As mountain biking booms, so does the demand for trail builders.

In a remote forest in northern Minnesota, Mica Harju uses what looks like an oversized hoe to place dirt and rocks along a new section of mountain bike trail carved into the woods.

“That’s the real sexy part of trail building,” she laughed. “Move the dirt. Moving rock.

Harju’s husband Adam maneuvered huge boulders with a 3-tonne excavator as she carried out detailed finishing work on the 3-foot-wide, hardened track designed to follow the contours of the terrain, dipping and sinking around banked curves, over rocks and through trees.

“We’re trying to make it accessible to people who love jumping or want to learn how to jump,” Mica said. “Let their wheels take off and feel that butterfly in your stomach a bit.”

The Harjus own a small trail building company called dirt candy designs in Grand Marais, one of many companies that have sprung up in Minnesota and across the country to meet the growing demand for professionally built mountain bike trails that are being built at scale National Trail, including this new 21-mile trail system along the north shore of Lake Superior.

In the early days of mountain biking, riders rode any trail they could find – old logging roads, cross-country ski trails, and even game trails. Some runners have hacked new trails through the woods, often illegally. Building a modern mountain bike trail is completely different.

This is overseen by the county forestry department and had to go through an environmental planning process.

Builders use different techniques to keep water out of the paths to prevent them from eroding. This requires expertise and meticulous work. It took the Harjus nearly a month and a half to complete this 1.5 mile trail. And it’s expensive.

“I would say the sweet spot for a high quality, professionally built trail is in those $50,000 to $70,000 per mile [range],” noted Mike Repyak, director of planning and design for Trail Solutions, which designs and builds trails across the country for the International Mountain Bike Association.

Repyak, which is based in Madison, Wis., said as demand for trails increases, new builders are springing up across the country. “And we need that, we need a lot more planners and designers in particular, and then builders too. We are still a very young industry.

Blu Tenbrink of Rock Solid Trail Contracting pauses on his shovel while building a new trail in the Split Rock Wilds trail system in Lake County, Minnesota on August 9. (Photo by Dan Kraker)

Builders range from small two-person teams like Dirt Candy Designs to large corporations like Rock Solid Trail Contract of Copper Harbor, Michigan, which employs more than 60 people and also had crews build the new trails in northern Minnesota.

“There is more work than we know what to do with,” said Blu Tenbrink of Rock Solid, while taking a break from driving an excavator.

Tenbrink said good trail builders have artistry, laying rocks and carving winding paths through trees. He said he loved creating a space for bikers to “dance through the woods.”

Trail builders spend weeks or even months building a trail. They not only work all day in the woods, they also live there.

During the summer, the Harjus work long hours, seven days a week, building trails. Then they retire to their RV for a shower and a meal before hitting the trail the next day.

Adam and Mica Harju from Grand Marais sleep in this RV for weeks as they travel the country building mountain bike trails.  They are pictured here in Lake County on August 9, where they were building a new trail in the Split Rock Wilds Trail System.
Adam and Mica Harju sleep in this RV for weeks while they build mountain bike trails. (Photo by Dan Kraker)

Adam Harju started about ten years ago when he quit his job at a ski resort. A few years later, Mica Harju joined him. Since then, they’ve built trails in seven states, from Colorado to Arkansas to the upper Midwest. They earned enough money to buy expensive equipment, like the $30,000 excavator.

“But the reality is, like, you’re sweaty, you’re dirty. Mosquitoes are everywhere. So it’s definitely not roses all the time,” Mica said.

But as long as they continue to launch trail construction projects across the country and as long as she can do the physical labor, she said she’s in it for the long haul. Adam said he was too.

“We certainly don’t lose sight of how lucky we are to be able to do what we do, you know. It’s about creating your craft and sharing it with people. It’s really special,” he said.

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