Central Minnesota Joy Ride

Jun 10, 2024Bike Trails

By Molly Brewer Hoeg

At high noon on a breezy late summer day, I loaded the panniers on my bike at the trailhead in Fergus Falls.  Before me were 130 miles of uninterrupted bike trail and three days of cycling on the Central Lakes State Trail, Lake Wobegon Trail and Soo Line Trail.  I was looking forward to my first bike tour since before Covid-on one of the longest stretches of paved trail in Minnesota.

Going East on the Central Lakes State Trail, I passed through the Prairie Pothole region, so named for the depressions and ice deposits left by glaciers, now lakes. Reflecting the deep blue sky, the larger ones were windswept, some even sported whitecaps. They were surrounded by grassy fields rippling in the wind, interrupted occasionally by a marshes full of cattails as well as farm fields, most of them bare after the summer harvest. The area is home to a variety of migrating birds that come here to breed.  Earlier in the summer it’s also known to host the Showy Lady’s Slipper, the Minnesota state flower. With the exception of a few stretches near roadways, the trail winds through the quiet countryside.  There are a few road crossings, but they are all well marked with signs.

Lost in thought I cruised along, absorbing the peaceful environs and I almost missed the tiny sign tucked into the sumac bushes along the trail. Turns out I had just passed the Continental Divide, only four miles into my ride.

Just outside the gates of the Lake Region Pioneer Threshermen’s Association grounds in Dalton, the trail intersects the Otter Trail Scenic Byway. An interpretive sign on the self-guided byway tour listed a phone number to call for historic information on the area. The pre-recorded voice on the other end told a sobering story about just how tough life on the prairie was for the first settlers.

Next up was Ashby, 20 miles into my ride.  As I was about to learn, big grain elevators heralded the approach to almost every town on this stretch. The one in Ashby had a particularly attractive mural painted at its bottom, depicting area attractions. A quick detour into town yielded a tranquil main street with colorful flowerboxes and refills of cold water.  Just beyond, I passed Lake Christina, which is an important stop for migrating waterfowl.

As the temperature soared to an unseasonable 80 degrees and I battled a headwind, I was grateful when the terrain changed enough to give me woodlands alongside the trail to block the wind.  I also took a break to explore Pioneer Village in Evansville.  It was just past closing time, so I parked my bike and meandered among the carefully preserved historic buildings.  It was enough to pique my interest for future exploration.

Throughout the day I found frequent trailheads with a shelter, bike repair station and either restrooms or a porta potty in each of the trail towns. Evansville, Brandon and Garfield flew by, each with their own unique brand of small-town America. There weren’t many people on the trail, mainly walkers with and without dogs, perhaps owing to it being a weekday.  Approaching Alexandria – my stop for the night – the population of cyclists multiplied as locals took to the trail. Standing guard at the edge of the trail in Alexandria was Big Ole, Alexandria’s landmark mascot. The nearly 30-foot-tall rendering of a Viking explorer holds a shield which proudly proclaims Alexandria to be the “Birthplace of America”. After 46 hot miles into the wind, Alexandria was my resting place.

Refreshed by a hearty dinner and hotel stay, I resumed my journey eastward early the next day. In the lake town of Osakis, I couldn’t resist the call of Jacob’s Lefse Bakery, where I picked up the fresh Norwegian flatbread and perused the gift offerings.

After Osakis the Central Lakes State Trail quietly transitions to the Lake Wobegon Trail.  I also left the pothole lakes behind, as farm fields took over the landscape. The very dry summer we were experiencing had the foliage turned more colorful than I expected, with brilliant reds on the sumac bushes, and yellow leaves on the trees.  Corn stalks and soybean plants, the predominant farm crops, stood parched in many of the fields.

After passing through West Union, I arrived in Sauk Centre and headed to Sinclair Lewis Park to dig into the lefse I had been carrying in my bag for 22 miles.  The sprawling park offered restrooms, water and nice views of Sauk Lake.  I chose a picnic table near the historic bandshell painted with a mural of a conductor directing a huge wavy keyboard and brass instruments. I could just imagine an actual band playing on a pleasant summer evening to a crowd sitting on picnic blankets in the grass.  Returning to the trail, I made sure to swing by Sinclair Lewis’ boyhood home.

In the heat of the afternoon Melrose’s elevators sailed by; as did Freeport’s smiling water tower.  On the edge of Albany, the Wobegon Trail branches and I followed its northward route.  It wasn’t long before I was into more forested countryside. The trail became much shadier with trees arching overhead forming a tunnel at times, a pleasant and pretty interlude. My pace really picked up, and checking the elevation afterwards I noticed that stretch had a definite downhill trend.

Holdingford demanded a stop because there was a lot to see. It started with a ride a across the longest covered bridge in Minnesota. The 186-foot span was built for the railroad in 1907 and received its roof and red, wooden siding 101 years later.  On the far side, a metalwork sculpture captured my attention. Randolph’s Dream by Keith Raivo depicts scenes of the area’s history using metal face casts of real people. The history of Holdingford is inextricably tied to the history of moonshining during Prohibition and the Holdingford Historical Museum houses a variety of artifacts from the time.  The trailhead included a Soo Line rail car with historic murals on the side, as well as a huge trike and gardens near a picnic pavilion – a welcome respite on a hot afternoon. Just beyond the trailhead I biked past Art in Motion’s inviting façade. This combination gallery, artist space and music venue opened in 2020 and includes the Boho Café which serves fresh local food and drinks.
At the county line just beyond Holdingford, the Wobegon trail officially ends and meets the Soo Line Trail for the final 10 miles of this section. I continued to the town of Bowlus, where the modern trailhead building has been made to resemble the long-gone train depot. Across the street what was once the town’s hotel and dance hall is now home to Jordie’s Trailside Café and its lovely garden.
Four miles down the trail at Blanchard Dam the trail crossed the Mississippi River on the old railroad trestle. I stopped to watch fishermen navigate their boats upstream through the swirling water.  The paved part of the Soo Line Trail ends two miles beyond, near Royalton, where it becomes a dirt trail open to ATV use. There’s a second, paved section between Isle and Onamia.
For my third day, I rode the final expanse of the Wobegon Trail in reverse.  Thanks to some shuttle assistance from a friend, I started at the trail’s eastern terminus at River’s Edge Park in Waite Park.  That section of trail is the newest, connecting to St. Joseph in 2018 with the future goal to add access to additional trails in St. Cloud.
After crossing the Sauk River, the trail passes through urban and industrial areas at first, but it’s thoughtfully constructed to maintain its tranquility.  In St. Joseph, I left the trail to detour through town where I found a vibrant downtown with a brewery, coffee shop, restaurants and shops. I turned on Minnesota Street and rode past the entrance to the College of St. Benedict.  At the western end of town, I followed a spur back to the trail. Shortly after I got back on track, I passed by what was once the railroad stop for quaint Collegeville. Students, faculty and clergy got off the train here to walk a mile or so to the campus of Saint John’s University. That line served the college until 1950 and if you look closely at the ground near the historical marker you can still see tracks in the ground.
Beyond Collegeville, the trail meandered through the countryside with farms and fields and wetlands on both sides. Avon’s trailhead park had the usual amenities, but also included a unique two-story lookout tower with views for miles. A little further into town, I succumbed to the draw of Gathering Grounds Coffee Shop where I indulged in a latte and delectable pastry.
The final stretch passed through more woods, prairies and lakes.  At Schwinghammer Lake, just outside of Albany, I read about the legend of the 1896 train derailment said to have occurred at that spot, and saw a replica of the supposed train’s bell at an interpretive display by the lake.  According to local lore, the steam train careened into the lake and slowly disappeared into the muck on the bottom, but some enterprising locals managed to take the bell off in time.
My ride was complete when I reached the juncture with the northern route.  I had completed 109 miles traveling from Fergus Falls to Waite Park, and 22 miles from Albany to just beyond the Mississippi River – all on smooth, protected trails through Minnesota’s central countryside.  What an excellent use of our former railroad beds.
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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