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Image of cyclist on a state trail.

Riding the Rail Lines

Rails-to-trails bikeways make inroads to sublime Minnesota landscapes.

by Ashley Peters and Keith Goetzman

The scent of creosote wafts from a sun-warmed trestle bridge. Sentinel-like mileposts and onetime train depots mark the travel corridor's history. Signs of Minnesota's railroad-crossed past appear along many of the state's multiuse recreational trails.

Rails to Trails slideshow. This slideshow requires the latest version of Adobe Flash Player.

Photographs by Gary Alan Nelson

Where freight cars once hauled coal, timber, and other commodities, people now bike, stroll, and roll. This ingenious transportation conversion from railroad lines to multiuse trails is partly an accident of history and largely the result of decades of work by trail advocates, planners, and builders. The gentle grades, gradual curves, and lacelike network of railways have made them naturals for trail development. Repurposed railways make up 560 of the 620 miles of paved trails managed by the Department of Natural Resources. Cities, counties, and other municipalities oversee many more miles.

One DNR rails-to-trails project is converting the six-mile line of the Minnesota Zephyr dinner train, which ran for 23 years between the cities of Stillwater and Grant. Dubbed the Brown's Creek State Trail, it will connect the Gateway State Trail and the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. Bikers and other nonmotorized travelers will wind through woods, by historic sites, and along a trout stream and the St. Croix River.

The DNR manages state trails, paved and unpaved, for use by all kinds of travelers—from bicyclists to horseback riders, hikers to runners, skiers to snowmobilers. This story profiles biking on four state trails—Central Lakes, Paul Bunyan, Casey Jones, and Sakatah Singing Hills.

Central Lakes

Central Lakes State Trail stretches 55 miles between Fergus Falls and Osakis, winding through glacial terrain of lakes, rolling prairies, and hardwood hills. Riders setting out from Delagoon Park in Fergus Falls head southeast past Swan Lake. They pedal past wetlands rife with redwing blackbirds, egrets, and geese.

About 20 miles down the trail, just southeast of Ashby, riders will spot seven prairie-covered knolls, often called the Seven Sisters, on the shores of Lake Christina, an important pit stop for waterfowl during migration.

Rolling into Alexandria, a rider can't miss the region's Scandinavian heritage as the Viking statue Big Ole looms 28 feet above the trail next to Lake Agnes. Nearby, an old depot recalls the Great Northern line that once plied this corridor, and the Runestone Museum beckons with local lore and history.

A 10-mile side trip north of Alexandria leads to Lake Carlos State Park. There a weary cyclist can camp, in tent or camper cabin, among basswoods and maples. The park includes a tamarack bog, grasslands, and historic buildings.

Arriving at Osakis, the traveler might decide the journey doesn't have to end: The Lake Wobegon Regional Trail intersects the state trail and runs another 50 miles east to St. Joseph.

Paul Bunyan

At 112 miles the Paul Bunyan State Trail seems as big as its name: It's the state's longest continually paved trail, running north–south between Bemidji and Brainerd. Travelers can begin their trip among tall pines in Lake Bemidji State Park. In summer, red-eyed vireos, American redstarts, and indigo buntings flit along some stretches of the lakeside trail.

Water abounds along the Bunyan: The trail passes streams, rivers, and many lakes. At Leech Lake, it traces the western edge of Walker Bay and intersects with the Heartland State Trail, which runs 49 miles between Cass Lake and Park Rapids.

Continuing south, cyclists zip over new bridges, under tree canopies, and past remodeled train depots. A mile south of Pine River, they might stop overnight at a bike-in campground. Picnic spots and lakes pop up around Brainerd and Baxter.

Soon a new seven-mile spur will be paved to Crow Wing State Park along the Mississippi River. Among the pines, a visitor can imagine the frontier town of Crow Wing, which died when Brainerd got the railroad bridge over the river.

Casey Jones

Designated as one of Minnesota's first state trails in the late 1960s, the Casey Jones is a profile in patience, still being patched together toward an eventual goal of more than 100 miles. But even its current 21 miles make for a friendly introduction to the prairie and farm landscapes of southwestern Minnesota.

You can't miss the railroad roots of the Casey Jones State Trail any more than you can miss the behemoth steam engine that sits idle at the End-O-Line Railroad Park and Museum, just off the trail's Currie Loop. This paved six-mile segment links Lake Shetek State Park to the town of Currie.

One of three currently open segments, Currie Loop allows glimpses of the native landscape of prairie grasses, oak trees, and wetlands. Cornfields growing almost to the trail's edge evoke the modern agricultural era. Interpretive signs remind visitors of the region's bloody history as soldiers, settlers, and Dakota Indians clashed in the U.S.–Dakota War in 1862.

On another rail-straight segment of the Casey Jones, between the towns of Woodstock and Pipestone, wind turbines tower over this flat country. The futuristic-looking turbines harvest renewable energy from air currents, which lift red-tailed hawks as they circle above and bikers glide below.

Sakatah Singing Hills

Bearing a poetic-sounding name from the Dakota language—Sakatah, meaning "singing hills"—this state trail stretches 39 miles between Mankato and Faribault. An attractive day trip for Twin Cities bicyclists, it is also a more routine conduit for people who live nearby.

Running parallel to State Highway 60 for much of its length, Sakatah Singing Hills frequently wanders away from the road. It passes through several small towns, by a dozen lakes, and past patches of prairie and Big Woods. Three miles run through Sakatah Lake State Park, which includes trailside campsites.

Several new bridges and miles of fresh, smooth pavement are part of a renovation from Waterville to Faribault, and more work is planned in coming years on the 33-year-old trail. Sakatah Singing Hills may also one day be part of a bigger whole: The DNR and trail advocates, including the Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota, are developing a Faribault-to-Cannon Falls link, the Mill Towns State Trail, which will connect to the Cannon Valley Trail. One day it might be possible to pedal all the way from Mankato to Red Wing on these three trails that trace the former route of the Chicago Great Western railway.

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