliance Coordinator Ron Potter drives a section of trail near Finland recently. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Prospectors Trail Alliance Coordinator Ron Potter drives a section of trail near Finland recently. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

“Every time we get a new segment of trail done like this, it’s an accomplishment. A lot of people had to work together to make this happen,’’ he said.

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On a warm, breezy weekday we rode 25 miles from the Wildhurst Lodge near Finland to the Trestle Inn on Crooked Lake, a 50-mile round trip, on the new spur of the developing 250-mile Prospector trail system. The trail meanders through varied hardwood and pine forests, alternating between existing snowmobile trails, two-rut logging trails, official Superior National Forest gravel roads and all-new ATV-only segments.

It was one of those classic summer days, hot and dusty in the sunshine in the open areas and then quickly cooler as we motored into thicker forest, the trail shaded by the canopy of trees.

There’s a new bridge over the Manitou River and another over a smaller stream, places where, before the bridges were built, ATVs and other vehicles were driving through the water, muddying the designated trout streams and causing erosion.

Along one stretch of conifer lowland, a wooden boardwalk was built to keep the machines out of sensitive wetlands. In other wet areas where the ATV trail follows a snowmobile trail, gravel and culverts have been added to keep the summer machines from causing erosion.

“It’s getting expensive to build trail like this,’’ said Kevin Johnson, DNR parks and trails supervisor for the North Shore area. “But if you don’t do it the right way from the start, it’s not going to work for anyone.”

Johnson said developing proper trails is worth the cost and effort. Not only does it provide safer, more scenic and fun places to ride — separating ATV use from general vehicle traffic in most areas — but designated, well-designed trails help reduce ATV-caused environmental damage.

“For years we’ve done nothing and it (ATV use) just spread out more and more, uncontrolled,’’ Johnson said. “By providing a good trail system, we’re managing the use.”

Kevin Johnson (right), DNR Parks and Trails area supervisor, talks with Tom Cooper (from left) and Carol and Dave Soular before starting a 50-mile ride near Finland recently.  (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Kevin Johnson (right), DNR Parks and Trails area supervisor, talks with Tom Cooper (from left) and Carol and Dave Soular before starting a 50-mile ride near Finland recently. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Johnson said one of the best ways to keep ATV enthusiasts on designated trails is to design and build them to be interesting. That’s why this new spur outside Finland — Prospector 12 — has so many twists and turns, dips and climbs. In places we could only go about 5 mph, while on road stretches we motored up to 35 mph.

“You want to give them some decent seat time. If you build straight trails, like a road, they zoom through and get to the other end too fast. You want turns and scenery and some rocks and some difficulty involved,’’ he said while navigating a particularly curvy trail segment in his DNR-issued Kawasaki Mule side-by-side. “Not dangerous-difficult… but the more seat time, the better.”

The Prospector ATV Club has about 150 members, many also members of local ATV and snowmobile cubs in their home community. The full, 250-mile Prospector system could be completed within two or three years, Potter said, and will connect the Finland and North Shore trail systems with Babbitt, Embarrass, Ely and Tower-Soudan, including Bearhead Lake and Lake Vermilion state parks.

“The long-term goal has been to connect the North Shore communities to the Range communities’’ by ATV trail, said Rick Goutermont of Silver Bay, an avid ATV rider and a Lake County Commissioner. “That’s going to be huge for us.”

It’s the local club members who will maintain the trail, checking and filling eroded areas, repairing and replacing signs, cutting trees, removing loose rocks, replacing culverts, removing problem beavers and leveling ruts.

“Everyone thinks that once a trail is built, the work is over. But I remind them that's when the work really starts,’’ said Dave Soular of Babbitt, who joined us on our ride. He should know. He’s been maintaining the Babbitt ATV club’s 60 miles of Stony Spur trail for more than a decade.

“Maintenance is a big issue. Especially with the big new machines. They have so much power they can really tear up a trail if people aren’t careful,’’ Soular said.

An oncoming UTV driver holds up a clenched fist, signaling that he is the last vehicle in a group. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
An oncoming UTV driver holds up a clenched fist, signaling that he is the last vehicle in a group. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

In our group of five ATVs, only one was a traditional single-person four-wheeler. The others were larger, side-by-side units, by far the fastest growing segment of the ATV market.

The Prospector system, on the drawing board since 2013, currently is undergoing a $2 million construction spree, with money coming from state bonding dollars, the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, the state ATV fund (stocked with license and gas tax dollars) and grants from Polaris and Yamaha — two of the largest ATV manufacturers.

The Finland area already was connected to Silver Bay to the south by the Moose Walk and Moose Run ATV trails. The new Prospector system will push west and north to expand ATV opportunities.

A new sign marks a section of the Prospectors ATV Trail System that opened in mid June. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
A new sign marks a section of the Prospectors ATV Trail System that opened in mid June. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Farther north and west, the Voyageur Country trail system includes Crane Lake and communities south of Voyageurs National Park, with trails connecting to Ely, Orr and Lake Vermilion. Organized in April 2015 with 66 members, the Voyageur Country ATV club now has more than 700 members and has worked to open U.S. Forest Service Roads and St Louis County roads to connect hundreds of miles of existing wooded trails.

On the Iron Range, the Quad City system connects many trails and communities. The Northern Traxx system includes trails in the Chisholm and Side Lake areas and currently is planning a new trail connecting Chisholm and Hibbing that is now under DNR review and open for public comment.

Eventually, even Duluth, Grand Marais, International Falls and Grand Rapids will be connected by a continuous system — more than 1,500 miles of trail.

“We’re going to have a world-class trail system, the kind of place where riders can come and spend a week and never ride the same trail twice,” Potter said.

The developing ATV trails network isn’t just for local motorheads. ATV-focused vacations have become a big deal. (On a recent drive down Highway 61 from Silver Bay to Duluth we counted 20 vehicles pulling ATVs heading north before we saw a single trailered boat.)

“I know guys who are throwing their tent into the back and riding off on their ATVs for camping trips with the family,’’ Goutermont said. “That’s the next big thing in ATVing.”

Leroy Teschendorf, who until last month owned the Wildhurst Lodge outside Finland that for years has catered to ATV-riding guests, said the area already had become a destination for ATV enthusiasts, not just from the Twin Cities but from as far away as New York, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Illinois and beyond.

“Sure, they have trails at home. But they are straight and flat … They just don’t have the scenery or the wildlife we do here,’’ said Teschendorf, vice president of the Finland Area ATV and Snowmobile Club. “People out for a ride come back after seeing a bear or a moose or deer and they are just ecstatic. They keep coming back here to ride.”

A hen grouse and two chicks cross an ATV trail near Finland recently. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
A hen grouse and two chicks cross an ATV trail near Finland recently. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

The entire northern Minnesota ATV system is a maze of local trails, connecting corridors and scenic loops that supporters hope someday rivals the state’s snowmobile trail system developed decades ago.

“We used to say people wanted to go 20 or 30 miles in a day, so that’s what we were aiming for’’ for trails, Potter noted. “But now, the machines are so much better, we have guys going 100 miles in a day, easy.”

Most northern counties have enacted new ordinances in recent years allowing ATVs to ride on county roads. While that was controversial in some areas — and while ATV manufacturers urge no riding on roadways — the move enabled ATV riders to get from one trail to another without having to trailer their machine.

“Nobody wants to ride on a road. But it allows us to access more trails. It’s been huge in connectivity, getting from one trailhead to another, and to access services’’ like gas, food and lodging, Potter said, praising county officials for their cooperation.

“It’s going to be hard to keep people away once they see what we have for trails and camping up here,’’ Teschendorf said. “I don't think any place can top these trails.”

ATV registrations keep soaring

Minnesota started registering ATVs in 1984 with just 12,235 tallied. By 2001 that number topped 200,000 and by 2019 it more than doubled again to 455,611, including recreational and farm ATV's and larger off-highway vehicles. (Another 1,861 non-resident ATVers purchased temporary passes in 2019.) By comparison, state boat registrations peaked at 868,000 in 2008 and leveled off to around 815,000 by 2019. Minnesota snowmobile registrations peaked at 297,000 in 2001 and dropped to 195,782 by 2019.