Paul Bunyan Trail Log
Of Lakes & Legends
The 88.5-mile Paul Bunyan Trail takes cyclists through one of Minnesota's most popular vacation areas, from Brainerd to Merrifield, Nisswa, Pequot Lakes, Pine River, Backus, Hackensack and through the Chippewa National Forest on to Walker and Bemidji. The trail carves through lake country, alternately passing majestic pine forests, stands of poplars sheltering deer and grouse, wetlands, ponds and marshes teeming with waterfowl and northern farmland that is home to livestock and grains. Along the way, it runs through towns first founded to serve the railroad, now active with seasonal visitors lured by the lake country.
The southern trailhead is on Excelsior road in Baxter near the Northland Arboretum on the western edge of Brainerd.
From the south, look for the old water tower and go west on Hwy 371/200 across the Mississippi River and over a railroad bridge. Turn north on Golf Course Road, go about a block, turn east on Excelsior, go a long block and watch for the trail that begins on the left.
A parking lot for trail users is a quarter mile further on Excelsior. From the parking lot, a paved connection leads you to the Paul Bunyan Trail.
From the north (coming down Hwy 371) turn east on Excelsior just before Hwy 371 turns east and follow the above directions.
The following trail ride log begins at the parking lot.
•M4 The trail takes a little jog to the right with two road crossings ahead.
•M5.5 The trail comes out of the woods and into an open marshland. It may be noisy on your right where summer traffic is full of vacationers, but on your left, stop and listen. A swamp area is a perfect nesting and breeding grounds for red-winged blackbirds that make homes in the cattails.
Up ahead you can see the trail take a gentle rise that peaks at M6.4, where the trail crosses another busy highway.
•M7.4 Watch for turtles sunning themselves on the board in the swamp. In the spring you'll hear frogs during their mating rituals. It could be quiet in dry falls.
•M7.5 Indian Paintbrush blooms here in mid-June. These foot-high plants have reddish-orange flowers, which last for only a few weeks.
•M7.9 and 8.3 Watch for busy highways.
•M8.4 A sign welcomes you to Merrifield; the trailhead is a couple tenths of a mile ahead.
•M8.5 You're crossing Birds Eye Terrace, so naturally there are lots of bird houses on the trail.
•M8.8 The trailhead at Merrifield has pump water, information kiosk, benches and sometimes a toilet (plus a big paved parking lot if you make this your trailhead).
The little town of Merrifield (which has a couple dining options and convenience stores with air) is on the right and Long Lake is on your left; it's one of the larger lakes in the area and full of lake enthusiasts.
•M8.9 Watch for a train bell hanging from a scaffold on your left at the Train Bell Resort. This was once a tranquil railroad rest stop, where anglers would deboard for some fishing on Long Lake.
•M10.7 A sign tells you that Mollie Lake on your right. In summer, it may be hidden from view by trees.
•M11.2 to 11.5 The trail leaves the woods and cuts through a sun-drenched marshland. The woods soon emerge again. Tiger lilies pop up here and there.
•M11.7 On one 4th of July ride, a young eagle was pearched on one of the highland poles, perhaps watching for lunch below.
•M12.1 The trail takes one of those slowly-developing curves made for speeding trains, first to the left and then, about 3/4 of a mile later, to the right, as the trail heads for Lake Hubert.
•M 13.4 The trail has been relatively quiet and secluded, but now hints of civilization can be heard and seen.
•M13.8 The little town of Lake Hubert was once home to several businesses now gone. But the lake is still here, as is the old depot (which stands across the highway at M13.9 on the left). Info placards at the depot describe the area's past.
After carefully crossing a busy highway, continue down the trail as it crosses another road and veers northwest.
Clark Lake comes up right away on your right at M14 and will be a companion (though often obscured by trees) for over a mile as the trail continues through woods; get another view of Clark Lake at 15.1, where you may hear water running under the trail through a culvert.
•M15.7 Here is one rest stop, intended for those who want to park in this paved lot instead of trying the challenge of parking in downtown Nisswa that's usually filled with visitors.
•M 15.5 A sign welcomes you to Nisswa, but enjoy the woods for a little longer; downtown is a half-mile away.
•M16 The Nisswa Chamber of Commerce building welcomes visitors with a friendly staff, rest rooms, water and maps. Outside are water fountains, phone, newspapers and bike racks.
North of the building is a restored railroad caboose.
Nisswa is a perfect stop for eating, shopping and a stroll to stretch the legs. You may want to check out the little village of log buildings.
•16.1 A city park on your right is perfect for kids who are ready to hop off bikes and run around for awhile in the huge playground. Parents can sit on a shaded bench and watch them. Restrooms and water are available.
One spin past the route to the city park is a butterfly garden next to the trail. It's a joint project of the Nisswa Garden Club and the DNR. An information sign explains the four elements necessary to attract butterflies, bees and moths.
Nisswa to Pequot Lakes and Pine River
After Nisswa, the trail heads into the woods again and goes downhill (just a bit) through berry patches, lots of trees and near a marshland and lakes.
In fact, the trail couldn't get much closer to the lake, which could inspire you to stop (watch for the bench and table at M16.9) and just enjoy the view and the cool breeze. Any anglers having any luck? The lake will be in view for nearly two miles, though trees sometimes hide it from view.
•M17 Note the mounds in the lake that can be used by nesting fowls. There may also be nesting platform for loons. These platforms go up and down as boats develop wakes so the nest on top is not disturbed, instead of being flooded.
•M17.6 The trail that has been going through woods and lakes hugs Hwy 371 for a mile, reminding you that civilization is nearby.
•M19.5 Hay fields replace the trees as the trail passes through an open area.
•M20.4 Grace Trail Side Park (next to a church) offers shelter and picnic tables. Watch for the sign promoting homemade pasties for sale at Grace Methodist Church.
•M22 The Pequot Lakes visitor center emerges. There's plenty of parking and a large visitor center with rest rooms, water and information. This could be your trailhead if you want to park here and ride up or down the trail.
The trail continues through the city's green space, past a gazebo, picnic area and many businesses.
•M22.9 The trail goes over a bridge crossing Hwy 371 and continues through wooded areas for another mile.
•M23.9 Enough of the solitude; the trail pops out along Hwy 371, which it will parallel for the next dozen or so miles. The trail becomes less crowded, which means you won't have to say or hear, "Passing on your left." If you're with someone, you can ride side by side most of the way, or, if you are alone and on the move, you can maintain your pace without having to slow down for casual riders.
•M24 Swamps on your left give some natural vibes.
•M24.9 OK, just a little uphill, but it's short and no sweat.
•M25 Jenkins is the next small town on your trail; it's one of the smallest on the Paul Bunyan but can handle any need for food or drink.
•M26.2 Pretend that water comes from a creek, even if it's just from a big culvert. Notice all the young popple popping up.
•M26.4 A message on a tire warns not to trespass, but you probably wouldn't want to bike through a swamp anyway.
•M26.8 Another slight incline.
•M27.1 You can see a long descent -- and a slight incline after that.
•M27.5 The ditch on the left, which will accompany you for about a mile, produces all kinds of interesting plants, including all those orange tiger lilies.
•M29 Neat little wood-planked bridges break up the bituminous as the trail crosses Pine River here and at M30.7.
•M29.2 Little yellow flowers (birdsfoot trefoil) border both sides of the trail for a few tenths of a mile.
•M31.3 The visitor center in Pine River, complete with picnic shelter, water, rest rooms, information and staff, as well as parking if you want to make this your trailhead.
Pine River to Hackensack
•M31.3 The Pine River visitor center, near the highway at the intersection of Hwy 371 and Barclay Avenue. There is plenty of parking and all kinds of amenities to make this a convenient trailhead for your ride. The log cabin-style visitor center has bathrooms, water, staff, information brochures, chairs for relaxing and a picnic table/shelter. Railroad and history buffs will want to explore the refurbished railroad building.
The next seven miles will be closer to Hwy 371 with lots of farm fields and woods on the left. Then the trail veers away from Hwy 371 and dips into the woods for about two miles to Backus.
After Backus, the trail is still away from Hwy 371 for all of the eight miles into Hackensack, so enjoy the quietest segment of the trail that includes 2.5 miles of wetlands.
•M33.4 Just a slight incline to push the heart a little.
•M35.3 Town halls are common sights in rural Minnesota, where townships probably outnumber incorporated cities. Some halls look like old one-room school houses, but many are giving way to more modern-looking halls like this one for Pine River Township. The halls are the site of monthly town board meetings and annual township meetings, the most basic form of democratic government in which all of a township's residents vote on issues and budgets.
•M35.6 A nice descent for coasting.
•M35.8 Take a break on your descent to stop at this bench and picnic table if you want to rest your legs.
•M38.6 The trail takes a westerly bent as it leaves the route along the highway and takes off through the woods for a quiet break until Backus, two miles away.
•M39.4 Watch for traffic as the trail crosses state Hwy 87, which turns north and parallels the trail into Backus.
•M40.6 Welcome to Backus, a quiet little town that is the midway point and a nice break between Pine River and Hackensack.
The trailhead has a large shelter, toilets and water fountain. This is a good stop to fill the water bottles before the ride into Hackensack nearly eight miles away.
A few steps north of the water fountain is a City of Backus time capsule buried during the dedication of the Trail in 1996; you'll have to come back in 2046 to see what was buried.
Pine Mountain Lake is to the left of the trail. The next three miles skirt farm fields and woods as the (mostly) quiet ride continues.
•M41.5 Those airplanes aren't crashing into the woods, they're going in for a landing at the Backus airport.
•M44.1 A sign announces Beuber Lake (on the left). You can also stop at the bench at 44.2 and view the lake. For the next 2.5 miles the trail goes through marshland. In spring and early summer, watch for marsh marigolds.
•M44.8 As the marsh water pools into a pond, stop for a look and listen. You may spot a muskrat swimming about, or a hawk perched on an old tree, or hear frogs closer to dusk. Note all of the ant hills on the left side of the trail; there are more than a dozen of these. Dead trees on the right also give the marsh a nice effect.
•M46.7 Marshland gives way to woods and pastures, but still in a quiet environment. Some segments of the trail open up into non-wooded areas.
•M48.6 The trailhead in Hackensack has all the amenities: bathrooms with water, playground, parking, tennis courts, fishing pier, picnic area, information center and, above all, a statue of Lucette Diana Kensack, bride of Paul Bunyan.
Hackensack through the Chippewa National Forest
•M49.3 Already the trail is getting into the woods, with young pines and birch among the popple, with a few older ones here and there.
•M49.6 The trail crosses a busy highway.
•M50.1 Through the trees is a lake.
•M50.7 There are ponds on the right and left. They were big enough for some mallards on a late April ride. There is a little bit of road noise here, but you can also hear frogs. Note the big rocks piled up alongside the trail during its construction.
•M51.3 The Trail crosses another busy highway, County Road 6 (which eventually becomes County Road 12 in Hubbard county and leads to Akeley a dozen miles away and on the Heartland Trail).
•M51.6 An elevated view of ponds on both sides of he trail.
•M52.2 A larger lake pops up alongside the trail; there's a bench to rest and enjoy the view.
•M53.4 The trail crosses a highway (County Raod 50, which meets up later again with the secluded trail at M60 as it passes through the Chippewa five miles down the road) and then breaks away from busy Hwy 371 that parallels the trail and has been close by for about a half-mile.
•M53.6 In a small pond there's a tree that has been worked on by a pileated woodpecker.
•M54 The trail has that "deep in the woods" curves and caution.
Be forewarned: this segment through the Chippewa is all curves and hills and not just little ones. This is a work-out ride. Many cyclists will be glad to know an alternative route to Walking is in the works.
If you're a casual rider, enjoy riding in a low gear, taking lots of rest stops and even walking now and then.
If you're a hard rider, enjoy the continuous route of hills and curves that are genuine fun.
Some hints: Carry plenty of water, a tube repair kit and air pump, especially if you have narrow road bike tires. There are several places where renegade ATVers have kicked rocks and pebbles up unto the trail, which can cause "pinch" flats.
Stop often along the way to look, listen and catch your breath.
Besides a shelter at M56.5 at the beginning of the hills, there is a parking area five miles from the end at M60, where the trail runs next to County Road 50. This trailhead is used by hikers accessing the cross-country hiking trail, the North Country Trail. County Road 50 is about the only crossroad from M56 to the end at M65 and Hwy. 34.
You find a new parking lot and trailhead at Hwy 34 where the trail connects with the Heartland Trail allowing you to bike into Walker.
The northern trailhead is located in Lake Bemidji State Park. From Bemidji, go north on Co. Rd. 21 about 4 miles, then east on Co. Rd. 20 two miles to the park entrance.