Pedal and Paddle in Alexandria
My wife Jen and I have ridden the length of the Central Lakes State Trail a couple of times over the years. On its way from Osakis to Fergus Falls it passes through Alexandria, which sits in the middle of an area with over 350 lakes. We’ve seen this lake town from the seat of our bikes, but not spent any significant amount of time there. It was time to change that and we put together a weekend of activities, on and off the bike.
We nabbed the last remaining table at La Ferme on a Friday night. At Alexandria’s farm to fork restaurant, Chef Matthew Jensen puts out a small and changing menu with locally sourced ingredients and an emphasis on sustainability. The cozy space was welcoming and the low light set the stage for a wonderful dining experience. The setting sun streamed into the restaurant through the street facing windows and we enjoyed the scene. All around us, diners enjoyed themselves and made conversation over their plates. Champagne flutes clinked in a private dining room off the main area. Through the glass we saw a man stand up and give a toast. Occasionally, a hiss and a burst of flame lit up the kitchen behind the bar.
A surprise amuse-bouche arrived; salmon and pickled ramp with lingonberry butter on a mushroom and green onion biscuit. Not much later, the main course. Jen chose the bluenose with rice noodles, turnips and oyster mushrooms; I had the pizza with nettles, speck, cream sauce, green onions and cheese. The curiously shaped little dish full of red pepper flakes it came with was made by a local art teacher, we were told. We traded bites and went over the weekend plans while we ate. It’s amazing what a chef can do with just a few simple ingredients.
Around the corner, at Garden Bar on 6th, we had a nightcap and picked up a charcuterie box to go. Jen’s Bright Eyed and Bushy Tailed cocktail, a cousin of the Colorado Bulldog, brought back memories.
Early in the morning, Broadway Street was quiet and a very light breeze rustled the fresh flower baskets hung from the light posts. The Travelers Inn Cafe, or Travs for those in the know, has been serving breakfast and lunch in Alexandria since 1926. The original space is still there, including some lunch counter swivel stools, but the restaurant has taken over an adjacent building and is bigger on the inside than it appears. The first thing we noticed was the funky wallpaper, bicycle-themed in our part of the dining area. The decor had a nod to retro design and some of the light fixtures looked to be made from stacked bowls and plates. I was happy to see an espresso machine on the counter and ordered my usual, coffee with a shot of espresso. “We call that a hammerhead,” our friendly server said. It arrived in a big, yellow cup and got me primed for the day. More guests sauntered in and were greeted with a hearty “What’s new?” Our country fried steak and eggs Benedict were both tasty, American classics.
We chained up the bikes at Big Ole Park and strolled around the Saturday morning farmers and art markets. On the farmers side of things, we found breads, a variety of early veggies, canned goods, honey and other local foods. The arts booths had all kinds of crafts, paintings, pottery wood turnings and jewelry. One gentleman selling fishing poles with custom wooden handles assured me his work was guaranteed to catch fish. It was still early and the town was just waking up, but there was already some bike traffic on the Central Lakes State Trail at Big Ole Park.
Before our trip we connected with Jake Capistrant, owner of Jake’s Bikes to help us with our itinerary. With the help of online maps from the Big Ole Bike Club, he put together a route for us to see the lakes around Alexandria on the paved trail, but also get out on the gravel roads and take advantage of the area’s topography. The local moraines and drumlin fields translate into hills and we were about to get a taste of it. We rode the Central Lakes Trail toward Garfield and got onto what the bike club calls the Garfield Giddy Up route. Right of the bat we climbed a punchy hill that got our legs burning. There were more to come. Roller after roller we huffed up and zipped down, past farms, churches and little lakes, all with little to no traffic. There are a hundred miles or more of these roads around Douglas County and they make for a spicy ride with plenty of back road riding.
On the way home we spun the legs on the gentle grade of the Central Lakes Trail. Traffic was picking up and bikers, dog walkers, runners and rollerbladers poured out of the neighborhoods and resorts along the way to enjoy the perfect summer day.
After that hill workout it was time for lunch. Lucky for us, the Depot Smokehouse is literally steps away from the trail and serves a variety of smoked meats, made in house. We took our seats on the covered patio of the former train station and watched the activity outside. In the 1880s, steam trains delivered tourists to Alexandria by the wagon load, to be whisked away by horse carriage to the hotels and resorts in the area. Today, bikes have replaced trains and the only thing steaming here is the brisket, which came piled high on the brisket BLT. Together with the brisket queso and a cold glass of iced tea, we were ready for some walking in and out of the downtown shops.
Hello Beautiful stocks Minnesota themed items and decor, toys, food, clothing and jewelry. Those who know, grab a latte at the coffee counter and browse the bargain basement.
The Scandinavian Gift Shop was celebrating its 40th anniversary of offering everything from Norwegian clothing to Swedish candy and we walked the aisles for a long time. I stocked up on salty licorice here. The afternoon sun beat on us and we took a break outside of the Sugar Shack candy store with an ice-cold cherry soda. The interior had hot pink walls, checkerboard floors and a line at the ice cream counter. The sugar rush from the soda kept us going. Jen scoured the racks at Bon Jos and Kindred People Boutiques and we both had a good chuckle at the beer drinking socks at Magpie. It had been an eventful day so far and we retreated to our hotel for some rest and air conditioning.
Last time I visited Copper Trail Brewing they occupied a tiny niche in a strip mall on the south end of town. They moved into their new digs, the former Alexandria lumberyard, a few years ago and have been brewing there since, under the watchful eye of Big Ole (link to Big Ole live cam), the town mascot. Inside, the spacious place features chunky, wooden seating and rustic, beer-hall style tables. Outside, the roomy patio was filling up as Cimarron, a local band, was getting ready to play some bluegrass and country. It was Copper Trail’s Spring into Summer Fest and the crowd was ready. We ordered food at the 205 Grill, the in-house restaurant, grabbed a pint and settled into the comfortable outdoor furniture. After a long day in the saddle and shopping, the Legacy Laker Bohemian Pilsner was spot on and refreshing. Jen was happy with the Logger Lager, a Vienna-Style brew, although it took a few tries to say it right. The crowd was beginning to grow as people trickled in from a day outside. The band earned rounds of applause and the beer tasted good as the sun began to fade. We finished our tasty Korean tacos and cheese fondue and headed back to the hotel. Our carriage was rapidly turning back into a pumpkin.
We beat the after-church rush by mere minutes at the Coffee Pot Cafe on Sunday morning, again scoring the last free table. The small, hometown diner was decorated with cozy decor. Muffin tins, lanterns and coffee pots hung on the walls and the coffered ceiling made it feel homey. Unfazed by the line out the door, our server had us seated, drinks poured and menus in hand in minutes. Her shirt read “It’s 7 am somewhere” and she meant business. There was coffee and energy in the air and the cooks in the kitchen were calling orders and banging spatulas. Jen’s meat lover’s omelet and my biscuits and eggs arrived steaming hot and delicious. It didn’t take long and we exited the parking lot as more cars arrived.
Douglas County Parks maintains multi-use and mountain bike trails at Runestone, Spruce Hill and Lake Brophy County Park. The latter just received a brand-new visitor center and new facilities at the beach area. The plan was to hop on the mountain bike trails and then use the new kayak launch to get on the lake in search of fish.
Lake Brophy County Park has 6.5 miles of beginner to expert gravity flow trail singletrack with a 200′ elevation change in a prairie landscape, just three miles from downtown. The top of the system overlooks the entire park and the city of Alexandria. Dock jumps, drops and a rock garden are on the more technical, expert sections on the west side of the trail system. The eastern part is more of a cross-country ride with long straightaways and sweeping turns. The paved Central Lakes Trail we rode the day before, skirts the park and provides access by bike. Jake’s Bikes set us up with some sweet Trek mountain bikes for the day and we hit the trails, staying well away from the sections with the jumps. Across the field we watched people race each other downhill, launching simultaneously side by side from a platform. We enjoyed the breeze and the view of the lake from the top and everywhere we looked, there were people on bikes either crawling up or zipping down. But the cool breeze on top was also whipping Lake Brophy into whitecaps and we had to come up with a plan B for the kayak part of the day.
Down by Brophy Beach we broke out the charcuterie box from Garden Bar on 6th and pulled up a lakes area map on our phones. There’s no shortage of water access points in the Alexandria area and after trying one and seeing more whitecaps, we found Cowdry Lake to have a sheltered bay and good kayaking conditions. It felt good to get out on the water and work the arms for a change and for over two hours we tooled around and pulled out sunfish and crappies. It was the height of spring crappie season, after all. Our visit officially came to an end when we loaded up the kayaks and turned toward home. There’s more to explore in Alexandria and this was just the beginning.