A Tale of Two Trails: Heartland State Trail

Apr 5, 2022Biking, Trails

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By Molly Brewer Hoeg

I was excited to get my first taste of the extensive bicycle paths in north central Minnesota. Unable to choose between the Paul Bunyan Trail and the Heartland Trail, I decided on a combination of the two. Both trails are the product of rails-to-trails projects, and lay claim to some impressive records. The Heartland Trail came first, established in 1974 as one of the first rails-to-trails conversions in the country.  Stretching from Park Rapids to Cass Lake it encompasses 49 miles of paved trail. The first section of the Paul Bunyan Trail opened in 1992. Now extending 123 miles from Crow Wing State Park to Lake Bemidji State Park, it is the longest state trail in Minnesota.

Two women cyclists wave from a bike trail bridge across a river from a distance
A group of three ride through a marshy area on a paved trail in the summer.

Forests and bogs with pockets of lingering farmland characterize the northern section of the Paul Bunyan Trail from Bemidji to Walker. I found this 41-mile section of the trail to be quiet and tranquil. A recent repaving project left a smooth surface and easy cycling. Well secluded from roads and traffic, even the small communities along the way lay hidden from view and at times, the trees lining the path reached overhead to form a green tunnel.

A brown metal sign marks the spot where the Paul Bunyan State Trail meets the Heartland State Trail.

Laporte is a popular stopping point for many trail users.  My favorite spot there was the public access area where I could look out over scenic Garfield Lake. As I neared Walker, the trees thinned on the east side of the trail to reveal glimpses of Leech Lake.  Its deep, blue waters mirrored the sky, and I watched enviously as a pleasure boat motored by.  Before reaching the popular resort town, the Paul Bunyan and Heartland Trail converge.  Six miles later they split again and I headed west on the Heartland Trail.

A man and a woman pose for a photo in front of the World's Largest Muskie Statue in Nevis, MN

By early afternoon, the trail bustled with activity.  As I made my way to Park Rapids, I passed cyclists of all ages and ability, from older couples out for an afternoon jaunt to hard-core cyclists pressing their pedals for a hard workout.  In between were young people with children, runners, dog walkers, and a local cross-country team on a training run.

two people ride bikes past a park on a paved trail in the summer

Among several small towns adjacent to the trail, I chose to stop in Akeley, which has been calling itself the birthplace of Paul Bunyan since 1949.  In addition to a trailhead and rest area, Akeley has plenty of places to restock refreshments and supplies.  I was drawn to the gigantic statue of Paul Bunyan on Broadway Street. Paul is down on one knee, but were he to stand up, he’d be the tallest in the world at 60 feet. His outstretched hand has been inviting tourist to sit for snapshots since 1985.  In the summer, history buffs can visit the Paul Bunyan Historical Museum, which chronicles the town’s logging and sawmill history. 

A man and a woman take a break from biking and sit on a bench at Memorial Park in Akeley, MN

This 27-mile section of the Heartland Trail between Walker and Park Rapids crosses numerous rivers, creeks and wetlands, which is a big draw for cyclists who like to watch boats pass by from the bridges along the trail. In the growing warmth of the afternoon, I took time out to do just that at the channel to Shallow Lake. Closer to Park Rapids, Dorset is another attractive town along the trail with shops and restaurants. This tiny hamlet, population 22, calls itself the restaurant capital of the world, somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Every August, at the annual Taste of Dorset, a new mayor is chosen by random drawing and anyone can enter.

A woman rides her bike through a wooded area on a paved trail in the summer.

As the afternoon waned I pedaled the final miles into Park Rapids, passing Heartland Park and crossing the Fishhook River.  It was the end of my day’s ride, but my exploring is not over.  I still have over half of each trail to cycle.  Another day.

Read part two: Tale of Two Trails: Paul Bunyan State Trail

A family of four rides bikes across a bridge wearing matching orange sweatshirts
Molly Brewer Hoeg

Molly Brewer Hoeg

Molly Brewer Hoeg is a freelance writer and outdoor fitness enthusiast from Duluth Minnesota. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her outdoors, running, cycling and cross-country skiing, or pampering her five grandchildren. Since retiring, Molly and her husband, Rich, have taken up bicycle touring, spending about a month each year traveling on their own by bicycle and have pedaled over 11,000 miles together. Molly blogs about their trips at SuperiorFootprints.org and is writing a book about the ups and downs of constant togetherness at 12 miles an hour.

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I’m Jan, the publisher of Minnesota Trails Magazine. I’m looking for that one trail, the next ride, a new discovery and other reasons never to sit still in Minnesota.

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