Heartland Trail Log
Through the heart of lake and pine country
Park Rapids to Cass Lake
The Heartland Trail literally stretching 50-miles across the Heartland of Minnesota linking Park Rapids, Dorset, Nevis, Akeley and Walker and Cass Lake in a ribbon of pavement.
You can also catch a link at Akeley through the Chippewa National Forest to the Paul Bunyan Trail to Hackensack and again at Cass Lake to ride the 18-mile Migizi Trail loop.
The scenic Heartland Trail that goes through prime lakes and pines country has a secluded feel with a minimum of road noise much of the way, plus a lot of interesting sights. Besides all kinds of pines, birch, oak, maple and a lot of popple, there always seems to ranging as small as a few acres to as big as massive Leech Lake).
Old and long trestles and bridges from the era of the railroads now carry cyclists, often high above the water. Two are made of big timbers and another is of steel that swung open on a gear system for passing steamships.
Wildlife abounds, most often seen around sunrise and sunset, the coolest part of the day. Deer are often near the trail at those times, but don’t be surprised (well, maybe you should be) if a bear pops up. Beaver are out in ponds, too, and even a skunk has waddled along the trail.
The west end has the most bike traffic; the north end is less busy. Each segment has its share of wooded seclusion, as well as open stretches of sunshine, but check the trail descriptions to ascertain your preference if you can ride only a part of the trail.
Once you've pedaled down the Heartland Trail, you'll know why it has become one of the most popular trails in the state. Visitors who have cabins in the area or who stay at one of the 100-plus resorts are frequent trail riders with their own favorite segments.
Except for Cass Lake, all of the towns have trailheads with plenty of parking and usually with bathrooms. The towns also have a variety of restaurants, plus lodging facilities.
The Heartland begins in Park Rapids at Heartland Park, perhaps the largest trailhead park in the state. But access to the trail can be easily found in any of the trail towns.
The Heartland Trail begins, appropriately, in popular and spacioous Heartland Park, home to just about every kind of summer-based recreational activiity.
The park in Park Rapids is at the western end of the Heartland Trail that goes nearly 50 miles east and north to Cass Lake.
To find the park, watch for a sign indicating Heartland Park on Hwy. 34 on the east side of the bridge over the Fish Hook River. Follow the access road about three blocks and you are led right into the park.
In the large park are big restrooms and drinking fountains, tennis courts, playground, large shelters, volleyball court, horseshoe pits, ball fields, beach on the river, boat launch on Fish Hook Lake and lots of trees and green grass.
And that's just the park area on the east side of the river.
If you back-track on your bike to where the access road crosses the trail, there's a fork. The fork to the left takes you .2 miles over the river to Hwy. 34 where the trail officially begins across from several restaurants; the fork to the right takes you on a bike-walking path over a pretty red bridge to more park area and access to downtown restaurants and shops. But behind you is the trail where you'll soon be headed.
Highlights along the trail from Park Rapids to Dorset
The Heartland Trail leaves Heartland Park amidst a residential area, but thick woods border the trail so a secluded feel is still pervasive. Those woods will thicken and homes become scarce within a couple miles as the trail heads through pine, birch and popple as well as alongside open fields and some farm land on its way to Dorset, the next town on the trail.
Most of the time the trail is shaded, so the ride has a cool, closed-in feel that's especially nice on hot days.
Since the trail from Park Rapids to Akeley is going mostly west to east, make sure you have sunglasses early morning and late evenings when you'll be riding into the sun, as the case may be. It'll be hard to see oncoming riders.
•M0 is at Hwy. 34, the trail's official beginning; Heartland Park is at M.2.
•M.6 Watch for busy roads that cross the trail, here and at M1.3.
•M1 Notice the new benches that have been put up along the trail.
•M1.1 You'll see these all over this part of Minnesota: Pine-tree plantations that won't be ready for harvest for decades.
•M1.9 The Headwaters golf course, a pretty 18-hole course nestled in pines, is on your left. You'll see few residences until you near Nevis, about nine miles away.
•M2.8 The grassy area on your left was once a landfill. It was excavated and a covering installed to protect from any seepage that would be harmful to the environment.
•M2.9 You may think the trail is level with the countryside, but take a look at how high up you really are at many points along the trail.
•M3.2 A busy Cty. Rd. 4 with high-speed traffic both ways. This clearing adds some sunshine to the shaded ride.
•M3.8 The trail opens up for a brief view of a nice, young pine stand. Then more shade, with an open spot here and there, depending on the time of year and path of the sun.
•M4 Crop land (sometimes hay, sometimes corn) is on your left and will also be on your right, all the way to M4.8.
•M4.1 A bench beckons a rest, but there's no dramatic vista. It's just a nice place to sit and enjoy a view of a meadow and some corn fields in a quiet niche of the lake country.
Also note all the bird houses along the trail. Those were put up by the Department of Natural Resources more than a decade ago to attract blue birds. And it has worked. The population of the species has soared as they are attracted to these homes along open areas neighboring fields.
•M4.7 A big farm operation (and there aren't too many along the trail, or even close by) is on your left, barely visible through the trees. Depending on the season and the chores for the day, take a deep breath and smell the aromas of farming.
•M4.9 Lots of big berry trees like these are along the trail, ready for picking in late summer and early fall. There are tart chokecherry, pin cherries and juneberries. Just be sure you know what you are eating. Also note the tall tower on the right for communications.
•M5.2 An information kiosk informs riders that this is an area where a prescribed fire was used to burn vegetation to mimic the natural cycle of nature that gave death and birth to a variety of plants. Old-timers may also remember a fire tower here that was no longer used and has been moved to northern Minnesota environmental learning center.
•M5.6 A bench for a rest; more shade is ahead.
•M6.1 Smell something good cooking? You're within a few spins of Dorset, restaurant capital of the world.
•M6.3 Be careful as you approach the busy highway that travels through Dorset, one of the most popular tourist towns in the lake country. This is a required stop. (See the next two-page section for a story on Dorset.)
Highlights along the trail from Dorset to Nevis
The popular trailhead in Dorset that's only a few steps away from restaurants and shops has a large paved parking lot, outdoor toilet, playground, picnic areas and a hand-pump that delivers fresh, cold water the old-fashioned way.
There are lots of trees and expanses of lawn that provide nice shaded areas for resting, picnicking (take-out is just around the corner) or napping.
The corral on the other side of the trail is for those on horses who use the unpaved trail parallel to the paved trail.
The next five miles to Nevis are quite pleasant. For three miles the trail travels through the woods and bumps up against an occasional pond. Pines and popple dominate, but birch pop up as well. After a must-stop at a railroad trestle over Shallow River, the trail is closer to Cty. Hwy. 18 but still in woods and skirting lakes.
•M6.5 On the left is a gravel mining area that is used when there are highway paving projects being done nearby.
•M7.3 The trail opens up a bit on the right, where a distant hill can be seen along a meadow. It's here that this writer spotted a cougar on a Saturday morning ride many years ago and hasn't been seen since. The big cat was having a good time pouncing on mice. But as it got closer and closer to the trail, bikers were nervous enough to shout and the cougar ran off into the woods with its long tail stretched out behind it.
The trail will go downhill slightly for awhile.
•M7.5 Ponds are on your right and left (and at M8.5) as part of the trail becomes closer to the waters of the lake country.
•M7.6 Watch for deer in this valley; in fact, the next four miles border prime deer habitat, so watch for them, especially after dawn and before dusk.
•M8.3 Another busy road crossing. The horse trail that's parallel to the trail on your right now crosses to your left; been seeing any horses?
•M8.6 Enjoy a densely-shaded section of the trail; in fall, leaves cover the paving and an occasional acorn pops under your tire.You'll go downhill for about a half-mile, so enjoy the speed as you breeze through the canopy of trees. Watch for deer.
•M9.1 Your first sighting of Lake Belle Taine, the major lake near Nevis. It stretches nearly seven miles from Nevis to "the Dorset Corner." This little bay leads to the midpoint of the lake; you can usually hear the boats off in the distance.
•M9.3 This old railroad trestle (one of two along the trail) is a popular spot for more than bikers. The bridge is over a channel between Shallow Lake to the left and Belle Taine to the right, so watch for boat traffic below and anglers checking out the bays.
The bridge is a short distance from a road that crosses the trail, so this spot is also accessed by foot by those who want to go below the bridge and fish (or jump off the bridge, which is a no-no).
The steps can be found on the right after you cross the bridge. You can actually walk under the bridge; this is a nice spot to picnic, or just sit awhile.
•M9.5 A busy highway (#18) crosses the trail. You can often hear the screeching of tires as motorists fail to slow down for the curve. The trail will stay in the woods, but is bordered by smaller pines and nice stands of maturing birch. Shallow Lake is on the left.
•M9.6 At several spots on the trail, large piles of sawdust have been piled. Those are moved off and on the trails to protect the trail during the winter from use by snowmobiles, which at certain places must go up on the trail because of terrain issues.
•M10.7 The opening in the woods on the left leads to the cemetery of the Catholic Church in Nevis. It is also near some of the oldest headstones in the Nevis area. On the right, a roadway leads to a garage that houses a huge, expensive trail groomer used in the winter to shape the horse trail for snowmobilers.
•M11.2 The other Catholic cemetery and the city cemetery are on your right. You can also get a view of Lake Belle Taine, which has been parallel to the trail for about five miles, but is far enough away to be unseen most of the time.
•11.5 Slow down for a busy intersection and the beginning of Nevis. You can proceed down the trail to the heart of Nevis; the road to the right goes to the popular Nevis city beach and park.
Highlights along the trail from Nevis to Akeley
•11.7 You're coming up to Paul Bunyan Trails Rd. (also know as Cty. Rd. 2), which crosses the trail and is the real "Main Street" of Nevis, although the official one is a block north (right). There are shops and restaurants within a block of the trail.
Besides the "World's Largest Muskie" and shelter, Muskie Park has a playground area, benches for resting and eating, and a bathroom in the building behind the Muskie.
There is also a quieter rest area with toilets, shelter and parking just a little bit down the trail on the right (on the left is the fire hall).
Nevis is birthplace of Minnesota Bike Trails and Rides that became the Minnesota Trails located in the Northwoods Press building at 108 Main St., across from the post office.
•11.8 Watch for traffic at this intersection close to a busy Hwy. 34.
For the next 2.8 miles the trail parallels a busy Hwy. 34, but the scenery on the left has a feel of the north country, with plenty of woods and enough hayfields to remind you that farming (offering a meager living even in its heyday) was once a bigger business in this area than tourism.
•M14.3 A nice bench with a terrific view of busy Hwy. 34 traffic, if you like that sort of thing. There's a better view from the bench at M14.9.
•M14.6 The trail will take a curve to the left and distance itself from Hwy. 34 as it goes into the woods for a bit of seclusion for nearly 1.5 miles. The trail will go up just slightly.
•M14.9 Stop and enjoy the view from a bench on the left side of the trail. Besides, you have to go up a little hill when you get back on the bike. The trail will continue to go into the woods where, at dawn and dusk, deer are usually out and about. In the fall, the trees and sumac are in their colorful glory.
•M15.7 Sprechen zie deutsch? Gehen zie richt zu das Brahaus.
•M16 Watch for traffic at this crossing; the trail is now closer to Hwy. 34 and crosses another busy highway (25) at M16.8 and levels off.
•M17.4 This picturesque railroad trestle is at least 150 ft. long and feels just as high, if you look below. On the right (across the highway) is an old fish hatchery and on the left is 11th Crow Wing Lake, part of the Crow Wing chain of lakes. Take a moment to stop and enjoy the view, and the height. Notice the stream under the bridge. The Akeley trailhead is less than a half-mile ahead.
Highlights along the trail from Akeley to Walker
•M17.7 Akeley has several, inviting options near the Heartland Trail Rest Area. The road (to the left) you just passed leads down to the Akeley city beach and park, where you can camp overnight, swim, enjoy a picnic lunch or launch a boat. If you go straight ahead, the rest area has a picnic shelter and privy.
Look to your right and you'll see something larger than life. Don't leave Akeley without following a trail from the rest area to the right to Hwy. 34, where you'll find the huge statue of Paul Bunyan. You can sit in his hand and have a photo take. Akeley, which once was a logging town of over 5,000 at the turn of the century, is the birthplace of the legend of Paul Bunyan.
•M18.6 You've been crossing some streets, now be careful as you cross busy Hwy. 64, the route to Bemidji; watch for drivers coming from both directions and for those turning on to the highway from Hwy. 34. The trail will continue to be closer to Hwy. 34 for about two more miles; but there's scenic stuff on your left.
•M19.2 The caution sign is for snowmobilers who in the winter must use short segments of the paved trail because of the terrain; they go left here.
•M19.9 A new bench offers a rest and a view of a small lake (or big pond?).
•M20.4 The trail goes left and away from Hwy. 34 as it heads back into the woods. You'll rarely hear traffic from here to the end of the trail.
Some cyclists consider the next 6 miles the best segment of the trail. You'll be in the heart of the lakes and pines of the north country as the trail travels through valleys and hilltops populated with all kinds of birch, popple and pines (Norway, white and jack). Water pops up all over, whether as in ponds, swamps or small lakes. Several clearings give you hilltop views, other clearings give you a look over small prairie tracts or into the woods.
•M21.2 An interpretive sign warns you about the hazards of poison ivy; you have to walk through poison ivy to read it.
•M21.6 An interpretive sign explains that this is a prairie restoration area, where artificial and experimental means such as prescribed fires, planting and seedlings are being used to try and restore the prairie. The process could take years, or decades -if the popple doesn't take over first.
•M21.65 The dirt road is the temporary route to the newest segment of the Paul Bunyan Trail. Eventually there'll be a paved shoulder on the roadway. (If you'd like to take the Paul Bunyan Trail that goes all the way to Brainerd, follow the road to the right for about a half-mile to Hwy. 34, which should be crossed very carefully. The Paul Bunyan is on the other side and will go 8.5 miles through the Chippewa National Forest on a hilly, curvy, isolated segment and then another 7 miles to Hackensack.)
•M21.8 The trail goes back into the woods, where it will stay nearly all the way to Walker with just enough open areas for sunshine to add some warmth, which area especially inviting on cooler early morning rides. This segment is probably the most interesting, with ponds, marshes and wooded environments mixed together.
•M22.5 On the left, along the trail, is a pond-looking body of water that in dryer times could also be taken for a river swamp with dead trees and vegetation that must be hiding an ecological jungle. During wetter times the pond has clearer water and looks more like a shallow lake with interesting green plants on the bottom. Pedal to the far end of the pond and you'll hear (during wetter times) the trickle of water through an old beaver lodge.
•M22.6 On your left is a huge culvert, visible only when there is minimal vegetation, that is a left-over from the railroad days. It takes ditch and pond water under the trail to that small lake on the right side of the trail.
•M22.8 An interpretive sign (that was down last fall) on your right explains the effect of timber harvesting on the forested area. It isn't all as bad an you'd think. And the growth in the years this sign has gone up has been noticeable.
•M23.1 Look to the left, over the edge of the trail, and you'll see a small lake several feet below; don't fall in. These small, hidden bodies of water will pop up again, such as at M23.6.
•M23.3 An inconspicuous small sign on the left says you've crossed the North Country Trail. This is no ordinary hiking trail, because it's a coast-to-coast route. This section is in the Chippewa National Forest.
•M23.8 A bench in the sunshine for a view of the woods and (below, obscured by woods and vegetation) marshland. Deer have also been spotted here.
•M24 A hill! A curve! Ponds and marshes are often just over the hill.
•M24.9 A new bench; watch for poison ivy around it.
•M25.3 You've probably been noticing a lot of big old pines on your left. Some are only 40 to 60 years old, but this one, all alone on a hill, could be 80 or more years old. Most pines were cut at the turn of the century, but a few were missed here and there and are more than 100 years old. The town of Walker was named after lumber baron T. B. Walker, whose name appears on the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
•M25.5 Openings in the woods where the sun comes in are often welcome when the temperature is on the cool side. Another nice opening is at M26.4.
•M25.8 A water view
•M26.2 Lots of "pipe weed" grows on the trail, especially here.
•M26.8 Lake May has been over the hill and through the woods until now, where it appears in its secluded glory. Lake homes are on the other side, as is Hwy. 34.
•M27.1 You're coming into Walker, but you're still in a residential area.
•M27.3 The trail enters a rest area that includes parking and some picnic area; sometimes there's a portable toilet.
Highlights along the trail from Walker to Cass Lake
Paving of the Heartland Trail north from Walker to Cass Lake, nearly 22 miles, was completed in 2002, although cyclists bike about 2 miles on a paved road shoulder to get from one section of the trail to the other, but that just adds some variety to the ride.
The trail skirts the west shore of Leech Lake for many a mile, cuts through some woods and marshland, and then parallels Hwy. 371 the last 10 miles to Cass Lake while passing over some history under a bridge.
From the trailhead area in Walker (M27.3) go to the end of the old pavement and cross a highway (M27.4) to the new pavement across the road. The trail will go through some residential and commercial areas for about .3 miles.
•M27.7 The trail will go through a tunnel under Hwy. 371. When you pop out, you'll be in a wooded area quite unlike what you were in before the tunnel.
•M27.9 Go straight on the trail, but you can turn to the right now or later to go about 3/4 of a mile to downtown Walker, and pass a bay of Leech Lake as well. Leech Lake will be fairly close on your right for nearly three miles.
•M28 Some nice ponds are a sign that you're leaving town.
•M28.7 Your first glimpse of Leech Lake on the right, although this is just a big bay of the huge lake.
•M28.8 Now you're just a dive away from Leech Lake. Stop and enjoy the view, the most expansive on the trail.
•M28.9 to 29.1 The trail goes up a bit; road noise from Hwy. 371 is more apparent.
•M29.1 The trail ends briefly, so follow the road for about a quarter-mile, where it resumes through the trees at M29.4.
•M29.5 The trail splits. Go right on the paved section to continue on the Heartland Trail. By going ahead you'll be going on the Paul Bunyan Trail, which is paved a short distance to a bridge over Hwy 371 and then the paving ends. The trail one day will be paved to Bemidji, but there is a legal issue over ownership of right-of-way.
•M29.6 You could almost jump off the trail right into Leech Lake.
•M30.3 A nice long bridge takes you over a link between bays of Leech Lake. On the other side of the bridge is a public access (Kabekona Narrows) with picnic table and a large shelter if you want to get out of the rain, or sun. The trail will begin moving away from the lake and be closer to Hwy. 371. The trail will be in some trees, but it's also open.
•M32.2 The Walker municipal airport.
•M32.8 Golf course on your right; the 2nd hole is a chip shot from the trail at M33.4.
•M33.7 The trail will descend a bit for about three-quarter of a mile, crest at M34.5, and tdippsy-doodles to M34.8.
•M34.8 The trail crests at a hill of Steamboat Bay Loop Rd., where the paving on this segment ends. To get to the next paved segment that goes all the way to Cass Lake, follow the little brown signs on Steamboat Bay Loop Rd. to the right for 1.7 miles (and riding carefully on a road shared with vehicles). Then turn right on Cove Dr. and go .2 miles (just before Anderson's Cove Resort). The paved trail will resume on the left.
•M36.7 The trail takes off through the woods. The next mile is forested to give a secluded feel with a few open areas as well.
•M37.8 The trail is more in the open as it goes through a marsh-like area, although it is flanked by red and white pines that are a couple decades old.
•M38.3 Cross a short bridge over a small river that actually connects Swamp Lake with Leech Lake.
•M38.5 Stop before you cross Hwy. 371. This is a busy highway with a lot of traffic that's probably going 60 mph; drivers aren't too aware they are also crossing a bike trail. Proceed carefully to the trail on the other side of the highway.
When this segment was paved, a parallel track for snowmobiles was also required. That track is next to the trail here for a few tenths of a mile and later from M35.8 to 36.2 because there was not room closer to the highway due to wetlands.
The trail will be next to Hwy. 371 from here to Cass Lake, but there are usually trees blocking the view of the highway and also muffling road noise.
•M39.7 The town of Wilkinson where a general store has been closed for a long time.
•M41.1 A big steel bridge across Steamboat River with a wide-angle view of Steamboat Lake once carried trains, but go under the bridge (via the walkway) to see left-overs from the days of steamboats. Those big gears were built in 1915 and helped turn the railroad bridge open to let steamboats through to transport logs out of Steamboat Lake to Walker.
•M41.4 The route to a public access to Steamboat Lake is on your left.
•M42.6 All kinds of life is held in that swamp-like area on your left.
At Cass Lake you will find the 18-mile Migizi Trail through the Chippewa National Forest.