Trail Pairings: A Visit to Brainerd

Jun 21, 2022Trail Pairings

Brainerd is in our back yard and Jen and I have driven and biked through there so many times we’ve lost count.  It’s been the launching point of some great day trips by bike and ski over the years, but this time we decided to stay the whole weekend and take a closer look.

Lum Park has been around since the early 19th century. On the northern end of Rice Lake, a long, stretched out bulge in the Mississippi River, the city of Brainerd turned 38 acres of shoreline property into a very popular park. In its heyday, it had a bath house, a dance pavilion and concession stands and beachgoers arrived by the busload. Today, there’s a small campground and things are generally a little quieter. Being close to town, Lum Park made a perfect headquarters for our weekend of biking and fishing.

An Suv, a travel trailer and a screen tent are parked at a campsite

After setting up on Friday, there was just enough time for dinner. A five-minute bike ride through a quiet neighborhood later, we sat at the bar at the Local 218 and began going over plans for the weekend. Our Saturday was packed tight with a walking tour of downtown, a ride on the Paul Bunyan Trail to Crow Wing State Park and a visit to Jackpine Brewery. Sunday had us kayak fishing Rice Lake, but I also wanted to stop in at Smokestack BBQ Supply to stock up on that one thing I didn’t know I needed until I saw it. Most everything revolved around downtown Brainerd, which was easily accessible by signed bike route, only about two and a half miles from camp. It was a solid plan.

Our dinner arrived quickly. Jen’s fish and chips were delicious with a light, flaky crust. My pork tenderloin sandwich had only a top bun-so I thought. I discovered it later under that huge, crispy slab of meat. The place was winding down, but a large birthday party kept things lively. Then, a server brought out onion rings stacked to resemble a birthday cake and topped with a lit candle. Birthday guy blew it out and everyone sang Happy Birthday. I must have been staring at the sizzling tower for a while, because the look on Jen’s face suddenly said “No, you can’t tell them it’s your birthday, too.”  We made it home before dark to rest up for the next day.

Closeup of two dinner entrees at Local 218 Restaurant in Brainerd MN

Saturday morning began with a light rain, but it eventually let up and we snuck out between the rain drops. Our route was pretty simple and took us directly downtown by bike in about 15 minutes, with no problems. We stepped into Knotty Pine Bakery in search of breakfast. Their bright, open space had black white and gray checkered floors, a shiny tin ceiling and some knotty pine accents. It was welcoming, old timey, but at the same time fully modern and the smell of baked goods drew us straight to the front counter where sweet and savory treats sparkled behind glass, like edible exhibits in a museum. We grabbed Ham and Cheese Biscuits, a Whoopie Pie and some coffee and plopped down at the counter facing the window. Downtown Brainerd was just waking up as we watched the Open signs come on in shop window after shop window on Laurel Street. The sun was peeking out and things were looking good for the walking tour.

Feeling under-caffeinated still, we slipped into Coco Moon coffee shop for a cup to go. We didn’t make it all the way to Fancy Pants Chocolates when we spied someone dressed in a unicorn costume on the sidewalk. Turns out The Crossing Arts Alliance was giving away art kits that day and Jen just couldn’t resist the call of the unicorn. The mission of this non-profit is to bring art to the community with workshops, exhibits and classes and giving away a kit with watercolors and other art supplies is just one way they reach out.

A person in a unicorn costume chats with a passerby in front of The Crossing Arts Alliance building

The lure of Theobroma cacao’s fruit finally drew us across the street to Fancypants Chocolates, where owner Nancy Williams has been making and selling a variety of chocolate things for twenty years. Her sweets come in round, square and other shapes topped or filled with nuts, fruits, caramel or cream in a dazzling variety. She told us her selection will be even bigger once she recovers from surgery and we can’t wait to see what else she can fill those cases with. We nabbed a variety bag and headed out for our walking tour. Move over Hershey’s; go home Whitman’s Sampler; and try harder, Cadbury bunny, because once you try these, you’ll never eat brown wax again.

A shopkeeper stands behind the counter at Fancypants Chocolates in Brainerd MN
A man points at the historic water tower in Brainerd MN

At the Visit Brainerd office next door, a small crowd had gathered for a tour of historic downtown. On this 90-minute walk around the block, our tour guide, Carl Faust, covered a lot of ground. From the city’s origin as a railroad stop, simply called The Crossing; to the christening of Brainerd after the maiden name of the wife of a railroad president; to a bustling lumber town with electric street cars, fancy banks with marble columns and a 2,000-seat opera house; to the eventual decline of retail when the malls moved in; to a growing tourist industry and the renewed interest in downtown revival, we took a long trip back in time. 

 Carl encouraged us to ask questions, and if he got stumped, he said, the answers would be on the back of our handouts- a blank page. All this history is evident in the old buildings and what’s been done to them over the years. We learned that most structures were made from either a red or cream-colored brick from opposite sides of the nearby Mississippi River. The cream-colored ones have turned out to be much tougher and the red ones have slowly crumbled away.

The results of preservation efforts can be seen in various places in downtown. One such place is Sage on Laurel, where we stopped for lunch. The building has been renovated to house the restaurant, but the patio is in the space of another building long gone. What appears to be the outside brick façade of the restaurant are, in fact, the remnants of the inside wall of what was once there. Our Bruschetta BLT and Greek Chicken Wrap disappeared quickly and as much as we would have liked to relax on the patio, there was a trail calling our name. The rain clouds had moved out and the weather was perfect for a ride.

All we had to do was bike west on Laurel Street across the Mississippi River bridge and pick up the Paul Bunyan Trail at the corner of W Laurel Street and NW 4th St. A sign pointed us in the direction of the park and with sunshine and a tailwind we soon reached the green outskirts of Brainerd’s neighbor, Baxter. We ducked into the woods, literally, and immediately forgot we were only about a mile from busy Highway 371. Through the trees we could see posh villas along the trail. On this short stretch we spotted some cute fairy houses at the base of a few trees. A tiny door revealed some small toys inside, to the delight of a little kid whose parents were patiently waiting for him to pick one. Another resident had installed a rainbow-colored bench for people to rest and watch the goats play in their fenced-in yard. As soon as we stopped, they came running, looking for handouts, but we weren’t about to share our chocolates. I’ve been around many trails, but that was the first goat-viewing bench I’ve seen.

The next couple of miles took us through an area of Baxter that looked primed for development. Wide roads flanked by thick stands of pines, traffic-less roundabouts and a sparkling, new Elementary School appeared to be ready for more new construction. We came across quite a few trail connections and broke out the map at each intersection to make sure we stayed on track. Eventually, there was a cul-de-sac and the trail dipped under Highway 371, crossed the Mississippi River on a separated bike trail and spit us out at the entrance to Crow Wing State Park. The six miles inside the park made for an amazing ride. Unconstrained by a railroad bed or existing architecture, the path winds through the park and rolls through the woods on gentle bumps that don’t take much effort to climb. 

 Sightlines are short and you can’t see more than one or two turns ahead. To me this is a sign of good trail layout, because anticipating what’s around the next bend keeps your mind engaged and makes for a more interesting ride. That also meant riding single file. Toward the end of the trail inside the park, we exited the woods and rode through a short section of open prairie.  The trail ends at the park’s main parking lot, just past the contact station. For the way back we fueled up with a piece of chocolate-covered raspberry jelly and candied orange peel, respectively. I was happy to see our treats had survived the trip in my handlebar bag on this near-80-degree day, because chocolate-covered camera is not good.

We made the reverse trip in record time and reached Triangle Drive-Inn Treats by the time the sugar had worn off. It had become seriously warm and that called for ice cream. We rolled right up to the window of the small roadside building, where owner Tony Grant was taking orders. Jen’s Butterfinger Tornado wasn’t bad, but my P’Nut Butter Bomb really hit the spot. What makes it a bomb? The brownie pieces, of course.

Back at camp, after our 30-mile bike ride, we cleaned up and headed over to Jackpine Brewery. We’re no stranger to their beers. In fact, we have very fond memories of the old facility in an industrial park on College Drive. Owner Patrick Sundberg used to roll up the garage door of the tiny warehouse, roll out the picnic tables and start pouring beers from behind a homemade bar, and that was that. They’ve come a long way and their beers are still solid. On that particular day the Watermelon Lemon Shandy was a good choice for Jen. At 10 IBU and 4.6 ABV it was the perfect cap on a warm day and a bike ride. I went Against the Grain, literally, and had the Golden Ale. The 20 IBU and 5.5% ABV in this straightforward and uncomplicated beer was all I needed to enjoy my balmy evening on the outdoor patio after a busy day. I also had a taste of the Dead On Dill Pickle Cream Ale and I’m delighted to report that it was actually good. It would make a wonderful chaser for a Bloody Mary made with Vodka from Brainerd’s Five Rocks Distilling Co. Unfortunately, we ran out of time to visit them, too, but it’s on the list for next time, for sure.

Our last day in Brainerd started with a good-old-fashioned breakfast at The Barn Restaurant. It’s not big or fancy or trendy, but if you want to immerse yourself in local flavor, The Barn is the place. It’s been in the same spot on Washington Street, aka Highway 210, since 1946, serving Maid Rite brand sandwiches, that is hamburger meat with a blend of proprietary spices. The restaurant comes complete with orange Formica booths and Naugahyde-covered chrome swivel counter stools, bolted to the floor. In conversation with our server, we found out that this, in fact, is the last Maid-Rite franchise in the state and they routinely serve around 70 pounds of meat from a large steam table in the middle of the 30-seat dining room. I was still reeling from Friday night’s trauma of not having an onion ring birthday cake, so I decided to order a Mickey Mouse pancake. Our waitress, a true professional, did not flinch. Breakfast came and disappeared quickly. It was that good. Before we left, I noticed a handwritten flyer taped to the glass door of the beverage cooler. I read it, read it again, then asked Jen to read it. It did, indeed, advertise a beef sundae. If there was ever a dish that was invented just for me it’s this one: A scoop of (from scratch) mashed potatoes with a dollop of Maid-Rite meat, topped with tomato “sprinkles”. This one’s on the itinerary for our next visit.

It was still early in the day when we put the kayaks in the water at Rice Lake. It was a cool, overcast day with little wind and the sunfish were biting. We paddled up and down the shores of Rice Lake and enjoyed some quiet time after our action-packed Saturday. Eventually, the fish called it quits and it was time for a late lunch and some shopping.

A woman paddles her fishing kayak on a lake in the summer

What used to be the sprawling complex of the Northern Pacific Railroad’s repair yard is being reimagined, bit by bit. The spaces that once housed welding shops, boiler rooms, coal storage and a foundry are slowly being converted into a collection of shops, restaurants and event venues, even a gym. We bee-lined into Smokestack BBQ Supply to marvel at the shiny grills, smokers and griddles. Jen and I are both into backyard cooking so we enjoyed the experience equally. We’re always looking for our next smoker and it’s good to be able to lift a lid or two to get a feel for a machine. The next coolest thing in this store is the wall of barbeque rubs, marinades and sauces. Jokes aside, it actually fills the entire west wall. With so much to choose from it comes in handy that they have a tasting bar with open jars of all of their products. Just put some in a sample cup, taste it, close your eyes and imagine the cheers and shoulder pats you’ll receive from your friends and family when you roll out that pulled pork or brisket.

Our very last stop on this visit to Brainerd was a late lunch at Notch 8 Restaurant. We decided to split the charcuterie pretzel and we were glad we did. The menu said “giant” and it was; definitely enough for two people, maybe more. We worked on it, outside on the patio, while we de-briefed and talked about the last two days. A bride in full regalia strolled across the parking lot toward the events center, trailed by a giggling gaggle of bridesmaids. Pigeons circled above us and settled on the chimney of the former power plant. Shoppers meandered in and out of the stores. There was nothing left to do except go home, but we had already started a list for our next visit. Item number one: Onion ring birthday cake.

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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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