There isn’t a better way to see Minnesota than on a bicycle built for two.
That’s what Louise and Jeff Davis of Seattle, Washington, told friends when they returned home from a five-week bike tour of Minnesota’s bike trails with an extra two weeks across Wisconsin.
“Minnesota’s paved, smooth and wide bike trails are perfect for tandem riders,” said Louise. “We appreciated not having to deal with hills and traffic and we love the quiet countryside and the many friendly people we’ve met in the towns.”
The Davises’ plan was to spend a week biking in Minnesota before the Midwest Tandem Rally in Rochester over Labor Day weekend. Jeff found the Minnesota Trails website with a map of Minnesota’s trail system.
“We couldn’t believe there were so many paved trails. I printed the map and then found a map of the state’s bikeable roads from the Department of Transportation. I connected them and came up with our trip,” said Jeff.
“Minnesota grows paved bike trails like they grow weeds,” said Louise. “They pop up everywhere, just wonderful for tandems.”
The couple retired two years ago with the idea of taking long bike trips together. They budgeted $135 a day staying in hotels with a laundry and pool as well as bed and breakfasts close to downtown restaurants and sites.
They biked fives days a week taking weekends off to sightsee, canoe and relax.
“We’re not high speed travelers. We take our time, meet people and take in the sights. We’re also older and need a comfortable and quiet place to sleep,” said Louise.
Jeff and Louise are veteran tandem cyclists with 40,000, pre-retirement miles commuting to work at the University of Washington and taking cycle vacations.
They attend tandem rallies to tune up on the art of tandem riding. Jeff notes riding tandem is a team sport with the captain and stoker coordinating shifting and peddling.
“If the captain and stoker get out of sync, they will have to walk hills,” said Louise.
Their tandem is a custom made unit with couplings on the cross bar to allow dismantling the tandem into three pieces to store in trains, planes and automobiles. Their gear is neatly packed into three bags. It includes two changes of clothes, one set of biking clothes and off-bike clothes, light jackets and hats, thin gloves and leg warmers. They don’t bike on rainy days and usually wash every night. This keeps their moving weight at 400 pounds.
The journey: Trail by Trail
The couple took the train to St. Paul where they stayed with friends warming up on an 80-mile bike trip around the Twin Cites, visiting Fort Snelling and the home of James J. Hill, the original Empire Builder.
The next day they took the Gateway Trail to Stillwater and up to Taylors Falls where they took their first day off for a canoe trip on the St. Croix River.
“We’re like the Energizer Bunny in that we’re active even when we rest,” said Louise. “Since we’re just getting into canoeing, we planned to canoe at least six times and ended up going seven.”
They wanted to canoe the St. Croix since it was a National Scenic River and they were amazed at how crowed it was.
Willard Munger Trail
On the Willard Munger Trail they stopped at the Hinckley Fire Museum where 450 people were killed in 1894.
The first part of the Munger Trail was flat with pine forests and rolling farmland. Things got interesting once they crossed the St. Louis River gorge with a pleasant descent through rock walls into Duluth.
They spent a day walking the Lakefront Trail where they took in a Tai Chi class. While they appreciated the beauty of Lake Superior they soon caught a good wind for the Mesabi Iron Range.
A strong tailwind and wide shoulders came in handy as Hwy 53 to Eveleth was under construction and they faced oncoming traffic most of the 55 miles. They said the Mesabi Trail was the most rugged and most breathtaking of the trails.
They stopped in Virginia for wheel repairs and ran into a vintage car show.
In Hibbing they found the Hull-Rust-Mahoning Mine, called the Grand Canyon of the North, that runs 600 feet in a consolidation of 30 different pits. They also made a must stop at the boyhood home of Bob Dylan and the Greyhound Bus Museum.
Week three of their statewide adventure saw them on Hwy 2, averaging 14 miles an hour into winds from Grand Rapids to Cass Lake, which was a flat road with wide shoulders through the Chippewa National Forest.
They met headwinds again on the Heartland Trail, where finding the birthplace of Paul Bunyan at Akeley was a highlight. They stayed at a bed and breakfast in Dorset and ate dinner in a town that has more restaurants per capita than any other town in the country.
From Park Rapids they made their way through Otter Tail County to Fergus Falls. At the B & B in New York Mills they toured two restored palace rail cars and walked into a free corn feed.
They had hoped to stay at a cabin at a lake but the resorts they contacted only rented by the week. They stayed at a Battle Lake motel for two days in order to canoe at Glendalough State Park.
“This park was once a private game reserve where Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Walter Mondale stayed. The park’s natural lakes didn’t allow motorized boats, which we liked. By this time we could really appreciate the diversity of this state. From tall pines, past iron mines and through lake and farm country, we really got the feel of Minnesota close up,” said Louise.
Central Lakes, Lake Wobegon
They caught the combined Central Lakes and Lake Wobegon Trails at Fergus Falls.
“We loved these flat, wide trails with a strong 17 mile an hour tail wind to our backs,” said Jeff.
Outside a library in Alexandria they found a note on their panniers that read, “If you need help call, we’ll come help.”
They crossed over to the Lake Wobegon Trail in Osakis made famous by Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion,” but they were really looking forward to visiting the boyhood home in Sauk Centre of Sinclair Lewis, an author they had both read.
Louise and Jeff biked farm roads from Albany to Paynesville, catching the Glacial Lakes Trail where they stayed in a Victorian mansion on Green Lake near Spicer. Here they took another canoe ride at sunset.
They stayed one night in Olivia, where they saw “10 miles of 10-foot corn” out their window.
The next day found them on one of their favorite roads of the trip in Nicollet County–Road 21 along the Minnesota River east of Fort Ridgeley State Park. The Minnesota Historical Society runs the old Harkin Store that was opened in 1870 and locked up with all its contents in 1901 to be opened again in 1939 as a museum.
The stayed in New Ulm to taste beer at the brewery built by August Scheel and ate sauerkroat, blaukohl und kartoffelsalat as the town Glockenspiel chimed the time.
Sakatah Singing Hills
At Mankato they hooked up with the Sakatah Singing Hills Trail. They stayed in Faribault and canoed Sakatah Lake at Sakatah State Park.
They remembered Faribault as having a classic downtown with some very honest people. Louise set her red wallet on their red panniers and went into the Subway. She didn’t notice Jeff hadn’t put the wallet away until they were four miles out of town. They returned to Faribault and found a woman who found the wallet.
“I can’t say enough about how good that felt or about how many helpful, supportive and friendly people we met along the way. We’ve been in places where bikers don’t get much respect and there isn’t much biking infrastructure. I’ll be talking to groups over the winter about just how wonderful a place Minnesota is to bike,” said Louise.
The Douglas Trail brought them into Rochester and the Midwest Tandem Rally. Rochester was a pleasant surprise with its many bike trails and the Zumbro River and its tributaries just right for a quiet canoe ride.
The rally started with an ice cream social as 600 people gathered from across the country to enjoy two 50-mile rides over Labor Day weekend. There were tandems of every kind–two-, three- and four-person tandems as well as recumbent tandems.
After the rally, 24 tandem couples went to Lanesboro to bike the Root River Trail for three days.
“This is an especially scenic section of the state where the railroad once cut through the limestone outcroppings to make for absolutely beautiful bike trails,” said Louise.
They didn’t limit themselves to the trail, taking side trips into the countryside to end their time in Minnesota. For extra credit they rode the Elroy-Sparta Trail in Wisconsin on their way to Milwaukee.
“Oh, we love retirement,” concluded both Louise and Jeff.