January–February 2023

Trail Share

A public route across private lands, the Lost Creek Hiking Trail is a friendly invitation to take a hike.

Henry Whitehead

In the hilly, irregular backcountry of southeastern Minnesota, there is one prairie I know of that stretches far enough along the land’s contours as to seem perpetual. A trail I hike runs along its south and eastern edges, a stoic hardwood forest to one side, the gleaming grasses to the north and west. In early autumn the purple hue of the big bluestem and popping yellow of goldenrod demand a break from hiking to absorb the view. At the trail’s end, the path widens and parallels a neatly mowed backyard.

Suddenly deposited onto a country road walled by cornstalks, hikers on this trail are forgiven if, for a moment, they forget that their hike is not in one of Minnesota’s many state parks, state forests, or other public lands. This trail takes users almost entirely across private land. This is the Lost Creek Hiking Trail.

The trail, which opened in 2011, takes hikers along six-plus miles of trail west of Chatfield, ending in a city park. Sometimes a narrow footpath weaving through shady forested ridges, other times tracing the tracks of centuries-old cart paths, the Lost Creek Hiking Trail is composed of routes through distinct parcels linked by stretches along public roads. It is human-powered only, meaning hiking or running in summer and snowshoeing in winter; as a linear route the trail requires either a vehicle shuttle or doubling back by users. Most of all, the trail serves as a mirror of the surrounding Driftless region. Hikers are afforded a unique opportunity to navigate an ever-changing patchwork of pasture, prairie, row crops, small farmsteads, trout streams, and back-40 woodlots.

I am always slightly in awe to have access to hike through private prairies, otherwise-inaccessible forests, and lush pastures. In much of our country, “No Trespassing” signs are as synonymous with forest and farm edges as chattering red squirrels or warning swoops of red-winged blackbirds. Seventy-six percent of Minnesota land is privately owned, even more so in the southern part of the state where I live. On this landscape, the Lost Creek Hiking Trail stands out as a welcome exception, transforming portions of private lands into a public space for recreation, recharging, and education. The trail is the result of the hard work, dedication, and passion of local landowners.

From Idea to Reality. Tim Gossman used to mow trails through the land that he and his wife, Susan, own near Chatfield. The Gossmans would walk the trails—and Tim would sometimes run them—to observe what was new and changing on the land. One day, he thought that others might share his passion for human-powered travel on prairie paths and forest trails, and he devised an idea to connect their farm to nearby Chatfield via a route mostly on private lands. Within months, Gossman and a team of volunteers had secured permission from five neighboring landowners, in addition to a property owned by the Fillmore County Historical Society; a few short sections on roads would complete the trail.

The deal was simple: The newly formed Bluff Country Hiking Club would build and maintain the trail, hold liability insurance, and post signs asking users to stay on the trail and respect the land. The trail would be limited to low-impact, pedestrian use, excluding uses such as biking, horseback riding, or ATVs. Landowners would have the option to remove their land from the trail with six months’ notice, but to date none have done so.  

Within a year the trail was up and running. “I like people. It was right up my alley. It was a win-win situation,” says Bill Bailey, one of the landowners.

For trail building, simplicity ruled the day. Already worn paths, logging roads, and animal instincts picked the route from Goss-man’s Thorn Apple Farm to Groen Park in Chatfield. “In some places, we followed a volunteer’s black lab for the path of least resistance,” recalls Gossman. A small, dedicated crew blazed those initial trails, clearing brush and creating water crossings. 

The city of Chatfield recognized the new trail’s value to the community by offering to provide annual funding for the insurance and other operating expenses such as maintenance and brochures.

Though many hands have contributed to the trail, Gossman emphasizes that the gift of land access is the trail’s core asset. “This wouldn’t be possible without landowners willing to do this without payment, knowing that they are contributing to the community,” he says.

Trail Tales. At the western edge of the Lost Creek Hiking Trail at Gossman’s farm, the Ninebark Trailhead features a small parking lot and introductory signage. The early portion of the journey immerses hikers in a blend of working farmland and serene natural beauty. Skirting between windbreaks and prairie, the trail soon plunges into forest, crossing a spring-fed tributary to Lost Creek. What feels like a well-kept deer trail widens into an old logging road.  These sorts of features would otherwise be inaccessible to the public, closed off on forgotten hillsides.

Signs inform hikers that the next section of woods was once a satellite woodlot for families residing in the largely treeless prairies in nearby Stewartville, and therefore was never tilled or pastured. Signs like this allow hikers to learn more about the land’s history and management and are an expression of Bill Bailey’s ethos. “We are only stewards of the land,” he says. “I am the caretaker, and want to do a good job. We want others to realize that nature is to be appreciated.”

Past more shady hillsides and tranquil pastures, the path follows county roads and fencerows, forming mostly straight edges and right angles. For a stretch the only trees are red oak and walnut trunks logged in the wintertime, now stacked off the road’s shoulder. In contrast with the monotone uniformity of the surrounding corn and soybean fields, natural life abounds here. A wren’s warring chatter competes with a distant chainsaw, and numerous occupied PVC bluebird houses mimic aspen or birch cavities.

Two faded Adirondack chairs mark the final stretch of trail, a secret opening in the woods. Here, mossy patches on the trail, eccentric fungi, and abundant spiderwebs cast an ethereal air. After one last descent, the trail crosses intermittently flowing streambeds on crossings built by local scout groups. A final stretch follows County Road 2 through farms, past the old Carson-Groen Farm homestead, and eventually into Chatfield’s Groen Park.

Yes, in My Backyard. When I show friends the Lost Creek Hiking Trail, many ask some version of “Aren’t the landowners worried about letting all those people on their property?” I initially wondered the same thing, but in speaking with landowners I’ve learned that they’ve found the experience to be far more rewarding than risky. Litter is rare, trespassing even less common, and opening access has in fact strengthened community bonds.

“Liability insurance covered invitees and trespassers, so the comfort level was high,” Bill Bailey tells me. Bill and his wife, Mary, are staunch conservationists, sharing an ethos of stewardship. Access to natural spaces for education and enjoyment is incumbent in their goal of inspiring future generations. In Bill’s words, “You only have to have changed one person’s life to have it be a success.”

For Chatfield and the surrounding area, the trail is both an asset and a symbol of shared communal values. Sara Sturgis is the coordinator of the Chatfield Alliance and executive director of the Fillmore County Historical Society, which owns the historic Carson-Groen unit. She sees the trail’s impact in both tangible recreation and as an expression of identity. 

“A heartline that flows through our community is love and appreciation for outdoor recreation, from hunting to ATV riding to casual walking to foraging,” says Sturgis. “We value those shared spaces, and outdoor recreation is a common thread. The Lost Creek Hiking Trail is an important piece of that idea.”
Marty Walsh, who assisted in the creation of the Lost Creek Hiking Trail, has leveraged his experience with the trail to grow the idea beyond Chatfield. The newly formed Minnesota Driftless Hiking Trail group has plans to create a backpacking trail across southeastern Minnesota on both public and private lands. While the project is still years away from completion, Walsh has done preliminary research and envisions a diverse partnership of state land managers, private landowners, and dedicated community members creating something similar to northern Minnesota’s Superior Hiking Trail or Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail.

The benefits of such a trail are myriad. In Sweden, for instance, a strong culture of public access to private lands creates literal and communal bonds between urban and rural people. Those who use the trails participate in cleanup, trail maintenance, and other projects. Data from those efforts suggest that close to 10 percent of Swedes participate, and the vast majority reported increased environmental awareness from the experience. 

In southeastern Minnesota, local economies can benefit from increased tourism, building upon the existing throngs of fly fishers, bikers, and more who enjoy this region’s accessible charm and ample opportunity for outdoor pastimes. Landowners, likewise, gain several benefits, including well-maintained trails on their property, new bridges over creeks, and a group of supportive community members thankful for their contribution. Moreover, increased traffic of responsible hikers actually mitigates trespass risk, creating what Walsh calls “eyeballs in the backcountry,” as users frequent remote parcels of land.

The Big Picture. In our country, public recreation is often viewed as mutually exclusive from private land. Fishing easements and handshake hunting permissions partially break that barrier, but can be limited in scope and use. This can cloud our perception of what a significant portion of land in Minnesota actually looks, feels, and sounds like. As Marty Walsh puts it, “It’s a unique challenge, and a unique opportunity to show that the corn belt isn’t just corn.”

The Lost Creek Hiking Trail provides this opportunity and hides nothing; it highlights the incredible beauty and unique features invisible to outside eyes on private lands, while doing so in a way respectful to the landowners. It traverses fields, gravel roads, and logging paths, honoring the type of working lands that support families across the state. Implicitly and without imposition, the trail challenges us to consider what we expect from places of recreation. 

When I ask Sara Sturgis about her favorite spot on the trail, she highlights a place I know instantly. On the Carson-Groen section, seasonal creeks have carved through limestone, and when heading west an imaginary boundary is crossed. “You’re ‘into the woods’ now. The world falls away; you can’t hear the road noise,” she says. “Kids can play in the creek and make nature connections.” The trail, and this magical nook easily passed by, represents more. 

“Why do we have a shared value of outdoor spaces?” Sturgis muses. “Personal experience of natural spaces from a young age. The trail provides entry points for different ages, different entry points for natural experiences.”