As a kid, I always wondered why I never spotted Paul Bunyan or Babe the Blue Ox during annual up-north family vacations. They were supposed to be so darn big, how could I miss them? Back then, summer seemed endless, and packing for the yearly summer vacation was an Olympic trial. While the rest of the family packed the fishing boat, I worked on strapping my banana seat bicycle to the truck.
This was our ritual, for every year we’d head north to Paul Bunyan country – past Brainerd and Hackensack to the third-largest lake in Minnesota, Leech Lake. Leech sits right smack in the Chippewa National Forest, and the town of Walker is nestled on its shores.
What’s truly cool about Walker is that it hasn’t changed much since I was there as a child in the 1970s. The downtown still has its small town/Mayberry feel, with many of the same stores I remember. Even the original museum is still there, complete with stuffed owls and beaver (although it now shares space with the Walker Spirits store, which makes for great wine shopping amidst the wildlife). But what has changed, and for the better, are the trail systems.
This area has worked hard, and continues to work, on its trails. They are well mapped out and well-marked, and locals are all familiar with them if visitors have any questions. Whether your bicycle has a banana seat or not, these trails will not disappoint.
The Heartland State Trail was the starting point on this excursion, as it runs right through the town of Walker. This trail was one of the first rail-to-trail projects in the country. It’s a multiuse trail that runs 49 miles between Park Rapids and Cass Lake. On this trip, we were told of “the loop,” which runs out of Walker, around past the North Country National Scenic Trail and connects to the Shingobe Connection Trail, which heads back into Walker for a 25-mile loop. It’s ideal for an afternoon ride, as long as you don’t mind numerous curves and some stretches of steep hills.
Also be sure to pack plenty of water and snacks, as this loop doesn’t go through any towns once you start out. In fact, only two other riders were seen on the path during the entire ride. It’s a great trail to get away from it all and enjoy the lake and hardwood forest that surround you.
Don’t zoom past those NCT (North Country Trail) signs that you’ll see along the trail – hop off your bike for a bit and head for a hike on this best-kept secret. At 4,600 miles, it’s the longest footpath in the nation. It runs through seven states, and it’s most well-known stretch is the Appalachian. It’s the only National Scenic Trail in the state of Minnesota, and it’s amazing how many folks still aren’t familiar with it. My favorite discovery? Funny-looking boot brushes are installed at trailheads to help you clean seeds or other plant materials from your shoes.
The Heartland Trail also connects to the Paul Bunyan State Trail. Yes, a trail named after the elusive giant I chased in my childhood. When it’s complete, the Paul Bunyan State Trail will be 120 miles long and extend from south of Brainerd to Lake Bemidji State Park. It’s now 112, and all paved from Brainerd to Bemidji, and it’s the longest continuously paved trail in our state’s trail system.
This trail is primed for hiking and bicycling, and I passed a fair amount of in-line skaters as well. Once the work is done, the trail will connect with the Blue Ox Trail (naturally) and will become one of the longest rail-to-trail conversions in North America at 210 miles. Not bad for the big guy and his trusty steed.
For a little sustenance after your ride, head to The Piggy BBQ. Local husband and wife team, Steve & Kathy Blake, offer fresh fare that’s smoked each day. When it’s sold out, it’s sold out, so get there early. The beef brisket, cold smoked turkey and ribs were the perfect end to a long day of biking, and the cornbread and real draft root beer with pure cane sugar will boost the energy levels back up.
Right behind the restaurant is the cute-as-a-button Green Scene market & deli, a perfect stop for healthy and organic snacks. The local farmers market takes place in the parking lot on Thursdays from June to September.
And just for the record, I could have sworn I saw a giant lumberjack footprint during the ride.