Adventure Report: Heart of the Lakes Trail

Oct 5, 2022Adventure Report, Biking, Scenic Byways, Trails

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Jen and I are no strangers to the Otter Trail Scenic Byway in northwest central Minnesota. Back when our legs were young, we biked this 150-mile scenic route over the course of a week and saw countless lakes, climbed rolling hills and crossed the Continental Divide once or twice. Otter Tail County, home of this byway, is a big square on the map, with a notch taken out of the top left corner, and there’s a lot to do there: Fergus Falls is home to the Central Lakes State Trail; Two state parks, Maplewood and Glendalough, offer plenty of hiking, biking, skiing, snowshoeing and paddling opportunities; Ken Nyberg’s quirky sculptures bring visitors from around the country to little Vining and if you’ve ever had Barrel O’Fun chips, at least your taste buds have been to Perham.

Now, there’s another reason to visit. At the end of last month, construction wrapped up on the McDonald Lake segment of the new Heart of the Lakes Trail which will connect Perham to Pelican Rapids via Maplewood State Park. The last piece of the route, a three-mile stretch through the state park is supposed to be completed next year, bringing the total up to 30 miles. West of Maplewood, a seven-mile section now reaches into Pelican Rapids; another 20-mile path takes off from the northern edge near the state park’s entrance and travels northeast into Perham.

We didn’t bring enough time to ride both sections, so we tackled The Pelican Rapids segment toward Maplewood State Park, curious where exactly the trail would enter there. A mile into the ride, the memories came back: Views of woods and fields with a sprinkle of lakes from the top of so many roller coaster hills. Our work on the way up was rewarded with glorious roll after glorious roll, the ribbon of trail disappearing into the distance and around the next curve. It was the Otter Trail Scenic Byway as we remembered it, and now there was a bike trail running right alongside of it. There was nothing to do but to turn the cranks, look around, breathe and occasionally wipe the sweat from my eyes, like open road therapy without the open road. The fall colors were almost at peak and that made the ride even more special. A few more ups and downs and the trail ended on the south end of Lida Lake. Somewhere around that point, the connection into the south end of Maplewood will be made, but the sneaky back way into the park we had been hoping for didn’t exist.

On the way back we had lunch at one of the rest stops along the trail. There are a few of those sprinkled along the entire route. A bench, a bike rack and a garbage can are the minimum equipment. The trail heads for the different sections also have parking, a picnic table and a map display. Depending on where you are on the trail there may also be a bike repair station, even water.
We also stopped at Central Lutheran Church, one of 19 scenic byway interpretive stops. “Always read the plaque” is our guideline, and this one even had a phone number to dial for some extra narration.

A sign displaying the Otter Trail Scenic Byway logo

When we were back in Pelican Rapids it started sprinkling and we decided to work our way to Perham by car to check out select segments of the trail along the way. There’s more beautiful scenery on the eastern end of the trail system, including spectacular views of the McDonalds Lakes, and we’ll definitely be back when the Maplewood section is done. 

A woman rides her bike on a paved trail in the fall
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Minnesota's Paul Bunyan Trail is one of the state's best bike rides
A trip on the 55-mile Central Lakes Trail is the perfect fall family outing by bike or on foot
Brainerd is in the heart of Minnesota's Lake Country
Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota
The Mesabi Trail connects Minnesota's Iron Range with the Boundary Waters

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About me

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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