On a Saturday afternoon in late summer, I pedal to meet my friends Will Wlizlo and Sage Dahlen in downtown St. Paul at the Union Depot. The grand old train station, now restored as a multimodal transportation hub, is our rendezvous point for a self-propelled journey aboard the mighty bicycle.
Daily bike commuters, Will and Sage have already cycled here from south Minneapolis. They are both on their workaday rides—a LeMond road bike for Will and a Redline single-speed for Sage. I am on my all-around road/gravel bike, a Salsa Vaya. Their bikes, like mine, are loaded with gear for an overnight trip: tents, sleeping bags, food, water. Our touring setups aren't too fancy. Will's well-worn bike trailer holds the bulk of their stuff; my decades-old panniers carry most of mine. Thanks to a nearby coffee shop, my bike's bottle cage sports an insulated mug of fresh iced coffee.
This is going to be a low-impact, low-budget, low-bother trip, taking us from our urban homes to the natural landscapes of William O'Brien State Park north of Stillwater. Short, simple bike overnights like this are easier to pull off than multiday bike tours, and the route out of town is getting easier thanks to Minnesota's ever-growing network of bike lanes and bike trails.
William O'Brien is accustomed to hosting visitors on two wheels, thanks in part to its proximity to the 18-mile Gateway State Trail, which connects to the metro area. When the park's campgrounds are full—which they are on many summer weekends—the park makes its overflow camping area available to bicycling campers for the cost of a nonelectric campsite (currently $23). The broad, grassy area not far from the park office has a few picnic tables, some pedestal grills, a vault toilet, and plenty of room to spread out. Will, Sage, and I plan to set up camp there this evening, but first we have some pedaling to do—about 32 miles' worth, roughly half of it on the Gateway.
Setting out from the depot, we ride past the historic buildings of St. Paul's Lowertown and follow city bike paths to Swede Hollow, where we pick up the Bruce Vento Regional Trail. Once we've climbed up out of the hollow, we take the Vento through the heart of St. Paul's East Side, along Phalen Boulevard and Johnson Parkway.
As we roll north at Lake Phalen, we're reminded that we're still in the city by a large striped sock abandoned in the middle of the trail and the thumping bass of a block party PA system. Soon, though, we hang a right at the intersection where the Gateway State Trail will take us 14 miles to the northeast and toward our destination park.
A temperature above 90 and ridiculously high humidity means we're already eager for a water stop at the trailside Rotary Park in North St. Paul. Freshly hydrated, we soon bike under the 694–494 interstate loop that for many people signals the boundary of the urban metro area.
State Park Bike Overnights
Duluth Willard Munger State Trail to Jay Cooke State Park, about 20 miles
Bemidji Paul Bunyan State Trail to Lake Bemidji State Park, about 7 miles
Brainerd Paul Bunyan State Trail to Crow Wing State Park, about 13 miles
Minneapolis–St. Paul Gateway State Trail and roads to William O'Brien State Park, 32–44 miles Roads to Afton State Park, 20–30 miles
Mankato Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail to Sakatah Lake State Park, about 26 miles
Winona U.S. 61 to bike-in campsites at Great River Bluffs State Park, about 14 miles
Rochester Roads to Whitewater State Park, about 25 miles
On the other side, as if on cue, the scenery takes a turn for the rural and rustic. Wetlands and woods now line the corridor, and a horse trail meanders alongside the bikeway. We keep a modest cruising speed on the trail, a former railroad grade with little incline, reaching the end of the Gateway at Pine Point Regional Park sooner than expected. (Bikers who have the time and inclination to visit Stillwater can do so off the Gateway via the roughly six-mile Brown's Creek State Trail.)
Our last 10 miles to the park are the toughest, for several reasons: It's the hilliest part of the route; our energy is flagging in the hot, muggy weather; and having left the Gateway we're riding mostly on road shoulders, including the final six miles alongside highway-speed traffic on Minnesota Highway 95. Riding here takes more effort and awareness, and it poses greater dangers. Will is feeling the pull of his bike trailer, Sage the challenge of her single gear.
We churn past working farms and rolling river-valley vistas, intent on our destination. The handsome little river town of Marine on St. Croix, which is quieting down after a day of art-fair hubbub, is a welcome sight since it means we've almost arrived. We buy cold beverages from the Marine General Store and savor them out front before finishing the final mile to the park.
Relaxing at camp is always enjoyable, but even more so when you worked hard to get there. Will, Sage, and I set up our tents, break out a simple but hearty dinner, and then kick back with icy drinks for quiet conversation and a classic summer sunset. Friends for years, the three of us seize the chance to catch up on each others' lives and just be together.
Sundown does not end the show, though. The darkening sky has more for us. In the southwest, above tall pines silhouetted on the horizon, Mars, Saturn, the moon, and Jupiter slowly line up in an arrangement that seems astronomically momentous. Ursa Major prowls above as heat lightning blinks from afar. It seems far too warm for this time of year, but the frogs, crickets, and other singing insects around us greet the tropical blast with gusto.
Earlier in the summer, Will and Sage had biked from home to a yurt at Afton State Park. Before that, Will and I did a bike overnight from south Minneapolis to Carver Park Reserve, which has a bike-specific camp area. We are all looking for new routes to try as bike infrastructure and camping facilities align to make more such trips possible. One such improvement may eventually be in the cards for William O'Brien: an extension that brings the trail straight to the park.
Tomorrow, we'll hop on our bikes and ride back to town, and next week at work, my muscles and mental images from the journey will remind me of our action-packed weekend. But here tonight, under these glimmering stars and planets, we sleep deliriously amid droning crickets.