The woodlands of north-central Minnesota have a mythical appeal. Legendary lumberjacks loom large around here. The forests are full of wildlife. It's the "Land of 10,000 Lakes," that look like ink spills on a map.
The Paul Bunyan is a signature Minnesota destination. Trail users will get their fill of aspens, maples and oaks, and horizon-spanning freshwater lakes; you'll pass 21 along the way. Famous for the big hospitality and small-town charm of the 15 communities it connects, the corridor is the newest member of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Rail-Trail Hall of Fame.
Built on a former Burlington Northern corridor dating back to 1893, the trail was first proposed in 1983 when the rail line was abandoned. Communities along the line were distraught to lose their rail service and the associated economy, as the corridor had been an industrial and passenger route. But a new tourism draw would soon be found in the budding rail-trail. Already, the nearby 51-mile Heartland State Trail was on the ground and generating bike-travel buzz. Trail advocate Terry McGaughey saw the same potential for a trail between the towns of Brainerd and Bemidji. His perseverance and patience won out, and in 1988 the first 30-mile segment of the Paul Bunyan opened from Brainerd to Pine River.
"[Terry] was by far the biggest trail proponent we had," says Forrest Boe, deputy director for the Division of Parks and Trails in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), which owns and manages the Paul Bunyan. "He was instrumental with trail programs throughout the state."
The Minnesota trails community felt a huge loss this summer when McGaughey passed away at the age of 70. He had spent 25 years working on the Paul Bunyan, lobbying legislators, speaking in towns along the route and promoting the trail at every turn.
Today, McCaughey's legacy continues to grow with the trail. The Paul Bunyan has become one of the most popular trails in the state and is enjoyed by some 650,000 visitors a year. After a 2008 project between Guthrie and Walker, the rail-trail now offers 112 miles of smooth pavement, with only one small break in the route.
On the south side of Bemidji, trail managers are working to build a bridge over a highway as part of a two-mile gap. In the meantime, visitors can follow a signed, on-road route to the north side of town and then reacquire the main rail-trail corridor. Also, at the southern trailhead in Baxter, the plan is to pave another seven-male section connecting south to Crow Wing State Park. Boe expects to have this extension paved in the summer 2012. When that happens, the Paul Bunyan State Trail will hit 121 miles.
Towns along this expansive trail come in 10 to 15-mile intervals—another byproduct of the railroading era. As a result, you're never far from a sampling of local flavor, be it food or festivities. And with so many connecting trails, including the 107-mile Blue Ox Trail that runs to the Canada border, the possibilities of the Paul Bunyan feel more endless than ending.
The trail is open year-round to non-motorized use (excepting snowmobiles in the winter months), and the Paul Bunyan very much rewards winter warriors. Temperatures in January and February can drop well below zero, with snowfall measured in feet, so be sure to check the forecast and dress appropriately! Another memorable season on the Paul Bunyan is autumn. Fall colors come early to Minnesota, so plan to enjoy the peak season mid-September to mid-October.
If you're making the trip, it's recommended to head from south to north, beginning in Brainerd at the arboretum. From here, it's nine miles to the lakeside community of Merrifield and then on to Nisswa, a quaint tourist town at Mile 16 that offered only one year-round restaurant before the trail opened. Nowadays, Nisswa is a bustling trail center.
Mile 22 brings you to Pequot Lakes, a resort entry point, and from there it's a short eight miles to reach the "birthplace of the Paul Bunyan trail," Pine River. Next up: Backus, a little logging town situated on Pine Mountain Lake at Mile 40. Fans of the Paul Bunyan legend will want to stop in Hackensack at Mile 50. The town was home to his sweetheart, Lucette Diana Kensack.
Eight miles beyond Hackensack, the nature of the trail changes when it deviates from the right-of-way into the Chippewa National Forest. It's hilly but not intimidating, and the detour passes through a working aspen forest with many river crossings. Wolves have even been spotted in this section.
In Walker, the route returns to the rail-trail and at Mile 68 intersects with the Heartland Trail. You can take the Heartland west to Park Rapids or continue north along the shared route until the Heartland splits off toward Cass Lake. To stay on the Paul Bunyan, just follow the well-signed route north. This final section of the trail takes you 30 miles to busy Bemidji—where you can grab a walleye dinner in town—before closing out with a seven-mile stretch in Lake Bemidji State Park.
Whether you take in the Paul Bunyan on two wheels or bundled up on a pair of skis, the trail will certainly live up to its outsize namesake. So pull on some boots and thermals, and head off into the woodland reaches of Minnesota, which American Trails recently named the "Best Trails State." If the Paul Bunyan is any measure, who could argue?