By Mpls.St.Paul Magazine / Inspired by Paul Molitor’s My North
Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Paul Molitor spends most of his summer leaning against the railing on the bottom step of the dugout as he lives the dream by managing his hometown team, the Minnesota Twins. And while that’s no shabby way to spend a summer, Molitor admits to sometimes wishing he had just a little bit more time away from the field so he could partake in his other summertime sport, bicycling. Here are five great Minnesota bike trails that’ll make Paul Molitor jealous he’s stuck at the baseball field.
There is no better way to connect with the towns and history of the Iron Range than to bike the 132-mile paved Mesabi Trail, stretching from Grand Rapids in the west all the way to the Hoyt Lakes area in the east. Currently 85 percent complete, the trail mainly follows pre-existing railroad paths and takes you through many of the most iconic Iron Range towns like Hibbing, Biwabik, Keewatin, Mountain Iron and Virginia. Upon completion, its 132 miles will make it the longest paved bike trail in the country, and since that’s a wee bit more than what most people can do in an afternoon, they even offer a shuttle service!
In the 1870s landscape architect Horace Cleveland convinced the city of Minneapolis that the best of its natural splendor (its lakes, creeks and waterfalls) was better off as designated parkland for all to enjoy, and the idea for the Grand Rounds took root. Fast forward more than a century and the realization of Cleveland’s dream is an uber bikeable (and walkable) series of trails totaling 102 miles, 4,662 acres, seven segments, 50 interpretive sites and 20 access points that takes you from the banks of the Mississippi to the shores of lakes like Isles and Nokomis, and along Minnehaha Creek to the Falls and beyond.
It’s a little known fact that when Horace Cleveland plotted Minneapolis’s Grand Rounds Scenic Byway System in the 1870s, he plotted one for St. Paul, too. It’s just that over the years, only 14 miles of it along the Mississippi River came to fruition, while another 13 miles (through Como Regional Park, Wheelock Parkway, and Phalen Regional Park) that made it a “round” laid dormant until a more recent push by the city of St. Paul to more fully realize Cleveland’s vision for the St. Paul Grand Round. The Wheelock Parkway track is now complete, and the rest is still in progress but completely usable for anyone who might want to kick the tires of a Grand Round 125 years in the making.
Southeastern Minnesota’s wandering Root River is among the most beautiful settings in a state with no shortage of scenic destinations. And while its towering bluffs and charming river towns like Lanesboro, Peterson, Whalan and Rushford are a favorite of Sunday drivers, thanks to the 42-mile, paved Root River State Trail, they’re also perfect fodder for a cyclist looking to soak in the beauty of Minnesota’s slice of the Driftless region. The trail begins in Fountain and meanders south to Houston atop a long-abandoned railroad path, enticing riders with its many scenic overlooks, shaded bridges and charming small-town activities along the way.
Not all cycling trips that begin in the city need to end in the city. Case in point: the Gateway State Trail, which starts in the urban environs of St. Paul, meanders through eastern suburbs like Maplewood and Oakdale, and concludes in downtown Stillwater on the St. Croix River. Despite its immediate proximity to St. Paul, the paved 18-mile trail gets relatively isolated beyond the first few miles. But if you’re looking for some pre-Stillwater sustenance, keep your eyes peeled around mile marker 15, where the Gateway Trailside food truck is often found serving up mean chicken salad sammies and ginger lemonades.