Dakota Rail Trail fall biking

The Perfect Fall Bike Ride Around Lake Minnetonka

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The tree-lined Dakota Rail Regional Trail is especially beautiful in the fall

The Perfect Fall Bike Ride Around Lake Minnetonka

By Brian Fanelli

No matter how many times I ride around Lake Minnetonka, my brain always brings me back to my first time on the trails. It was a perfect fall day about five years ago — mid-60s, sunny, leaves swaying gently in the breeze like rubies dangling off a necklace.

Lake Minnetonka

The many smaller lakes and bays that comprise Lake Minnetonka as seen from above / Nasser Pooladian

I was biking home from Minnetonka Orchards with the woman who would eventually become my wife, riding side by side on the wide Dakota Rail and Lake Minnetonka LRT Regional Trails that meander around the waterfront. We talked and pedaled for hours while a layer of fallen leaves crackled beneath our tires and the afternoon sun glimmered off the water. Every so often we would stop at a bench to rest our legs and nosh on the apple-cinnamon mini-doughnuts we’d bought at the orchard — easily the best trail snack on the planet.

Maybe I’m blinded by the sheer romance of it all, but I can’t imagine a better fall day. Colors bursting from branches, cool air wafting off the lake, charming small town main streets — it’s everything I love about fall and Minnesota wrapped up in a tidy, close-to-home bow.

And because I am nothing if not a creature of habit, biking that beautiful 40-mile loop around Lake Minnetonka has become my annual fall tradition. Like most traditions, I didn’t even realize it had formed until it was too late to say otherwise. Biking around Lake Minnetonka was just something I did every year, a light switch that went off in my brain every September.

It took about three years to notice I’d formed a habit, and some time since then it made the jump from habit to tradition. But like a perfectly timed downshift — chain moving effortlessly from cog to cog, the satisfying clunk of gears changing without skipping a beat — it’s hard to say for sure when exactly the change occurred.

What I do know for sure is there’s nothing better than pedaling around Lake Minnetonka on a crisp fall afternoon, and I can hardly imagine fall in Minnesota without that perfect, 40-mile loop in my life.

Man biking Dakota Trail

The Dakota Trail bursts with colorful leaves and majestic views of the lake / Three Rivers Park District

Wayzata to Lake Waconia on the Dakota Trail

There are plenty of towns where you could start this ride, but for my money, none fit the bill so nicely as Wayzata. Make your way to one of the charming sidewalk patios along Lake Street for a pre-ride pastry and coffee before this annual pilgrimage around the purifying waters of Lake Minnetonka.

Hands draped loosely around a warm ceramic mug, crumbles of a pastry on your plate, there’s nothing like watching downtown Wayzata slowly come to life as a baby cloud of steam rises off your hot coffee. Somewhere out of sight you can hear the distant thrum of boat engines on the lake, anglers coming in from their pre-dawn outings.

As the morning chill lifts, head west out of town on the Dakota Rail Regional Trail. The first few minutes are uneventful, a flat trail beside a quiet highway. Pure prelude — a warm-up for the scenery as much as your legs.

Wayzata sailboats

Sailboats, Wayzata / Fred Miller

Around mile three, a small wooden bridge carries you over Tanager Lake — the first of many scenic water crossings on this ride. It’s a great view, but just wait until you cross over Crystal Bay another few miles down the trail. There, the fall panorama hits you like a bushel of apples: a picturesque expanse of clear blue water, green prairie grass and the bright pop of red-yellow-orange rings of leaves along the shoreline. It’s the kind of view that takes your breath away no matter how hard you’ve been riding.

For about the next five miles — between Crystal Bay and Mound — the trail moves slightly off the shoreline to bob and weave through a string of residential neighborhoods. For better views of the lake, jog a few blocks over to nearby Shoreline Drive. This stretch of road includes a mix of wide, narrow and non-existent shoulders, so only take this route if you’re comfortable riding with traffic.

Back on the trail, the next six miles head through a densely wooded wonderland as the route traverses pristine prairies, vineyards and farms. If you’re ready for a break, Big Stone Mini Golf, a quirky 14-hole mini-golf course/sculpture park/petting zoo, is one of the area’s most unique attractions, and its trailside entrance feels like a VIP red carpet just for bikers.

Keep riding west past St. Bonifacius until you reach MN 155 at Lake Waconia. Take a sharp left here and get comfortable on the road’s wide shoulder as you approach my personal favorite part of the ride.

Gravel road and fall foliage

The gravel roads near Lake Waconia offer unparalleled scenery and a chance to taste local wines / Parley Lake Winery

Gravel Roads, Rolling Hills, and Also There is Beer

Riding south on MN 155 along Lake Waconia, you’ll notice something completely new: real, honest-to-goodness hills. You may find this section of the ride a welcome change of pace — or a personal affront to your legs. Either way, Lake Waconia is extremely pretty in the fall.

Personally, there’s almost nothing I love more than riding hills. I love feeling my body fall into that familiar rhythm, legs like pistons, heart rate rising and falling in time with the landscape, the rush of wind screaming past my ears on the downhills.

You’ll crest two good hills before turning left onto Parley Lake Road, a short but thrilling gravel parabola cutting through the farmlands and vineyards surrounding Parley Lake Winery. The road surface is just a bit looser than the limestone Lake Minnetonka LRT Trail you’ll ride later in the day, ridable by nearly any bike.

Despite its short distance — just 2.5 miles — this is one of my favorite legs of the ride. After an hour or more riding the flat paved trail, the rolling gravel hills on Parley Lake Road feel like a well-earned reward. Follow its lazy curve until reaching MN 5. Turn left.

Fall bikers Carver Park Reserve

Stop into Carver Park Preserve for a glimpse of lakes and prairies just off the trail / Three Rivers Park District

From the wide shoulders on the highway, you’ll catch a glimpse of the gorgeous lakes and prairies in Carver Park Preserve and the King Waterbird Sanctuary. For a short break from riding, head into the park to explore the Grimm Farm Historic Site or the Lowry Nature Center. You can even make a weekend of it at Carver’s bike-in campsites, just $10 per tent. Otherwise, continue on MN 5 until you reach Victoria a few miles down the road.

In downtown Victoria, older, brick buildings comingle with modern construction, and an eclectic handful of restaurants entice hungry riders in for a meal. You’ll find a couple of old-school dive bars, a few coffee shops, a whiskey bar, a brewery and—because what trailside downtown is complete without one—an ice cream parlor overlooking Steiger Lake.

The town’s trendiest restaurant, The Burrow, features axe throwing, indoor mini-golf, bocce ball, immersive VR pods and arcade games alongside its elevated bar food menu. It’s the kind of spot you might stumble across in the North Loop of Minneapolis, made even more fun by its unexpected appearance in this small, trailside town on the far side of Lake Minnetonka.

Lake Minnetonka boat tour Excelsior

Boats on Lake Minnetonka in Excelsior / Lucy Hawthorne

Follow the Crushed Limestone Along Lake Minnetonka

You’ll pick up the Lake Minnetonka Trail as it heads east out of Victoria. The trail follows the shore of Steiger Lake for a few minutes before drifting back inland to the now-familiar combination of dense forests, residential neighborhoods and occasional lakeside views you saw on the Dakota Trail.

That topography continues until you reach Excelsior, the largest city on this ride and a majorly fun place to explore in its own right. Water Street is the town’s main drag, bursting with a diverse selection of bars, restaurants and storefronts that stretches from the trail crossing down to the gorgeous waterfront docks. Excelsior Brewing Co. is a personal favorite, but for a brew with a view there’s no topping the lakeside patio at Maynards.

Downtown Excelsior

Shops line the streets of downtown Excelsior / Lucy Hawthorne

Over the next few miles, the trail takes you along the graceful curves of the shoreline. As you weave along the waterfront, unobstructed views of the lake greet you like some too-beautiful scene from a painting. Boats bob up and down gently in the Tonka Bay Marina as the fireworks of fall colors burst joyfully all around.

Stay on the trail until you reach MN 101. Turn left onto the wide, multi-use path (MUP) next to the roadway and follow it north through the quiet neighborhoods of Deephaven and Woodland. The path disappears for a few blocks by the cluster of shops and restaurants at Minnetonka Boulevard. If you’re comfortable riding with traffic, continue straight. Otherwise, turn right on Minnetonka then take the first left onto Groveland School Road until it reconnects with 101.

Within moments of getting back on 101, you’ll encounter the final and most scenic water crossing of the ride: the Gray’s Bay causeway. The grandiose causeway spans just under a mile, connecting the cities of Wayzata and Minnetonka from their respective sides of Gray’s Bay. As you reach the other side of the causeway, take your first left onto the MUP on McGinty Road and enjoy a few more shallow hills as you finish the loop back where you started in downtown Wayzata. 

Brian Fanelli

Brian Fanelli is a Minneapolis-based writer. You can reliably find him browsing the sci-fi shelves in a local bookstore or biking one of Minnesota's spectacular trails.