This article is supported by members of the Minnesota Heartland Association.
By C.B. Bylander
Bicyclists on the lookout for high-quality experiences should take aim at central Minnesota.
This region includes Minnesota’s longest paved bike trail, a nationally-acclaimed mountain bike trail and trails that take riders through sweeping forests and into popular tourist towns.
Several well known central Minnesota paved trails run atop former railroad grades. These routes are remarkably flat. For young families, these safe trails mean no steep hills for kids to climb. For avid bikers, they offer long distance rides with plenty of on-trail places to get a bite to eat or take a break in a park.
Many central Minnesota trails are within two hours of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The central Minnesota landscape varies greatly so biking experiences vary greatly, too. Some trails pass through scenic farm country while others slice through remote forest. So, decisions on where to bike are largely about desired experiences. Regardless, riders are never far from an on-trail town where ice cream, fudge, food and services are available.
Paved trail experiences
Popular paved trails are the Central Lakes State Trail, which stretches 55 miles between Fregus Falls and Osakis; the Paul Bunyan State Trail, which covers 123 miles from Brainerd to Bemidji; the Glacial Lakes State Trail, a 30-mile trail between Willmar and Paynesville and Roscoe and Cold Spring; and the Lake Wobegon Trail, which spans 62 miles between St. Jospeph and Osakis with a spur north from Albany to Holdingford.
Also popular are two shorter trails. One is the Cuyuna Lakes State Trail, an eight-miles path through the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area. The other is the Mille Lacs Soo Line Trail, an 11-mile paved trail between Onamia and Isle south of Lake Mille Lacs.
Central Lakes Trail
This railroad route turned trail links riders to 10 communities. Starting at Osakis the trail goes northwest through Nelson, Alexandria, Garfield, Brandon, Evansville, Melby, Ashby and Dalton before ending at Fergus Falls. Towns are about seven miles apart. Visually, this trail offers a bit of everything – farmlands, forested hills, lakes and prairie. The Central Lakes State Trail connects to the lake Wobegon Regional Trail in Osakis, thereby adding another 46 miles of paved biking trail.
Paul Bunyan State Trail
This is the longest continually paved bike trail in the nation. Most of it is atop a former railroad grade. Starting south of Brainerd at Crow Wing State Park, the trail heads north through many of central Minnesota’s popular tourist destinations – Nisswa, Pequot Lakes, Hackensack and Walker – before ending in Bemdji. The trail departs from the old railroad grade north of Hackensack. That’s where it cuts through the hilly Chippewa National Forest for nine miles before reconnecting with the flat grade at Walker. Paul Bunyan Trail riders will experience forests, lakes, wetlands and more. The trail shares eight miles with the Heartland State Trail.
Glacial Lakes State Trail
This former railroad grade takes riders through farm and lake country. The gently rolling topography was created by retreating glaciers some 10,000 years ago. The trail is paved for 22 miles between Willmar, Spicer, New London, Hawick, and the Kandiyohi/Stearns County line, and a five mile stretch from Richmond to Roscoe is also paved. Roughly midway between Paynesville and Willmar is Green Lake, one of the state’s most beautiful lakes and the largest gem of the area. Riders will pass corn and soybean fields, forest and prairie remnants. The Glacial Lakes State Trail connects to Sibley State Park via three miles of paved shoulder along County Road 148.
Lake Wobegon Trail
Named after the fiction of humorist Garrison Keillor, the Lake Wobegon Trail stretches for 62 miles through a landscape of farms, lakes, woodlots and wetlands. The south end of the trail starts at St. Joseph then angles northwest through Avon, Albany, Freeport, Melrose and Sauk Centre before ending at Osakis. The trail also has a spur from Albany to Holdingford. Sauk Centre is the childhood home of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Sinclair Lewis. A museum that honors the memory of the Main Street author is open during the biking season. The Lake Wobegon Trail links to the Central Lakes and Soo Line trails, providing more than 125 miles of continuous paved trail.
Completed in 2014, the Glendalough Trail at Battle Lake, Minn., is a 12-mile loop in the heart of lake country. The trail connects beautiful Gledalough State Park with the charming city of of Battle Lake. The gentle terrain is perfect for riders of all ages. A local points of interesst is the Prospect House and Civil War Museum, which is on the National Register of historic places.
Mountain biking experiences
Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area
This is central Minnesota’s premier mountain biking destination and a nationally known destination as well. Located near Crosby and Ironton, Cuyuna has the rare distinction of being a designated International Mountain Biking Association Ride Center. Its 25 miles of single-track trail go up, over and around a rugged landscape formed by 70 years of open pit iron ore mining. Cuyuna also features 20 miles of groomed trails for premier winter fat tire biking. Trails are marked for varying skills levels.
Mining ceased several decades ago at this site and since then the former mine pits have filled with water to create crystal clear lakes. Also, former towering hills of rock rubble are now thick with aspen and other trees. The one-time mining area appears as natural as can be. The Cuyuna Recreation Area is managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which offers several yurts available for camping-type lodging. Mountain and road bikes rentals are available locally. So are kayaks and paddleboards.
Milaca Mountain Bike Trail
This 14-mile single-track trail system is nestled within woods, hills and open areas along the scenic Rum River. Trails begin at Milaca’s Recreation Park , and is designed for riders of all skill levels. The Sky Hill Trails on Milaca Mountain, the Northwoods Trail and the Bog Monster Trail are the most challenging trails.
State forest trail experiences
Several state forests offer mountain bike riding. The trails are largely grassy snowmobile routes or little used forest roads. Specific trail information is available on state forest maps published on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website. Mountain biking rails can be found in the Pillsbury State Forest near Brainerd, Foothills State Forest near Pine River and Land O’ Lakes State Forest near Emily. Savannah Portage State Park at McGregor also offers mountain biking on its continental divide trail.
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