Mississippi River Trail: A True Biking Adventure
By Dave Simpkins
Disney tours define a true adventure as traveling beyond the ordinary, being immersed in your destination’s way of life and sharing the wonders.
This is a philosophy Liz Walton and Dan Collins of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, MnDOT, are following in their planning of the state’s 800-mile portion of the Mississippi River Trail from Itasca State Park to the Iowa Border.
“This bikeway will be a true adventure,” says Collins who retired from the Department of Natural Resources after 35 years of planning the state’s paved off-road bike trail system to work part-time for MnDOT.
“I was biking on the MRT with my family at Lake City. We come upon a really fantastic city parade. We met some great people. When we took off from town, we came upon a paddleboat moving down the river. We did all we could to keep up with the boat. Now that is one of those unplanned adventures we’ll always remember, a true adventure.”
Because much of the route is on road shoulders or low volume roads, the entire bikeway has special appeal to adventurous cyclists comfortable sharing the road with vehicles. Off-road segments have been incorporated, offering segments that are popular with the less experienced bicyclists. The bikeway runs as close to the river as possible on wide shoulders averaging about four feet.
Minnesota is currently home to many state trails, but no state bikeways. Planners hope, the MRT will be designated as the first state bikeway.
The Mississippi River is 681-miles long in Minnesota, yet the MRT, will total over 800-miles going near 13 state parks, 70 cities, past many historic and natural sites as well as lakes and forests. It also connects with ten of Minnesota’s most popular biking trails.
Walton has been a MnDOT landscape architect since 1986, previously working with roadside vegetation plans and historic wayside rests.
“The key element in planning the MRT is the infrastructure is already in place. By linking existing roads and trails, we have a route that’s ready to ride,” said Walton. “Since MnDOT only owns 25 percent of the bikeway, planning is needed with many other units of government.”
This coordination includes promoting Bike Friendly Community projects along the bikeway.
“The Bike Friendly Communities Project is an exciting element,” said Walton.
Being bicycle friendly offers more transportation choices within communities. It also improves the environment, people’s health, quality of life, and can even increase property values.
“The Mississippi River already draws tourists; being bicycle friendly will attract new tourists.
The route begins traveling north from the tall white pine forests of Itasca State Park and the Headwaters of the Mississippi, heading to Bemidji. Bicyclists can pick up the Paul Bunyan or Heartland Trails as alternative routes to Brainerd. If they stay on the bikeway to Cass Lake they will come upon the Migizi Trail and the red pine forests of the Chippewa National Park. The bikeway skirts many big lakes on its way to Grand Rapids where it meets the Mesabi Trail.
After dipping south from Grand Rapids the bikeway passes through the old trading town of Aitkin and through the Cuyuna Country towns of Crosby and Ironton and the Cuyuna Country Trail before connecting with the Paul Bunyan again in Brainerd.
Heading south the bikeway passes Crow Wing State Park and Camp Ripley. Between Little Falls and Royalton the bikeway meets the Soo Line Trail which connects with the Lake Wobegon Trail. Bikers can take this scenic route to St. Cloud or go the more direct route on the MRT.
Following the MRT bikeway to St Cloud you will see why this area was a thriving paper mill and lumber town one hundred years ago. The bikeway passes the Munsinger Clemens Botanical Gardens in St. Cloud.
The river towns of Monticello and Elk River offer a small town appeal close to the metropolitan area. Maria State Park and the Elm Creek Regional Parks offer both camping and recreational opportunities.
The 72 miles along the Mississippi River from the Coon Rapids Bridge to Hastings are part of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area cutting through the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul which host a wide variety of natural, cultural and historic sitesYou can visit the Stone Arch Bridge and tour a flourmill, experience Historic Fort Snelling and Fort Snelling State Park where the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers meet.
Abundant parkland and trails are the result of the riverfront renaissance taking place in the nationally recognized bicycle friendly communities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and throughout the Metro region. The Grand Rounds Bike Trail System connects the river corridor with the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes. St. Paul’s Trail system will take you to Summit Avenue, the state capitol and Stillwater.
At Red Wing you’ll start to see river boats making their way below the bluffs.
There are many great views of the river from this bikeway especially at Frontenac State Park south of Red Wing. Lake Pepin is famous as the birthplace of water skiing. You’ll want to tour the National Eagle Center at Wabasha.
Tiffany Bottoms State National Area on the Wisconsin is one of the largest floodplain forests in the United States.
Back on the Minnesota side, John A Latsch State Park near Winona is a small park with a big view of the river. It hosts one of the most photographed views along the river. Great River Bluffs State Park also has great views as well as a specific bicycle campground directly accessible from Highway 61.
The Apple Blossom Scenic Byway near La Crescent offers a challenging climb of nearly 600 feet and an incredible view of the river valley.
“There are many adventures to be found along this bikeway as it starts where the Mississippi is a small stream to where it becomes a major waterway,” said Collins. “It’s a great resource for people to use in many different ways.”