Miles & Smiles Biking In Minnesota's Great Northwest
By C.B. Bylander
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Bicyclists who seek long flat paved trails, short family-friendly trails or hilly mountain bike trails will find all three in northwest Minnesota.
This region is home to the Paul Bunyan State Trail, the nation’s longest continually paved trail. It is where Itasca State Park riders can pedal on a paved path to the fabled headwaters of the Mississippi River. The Detroit Mountain Recreation Area is in this region, too. This popular ski hill has miles of year-round mountain and fat tire biking trails.
The U.S. Forest Service also offers a variety of biking experiences. The Chippewa National Forest’s Norway Beach Recreation Area on the east side of Cass Lake, for example, is a safe and scenic place for families with young children. The campground’s paved trail largely follows the shoreline, and to kids’ good fortune, nears a resort where ice cream and snacks can be purchased. There are plenty of places along the way to get off the trail and get onto one of northern Minnesota’s biggest and best sugar sand beaches. The campground trail connects with the 14-mile Migizi Trail. This paved trail weaves through massive red and white pines as it circles nearby Pike Bay lake.
Similarly, Minnesota state forests offer a variety of biking options. Mountain biking is permitted on all Minnesota Department of Natural Resources state forest roads and trails unless posted closed. Vast state forests are common in northwestern communities. The Beltrami Island State Forest near Baudette, for example, covers more than 700,000 acres. Other state forests include the Lost River, Lake of the Woods, Pine Island, Red Lake, Mississippi Headwaters, Paul Bunyan, White Earth, Two Inlets and Smoky Hills. Combined, these forests offer hundreds of miles of trails for biking, hiking, bird watching and more.
Paul Bunyan State Trail
This multi-use trail starts north of Bemidji at Lake Bemidji State Park and extends southward for 123 miles before ending at Crow Wing State Park south of Brainerd. The trail mostly exists on a former railroad grade, which makes for easy pedaling and a generally level ride. The exceptions area a hilly nine-mile section that cuts through the Chippewa National Forest north of Hackensack and south of Walker and that portion of the trail south of Brainerd-Baxter.
The Paul Bunyan Trail passes through Walker, Hackensack and other popular tourist towns. The prevelance of on-trail towns means riders are usually less than a dozen miles from food, lodging, relaxation or even a tap house. Visually, riders pass through woods, wetlands, lakes and open areas. The stretch from Brainerd-Baxter to Crow Wing State Park includes scenic blufftop vistas that overlook the Mississippi River.
Heartland State Trail
The Heartland State Trail was one of the first rail-to-trail projects in the country. It is a 49-mile multi-use trail between Park Rapids and Cass Lake. The trail is built upon a former railroad grade except for a four-mile stretch north of Walker. This segment is on a low-volume traffic road.
The Heartland trail has a 27-mile east-west segment between Park Rapids and Walker and a 22-mile north-south segment between Walker and Cass Lake. The Park Rapids to Walker segment passes through Dorsett, Nevis and Akeley, the latter known for having the state’s largest statue of Paul Bunyan. That’s where many riders pose for a picture on Paul’s outstretched hand. This part of the trail also has a second grassy trail for mountain biking.
The Heartland Trail passes through hardwood and pine forests. The two largest trail towns—Walker and Park Rapids—both have a wide variety of shopping, dining and lodging options. Walker has a beautiful beach and park on the shore of Leech Lake. Riders who visit Cass Lake can take a paved trail east along Highway 2 to the Norway Beach Recreation Area. The campground’s sandy beach is the perfect place to cool off or throw a frisbee over clear water that stays knee- and waist-deep far into the lake.
The Heartland State Trail connects with the Paul Bunyan State Trail and regional trail systems that provide additional biking miles.
Itasca State Park
A paved trail and paved roads await visitors to the massive Minnesota park that most resembles a national park because of its historic feel, large interpretive centers and awe-inspiring red and white pine trees. The park has 6 miles of trail that, among other destinations, takes riders to the Mississippi River headwaters. An interpretive center with a cafe is located near the headwaters.
Also popular is the park’s 10-mile Wilderness Drive. This is a one-way car-and-bike route through magnificent red and white pine forest. The Aiten Heights fire tower is just a short jaunt off Wilderness Drive. Those who climb the tower earn a commanding view of this region’s forest.
Visitors can rent bikes at the park. Expect to pay about $5 for hourly bike rental or $25 for 24 hours. Tandem bicycles, electric assist bicycles, child seats and child carriers are also available for rent.
The Detroit Mountain Recreation Area at Detroit Lakes provides miles of professionally designed mountain biking trails. An alpine ski area, trails have been created for all skill levels. The recreation area also offers a skills park and bike rentals.
C.B. Bylander is a hunter, angler and outdoor enthusiast. He lives on a small lake in Crow Wing County. Now retired, he spent much of his career working for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
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