A trail you'll sing about
The straight, flat Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail runs over paved abandoned railroad bed through cool, wooded areas as well as through open, sun-drenched farm fields for nearly 39 miles between Mankato and Faribault, with stops in smaller towns along the way that break up the ride and give cyclists many options to begin or end their ride.
Besides the woods and open fields, there are several river crossings, thousands of sumac, many ponds, several lakes -and lots of benches (often several per mile) for resting.
About three-fourths of the trail is under a canopy of tall trees, giving the trail a boulevard feeling at times, and a forested feeling at other times. The other quarter of the trail is through open and sunny farm land, making this ride perfect for hot days when you’re looking for some shade, but wanting some sunshine, too.
The trail is full of pleasant surprises, including a small lake that spawns all kind of wildlife that crosses the trail, a mixture of big and small towns, a state park that is biker-friendly and a mid-point trail center that has indoor bathrooms and cool water.
The trail ride will have a different feel depending on the season, such as in the spring when the vegetation is just popping out, or in the fall when the golden colors of autumn take over.
The trail ride can begin at either end or at towns in between, depending on your schedule; this two-page section includes the 9.6-mile segment from Mankato east to Madison Lake.
Mankato to Madison Lake:
The trailhead in Mankato is off of Hwy. 22 east of the intersection of 22 with 14-60 in northeast Mankato. (If you’re coming from downtown, just go east on Riverfront Dr., which becomes 22).
The trailhead has plenty of parking, but no water or rest rooms.
•MO-M2 The trail travels gradually uphill through a heavily-wooded area with lush vegetation. You’ll cross an old, long wooden bridge at M .2, the first of many that you will cross, as well as go under a long, steel highway bridge (at M.4), which will happen a few more times, too. A shallow stream pops up frequently on the right and the trail often feels quite high in spots, because you are on the old railroad grade built for a flat plane through low areas.
•M1.7 The trail goes through a tunnel under a busy highway. Note the nice lettering on both ends of the tunnel.
•M2 The trail emerges from the woods and tunnels into sun-drenched farm fields. There are still plenty of shaded spots where trees have branched over the trail, which will begin to flatten out.
•M2.8 That bench under a large shade tree is a perfect spot for a break; the trail climb is over and you are a third of the way to Madison Lake.
•M3 Slow down as the paving ends for a few feet while the trail jogs left to follow a dirt road over railroad tracks. From here the trail will jog around open farm land for about a mile and a half; there are several fun corners to navigate, which breaks the monotony of a straight trail. The scenery will depend on the growing season; corn could be low, or high or harvested.
•M4.4 Watch for a busy highway crossing. Some people begin their ride here where there is off-road parking, but no water or toilets. From here the trail will descend a bit under a canopy of trees for about a quarter-mile.
•M5.1 Eagle Lake is on both sides of the trail where there is a picnic area and a fishing hole. This lake area produced a lot of wildlife on one ride, including a mink that crossed the trail. So keep a look-out amidst the shoreline vegetation.
•M5.4 The trail will go under a canopy of trees for the next mile.
•M5.6 A sea of tall cattails on the right were nearly as high as a cyclist.
•M6.4 The trail crosses another busy highway and is more out in the open.
•M7.1 The trail that is now out in the open under a big sky drops down some more, levels off and then drops some more.
•M7.5 You can’t smell it, but a wastewater treatment facility is on the north.
•M7.6 The trail becomes more shaded as it leaves the open area and begins a nice descent into Madison Lake about two miles away.
•M8.5 The stone mile marker (M15) still stands from the days when the railroads used this trail. There are several along the trail.
•M9.3 As you enter Madison Lake, a small park pops up on the right, complete with gazebo, sheltered picnic tables and basketball court. Note the info-sign on the left that explains why this is called Lindbergh park and what the pioneering flyer was doing here. And across the trail is a small, old stone house.
•M9.4 A trailhead at Madison Lake has parking and a portable toilet.
The Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail continues to be a pleasant blend of forested and open areas as it travels the nearly 19 miles from Madison Lake through Elysian and Waterville to Morristown. This segment includes lake and pond views, vistas of cropland and a ride through a state park.
Madison Lake to Morristown:
•M9.4 The Madison Lake trailhead has parking (and a toilet) for beginning or ending your ride, or a stop along the way. The trail also passes a private campground that offers vending machines as well as campsites. Back down the trail at M9.3 there’s a small park, complete with gazebo, sheltered picnic tables and basketball court. Note the info-sign on the left that explains why it’s called Lindbergh park and what the pioneering flyer was doing here.
For the next two miles the trail is usually under a wide canopy of trees, often tall and thick, which is especially nice on hot days. Farmland still abounds.
•M9.8 and M10.9 Watch for busy highways.
•M11.1 A short, little hill.
•M11.6 The trail has many open areas for most of the next 5.4 miles, but there are still lots of shade trees (and benches for cool breaks). Road noise isn’t intrusive until the last two miles coming into Elysian. There are nice views across farm fields to enjoy as the trail goes on a slight descent. The trail will skirt Round Lake and Lake Francis. Note all the sumac along the trail that goes from green to red as the summer progresses.
•M12.3 Stop and enjoy the panoramic view of cropland.
•M12.5 Note the old windmill in the field. You’ll see several on the trail, but once there were many more.
•M14.1 Cross a busy highway. You don’t see a lot of conifers in southern Minnesota. Perhaps these were planted here: young white pines, and cedar on the left and spruce on the right.
•M16.6 The trailhead in Elysian is on the right. There are actually two buildings:
The first, an old depot, has large restrooms with a bench for changing clothes, drinking fountains and picnic area besides a lot of parking.
The other building is often staffed by volunteers as an information center. It has water, rest rooms, vending machine, pay phone,parking and lots of advice on what to do in the area.
•M17.2 Expansive patches of sumac appear, but at M18 they grow into a forest all the way to M19. They’re not only tall, but close enough to the trail to be touched.
•M17.5 After a mile of shade, the trail opens just enough for a nice view of Lake Elysian. Soon, you can settle back for a long, four-plus mile ride through peace and quiet. The trail leaves the highway and goes deep into woods and along ponds. It’s a perfect section for escaping the sun if it’s a hot day.
•M18.2 Just after you cross the road, walnuts the size of small tennis balls were on the trail during a late summer ride. They fell from trees at several spots along the trail.
•M18.4 A sand and gravel operation sometimes breaks the silence.
•M18.8 The trail is wide open in spots.
•M18.9 Take a break on the bench with fields of gold (at least in late summer/fall) on the left and a big pond on the right.
•M19.8 Have you noticed all the vines that nearly cover the trunks of many large trees?
•M20.1 A little pond on the open trail that usually has some wildlife.
•M20.8 A bridge over a river is bathed in sunlight (on sunny days!) with a nice bench and view of a marsh filled with wildlife.
•M21 A sign points to a lone campsite with a trail to a squat latrine amidst thick vegetation and hundreds of mosquitoes. The trail will cross another bridge as it begins a steady descent to Waterville and goes through heavily-wooded areas.
•M22.2 The paved trail ends as it enters Waterville, where you will be guided along city streets by brown signs to downtown Waterville and/or to the other side of town and the resumption of the paved trail.
•M22.8 The trail signs and road markers will lead you across busy Hwy. 13 and up to a gravel road turning north (where there is a small parking area if you use Waterville as a trailhead).
•M23 The paved trail resumes in the woods, which will be abundant most of the way along this segment into Morristown.
•M23.2 Dome-topped buildings on your right must be part of the sewage-treatment system.
•M23.3 A sign welcomes you to Sakatah Lake State Park, which will be on both sides of the trail for the next 2.6 miles. The park is heavily-wooded, with lots of hiking trails, campsites, fishing pier, boat launch, interpretive center and nature store. Sakatah Lake is on your left.
•M23.9 Listen for red-winged blackbirds as you approach a bridge.
•M24.4 A trail-bridge takes off to who knows where on the right.
•M24.7 The trail crosses a road that (right) leads you to the park office, interpretive center and nature store, or (left) to restrooms, water and the lake.
•M25.1 Another bridge over a stream; coming up soon on the right will be a chalet and on the left will be toilets.
•M25.4 The other road with access to park areas.
•M25.5 and 25.7 If you’d like to get off the bike for a short hike, try the Timber Doodle Trail on the right and left, a circle loop that is about 3/4 of a mile. Check the map.
•M25.6 Listen and you’ll he babbling brook, or is it a gurgling stream?
•M25.9 You’re leaving the park and the trail will be more in the open.
•M26.1 Eggers Prairie is a registered Minnesota Nature Area, which means you can hike into the area. Go up a hill or down into a lowland to see all kinds of pretty, interesting plants, 99 per cent of which this writer couldn’t identify.
•M26.5 Note the remains of an old railroad crossing sign on the side of the road; it’s a reminder that this trail was once traveled by trains. Today it’s a quiet crossing. The trail for the next mile is more open, but often shaded by trees.
•M26.7 So what does the MX pillar signify? You’ve seen several of these on the trail.
•M27.5 The trail goes back into more forested areas.
•M28.2 A bench with a nice view of the river.
•M28.4 A bridge over a river.
•M28.5 The Morristown trailhead area on the west side of town includes a picnic area, parking and toilet, but no water.
Faribault to Morristown
Faribault is host to the eastern beginning of the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail that goes west nearly 39 miles to Mankato with stops at several towns in between.
All those miles will keep a trail rider busy for a few days, especially the type that likes a leisure pace, a mixture of sun and shade, scenery that includes a variety of woods, water or prairies and lots of trail towns for stopping to enjoy.
Most of the trail alternates between being out in the wide-open sunshine and then dipping into the woods where it’s shaded in thick, cooling vegetation.
The trail leaves Faribault in an urban setting, but soon skirts lakeshore before traveling into rolling farmland, while often dipping into thick woods and heavy vegetation, especially in the state park area.
The Faribault trailhead can be found on the west side of Hwy. 21, a couple blocks north of Hwy 60. (If you’re coming into Faribault on I-35 from the north or south, take the Hwy. 21 exit.)
There’s plenty of parking space at the trailhead, which looks like an open field, plus one toilet and a picnic table, but no water.
From Faribault to Morristown:
(Note: The trail narrative is based on the mileage markers that begin in Mankato and end in Faribault, which means the narrative on this section that originates in Faribault will have “mileage markers” in descending order.)
•M38.4 The trail goes up a slight incline, through some trees, across a short bridge, makes a turn through the backside of a commercial area and then settles into a residential area with nice vegetation and trees (but just for a few spins).
•M37.2 The trail goes under I-35, leaves the commercial area and soon dips in and out of woods on the outskirts of Faribault’s residential areas.
•M36.8 Note railroad marker “43.” You’ll see a lot of these on the trail, all the way to Mankato. What’s the number on the last marker you’ll see?
•M35.8 Be careful crossing a busy highway that curves off an even busier highway. Cars and trucks usually take the curve without slowing down much and they could hit you before they even see you. The trail becomes more shaded for about a half-mile as it travels into a thick canopy of trees, which often will be the case during the first 10 miles of the ride.
The ride through the farmland will feel different, depending on the season. In the spring and early summer, farm crops may have only been recently planted. If you’re on a June-July ride, crops are in the middle of the growing season, close to their full glory. If it’s August-September, the crops could be in the peak of the harvesting season. And in the fall the crops could be long gone, with only stubble left behind.
•M34.5-34.2 After passing Wells Lake and then bordering Cannon Lake, the trail goes through Shager Park, where there is a large shelter, rest rooms and hand-pumped water.
This would be a nice rest-stop if you want a break about half-way to Morristown.
As you continue the ride along the trail, notice all the sumac that are lush green with red pods in mid-summer and spectacular in the fall when they turn color.
•M33.2 The trail bursts into the open after nearly six miles going in and out of the tree canopies. It’ll be like this for over three miles.
•M32.5 That old red barn on the left has certainly been taken care of through the years.
•M32.2 The little town of Warsaw; watch for a nice tree planting that will grow through the years. In fact, they are quite tall now after being seedlings during the first ride in 1995.
•M31.9 On the right, horseshoes are ready for play.
•M31.8 Another old stone mile-marker (M38) left behind from the days of the railroads.
•M31.5 The trail leaves Warsaw and goes downhill just enough to coast a bit for a half-mile or so. The large pond (small lake?) on the right is home to waterfowl.
•M31 The Cannon River State Wildlife Management Area on the right is courtesy of Lottie L. West and the Nature Conservancy. The trail can be a bit overgrown. On a mid-July ride, a half-dozen rabbits were enjoying the trail on an early-morning ride.
•M30.8 The trail crosses a bridge over the Cannon River where there’s a picnic bench. Some persons begin the trail ride here (off Hwy. 60) where parking is available.
•M30.2 Your Thanksgiving dinner is fattening up on the right (north).
•M29.9 The trail that has been in the open for the most part dips into the woods; that will be the case all the way to the Morristown trailhead (and beyond for a couple miles).
•M29.3 Morristown begins. Be careful crossing a busy highway; turn left if you want to go into town or to see the old mill.
•M28.5 After going through a tunnel of trees, you’ll come to a trailhead.