Nashwauk woman becomes ambassador for hiking at Redhead Mountain Bike Park
Kari Kilen, who has hiked more than 1,000 miles at Redhead, has created a community of hikers who come together to hit the trails in the former mine pit.
CHISHOLM — As Redhead Mountain Bike Park nears the close of its summer season, Jordan Metsa, Minnesota Discovery Center's development and marketing director, is stunned by just how much use the park has become in its third summer open.
Thanks to an Eco-Counter installed with a grant made possible by the St. Louis County Trail Task Force, the Discovery Center is able to track how many cyclists and pedestrians enter and leave the main entrance to the mountain bike park.
The park, which opened in an abandoned mine pit in June 2020, is a collaborative effort between the Minnesota Discovery Center, the city of Chisholm and the Iron Range Offroad Cyclists.
According to the counter, nearly 70,000 people entered the park from May 1 to mid-October. Of those, about 38,000 were cyclists and nearly 44,000 were hikers. Metsa notes that the counter does have some margin of error, but the statistics are relatively accurate.
“We were astonished to see that big of a number, and we know it’s even bigger because there’s multiple points you can enter the park through,” Mesta said. “It doesn't account for the ATV traffic in Redhead — which is significant — but we were pleasantly surprised to pull that report and see that many pings.”
Of course, many of the visits are from repeat users who regularly recreate at Redhead. One of Redhead’s most frequent — and now well-known — visitors is Kari Kilen, who has hiked more than 1,000 miles on the park’s trails since its opening.
Kilen, who is from Hibbing and now lives near Nashwauk, has come to Redhead about three times a week for the past three summers. In that time, she’s become the park’s unofficial ambassador, recruiting hikers to check out the trails and guiding first-timers through the park.
“I want people to come here and have not just a good experience biking, but I want them to have had a really good experience overall,” Kilen said. “With the people they encounter, if they’re looking for suggestions for somewhere to eat ... trying to make their Redhead experience memorable and make them want to come back.”
Redhead Mountain Bike Park sees visitors from all over Minnesota and from many other states across the country. Redhead was the site of the Minnesota Cycling Association's all-team finale race last weekend, hosting more than 2,000 racers and their families. Metsa said the mountain bike park’s draw for statewide and nationwide visitors has helped boost the local economy, through restaurant, hotel and gas station visits.
“A vast majority of the users using Redhead are from outside of the region,” Metsa said. “We’re seeing heavy usership from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and we’re seeing license plates from literally across the country. Almost every day, you can go down to the trailhead and at least see a couple states represented.”
Kilen said if she sees someone studying the map at the entrance, she’ll usually go up to them to ask where they’re from and to see if she can help them find a good route on the 25 miles of trails. Her favorite route for first-time hikers is a 3-mile hybrid of six trails, which takes people down into the mine, through the woods, close to the water and past a small waterfall.
Kilen has coordinated walks through a Facebook group, Redhead Redfeet . It began as a way for her to tell friends when she planned to hit the trails, and has grown to more than 300 members who are interested in going for walks at Redhead, either with Kilen or with others. Some share photos from their hikes with the group as well. Kilen said she sees many people who she took on their first hike at Redhead returning with other people.
“This summer, most of my hikes have been out here with other people — many of them people that have never been here before because they saw it on the group," she said. "So it’s been a great way to introduce it to other people.”
All but three of Redhead’s trails are multi-use, allowing cyclists and pedestrians to share the trails. Kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding and swimming are also permitted, plus fat biking and snowshoeing in the winter. Leashed dogs are also welcome.
“The biggest thing, by far, that Kari has done is letting people know this isn’t just limited to mountain biking,” Metsa said. “Kari has really opened up an entire new audience for Redhead, letting people know you can hike these trails. They’re very hikeable for beginners to expert-level hikers. And she’s really done it in a community-engaging way. She’s reached out to people who may not have been hikers and introduced them to this, which is really important.”
When Kilen leads a hike with newcomers, she makes sure to educate everyone about trail safety, including moving to the right when a biker passes. She also always wears a colorful bandana for both visibility and in case someone is injured and needs it. Kilen carries a water bottle in each pocket of her shorts — one to drink out of, and one for anyone else who might need it.
Kilen likes to take most of the hike in the opposite direction of bike traffic to help with visibility. Shelley Valentini, who is also a frequent hiker at Redhead, said she enjoys the different views you can get depending on which direction you take a trail.
“I’ve had a lot of bikers say, ‘You probably get a lot more out of the trails than we do because you’re going slower. We’re just flying by and we don’t stop and see some of these scenic things,’” Kilen said.
Kilen also stops along the hike to point out notable views, clear debris off the trail, and to make historically significant points.
“One of the things that’s really fun about Redhead is they’ve incorporated a lot of the old mining equipment or mining-related things into the trails,” she said. “People say mining was so horrible, but look at what’s come from it, and how it’s regrown. It’s its own kind of beauty.”
Her first visit to Redhead was in June 2020, a couple weeks after her nephew died unexpectedly. She started exploring the trails with family members, her friends and sometimes by herself to help process her grief and became "addicted" to the trails.
“Gyms were closed because of COVID, and exercise was one of my other ways of grief relief and stress relief, normally,” Kilen said. “Exercise classes were closed; you couldn’t get together with family and friends, so this was just a great place to come and be able to relax and just let things go and just enjoy. And it’s been that ever since.”
She kept a log of each of her hikes and the distances she walked. In the summer of 2020, she walked the distance from Chisholm to Rochester — about 275 miles. In 2021, she walked about 450 miles, or the distance from Rochester to St. Louis, Missouri. On Sept. 27, Kilen hiked her 1,000th mile at Redhead. It put her 2022 mileage near 275 miles hiked, or the distance from St. Louis to Memphis, Tennessee.
“What she’s done is just so encouraging for communities around us,” said Rita Charter, who also frequently hikes at Redhead. “People come from other towns and we get to know each other and share this wonderful, wonderful trail.”
Kilen has continued hiking this fall after reaching her 1,000th mile. She’s also set an ambitious goal for next year. Kilen hopes to hike 500 miles at Redhead in one season, which she said may be difficult to accomplish because the weather will determine how many days the park will be open.
Redhead Mountain Bike Park is closing Nov. 5 for the season transition, and will reopen later this winter for fat biking and snowshoeing.
“I’ve shown people that there are things you can do to stay healthy mentally and physically that don’t necessarily cost any money, that you can do on your time frame and you can share it with others or you can keep it to yourself," Kilen said. "It’s been a wonderful resource and I’m glad that other people are also experiencing that and then sharing it with others.”