Trail Pairings: Cannon Valley Trail
A Visit to Cannon Falls
When Jen and I rolled through Cannon Falls on the Cannon Valley Trail during our last visit in 2017, we noticed a newly remodeled building across the street from the Winery on West Mill Street. The large entry door was locked, but we could see someone moving about on the inside among tools and scaffolding. The person spied me peeping through the window with my nose pressed against the glass and my hands on the side of my head, and opened the door.
“Do you want to take a look inside?” the older gentleman asked. “What are you building?” I asked back. “It’s going to be a brewery,” he said.
Boy, did we ever want to take a look. It took a lot of imagination to picture a bar and stainless steel tanks where there was raw sheetrock and construction debris, but with the Cannon Valley Trail running through the backyard of this place, we immediately came up with a plan: Ride the trail between the soon-to-open Tilion taproom and Red Wing Brewery. I’m just sorry it took so long to actually do it.
The Cannon Valley Trail
We set up basecamp at Lake Byllesby Regional Park in Cannon Falls, in the well-maintained and clean campground. We were just a few feet off the campground bike trail, which connected with a short piece of the Mill Towns Trail at Byllesby Dam, which in turn linked with a city bike trail that connected with the Cannon Valley Trail. It sounds more complicated than it is, really.
The Cannon Valley Trail runs on part of what used to be the Chicago Great Western Line between Red Wing and Mankato. For the most part it follows the Cannon River, until you get closer to Red Wing. It’s a flat and easy 20ish-mile ride and much of it under a dense canopy of trees, so even on a hot day, like the day we visited, you’ll be shielded from the sun for the most part.
More about the trail here
We left camp around 9:30 am and found our way to the actual entrance of the trail off a residential street in Cannon Falls. In a rare moment of lucidity we had bought our trail passes the day before at the Chamber of Commerce, but those had remained safely tucked into the glove compartment of the car. We were off to a good start. Lucky for us, on weekends there are at least three booths along the trail-one near each end and in Welch- where volunteers will sell you a trail pass and answer questions.
When Jen and I ride together in a place we’ve been to, we usually start talking about what we remember from the last visit. The fun part is that we rarely agree 100 per cent on towns, landmarks or mileages, so it’s like a completely new trip for both of us every time. We have learned to just accept the other’s opinion about how far the next village is or if we’ll pass by a lake, even though we know at that moment that we’re each right and the other one is losing it. We now celebrate our cognitive differences.
The two of us were just cruising along and enjoying the ride, stopping at scenic overlooks to get glimpses of the Cannon River, marveling at the fern-draped rock cuts and the moss growing on the gravel shoulders of the trail. Occasionally we’d pop out of the woods and were blasted by sunlight and greeted by fields of wildflowers and expansive river flats with tree-covered bluffs looming in the distance.
Under the dense canopy it was so cool it was easy to forget that temperatures were starting to creep into the upper eighties. The ride, however, was delightful. There were few houses along the way, and a couple of them we both liked a lot. They were tucked into the green hills at the end of a gravel road and in view of river and a bike trail with a brewery on each end. Sign us up.
I had stopped to take picture and told Jen I’d catch up with her when I heard a familiar sound from behind me and the ride suddenly got a little wobbly. My rear tire was flat. Luckily, this happened right by one of the many spots with a little shelter and a bench. There are bike repair stations sprinkled along the route, but I wasn’t that lucky. It was easy enough to repair and I caught up with Jen in Welch, a trail access point pretty much halfway between Red Wing and Cannon Falls. Here, they have bathrooms, water, bike repair stations, a huge map of the trail etched in concrete, and a volunteer-staffed booth where you can buy trail passes and trail swag.
We rested up and continued toward Red Wing. It was after noon, getting hot and we had an important stop to make, so we picked up the pace. When we reached the Red Wing trailhead we confirmed with Google that the brewery was, indeed, just a half a mile away, just down the street, and went in for a late lunch.
Red Wing Brewery
Red Wing Brewery occupies an unassuming-looking building in an industrial area just a half a block south of the Mississippi and even closer to the existing railroad tracks that continue west as such and then turn into the Cannon Valley Trail. The inside is cozy with room for a few tables and a bar that occupies a good part of the space. Tucked into the right corner of the room are the stainless steel tanks, walled off, but visible through large windows. There’s also seating along the large window front that allows views of the street life.
We ordered a pizza and dove into a flight of samples. We didn’t have the time or stamina to taste each one of their 11 offerings so we narrowed it down to the Work Boot Red (named after Red Wing boots), Peppies Porter (named after Nessie’s cousin), Anderson Wheat (named after the guy who invented puffed wheat), and Remmler’s Royal Brew. The latter is one of three beers in their historic brews line that’s based on original recipes from some of Red Wing’s former breweries.
The pizza we ordered arrived about five minutes later and we forgot about our beers for a minute. This crusty, cheesy, bubbling pie was an absolute masterpiece that hit the spot and was gone in less time than it took to bake it. They make it right there, and our server told us some of the spent grains from the brewing process go into the dough.
As a surprise, we both picked the same beer as our trail pairing recommendation.
The Goodhue Farmhouse Ale (named after Goodhue County) extinguished the thirst we had worked up biking to the brewery on a hot day with its 20 IBU and 5% ABV.
A good alternative is the lemon shandy (me) or the Work Boot Red (Jen).
Whatever you choose, get the pizza. It doesn’t matter if you just ate or you’re on the way to Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s, get the pizza. You won’t regret it.
The way back to Cannon Falls was pretty much the same as the way in. Scenery, woods, river and happy bike riders galore (Just a quick soapbox moment: If your version of happy means blaring loud music from speakers attached to your bike, please consider what makes other people happy, such as the sounds of nature).
We made a stop at the Marshall Memorial Rest Area, which we had passed up earlier in the day. It’s a beautiful seating area with a bridge over Belle Creek, a trout stream. Jen stuck her feet in the ice-cold water. I waded out a little farther, promptly dropped down into hip-deep water and my bike shorts soaked up a gallon (or so it felt) of water. It made for a squishy ride back, but by the time we got to Tilion, all was well.
Approaching it from the trail, the brewery is perched on a hill overlooking the falls of the Little Cannon River, an offshoot of the main river, and Minnieska Park. Inching closer, we could see people enjoying a frosty mug high on the patio and we knew we had arrived.
When you first enter the L-shaped room, you immediately see the gift shop and the bar. A few steps in to the left, shiny fermentation tanks gleam behind a half wall and straight ahead, windows let in lots of light and a door allows access to the patio. Around the corner, in the short leg of the L, beer-hall style tables and some smaller tables with river views round out the seating arrangements.
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We bellied up to the bar and got to work on a flight of six sample glasses. The Helios Honey Wheat, Little Cannon Brown Ale, Maibock, Seltzer, Promise West Coast IPA and Bliss Oatmeal Stout offered a good variety out of the 12 beers on the tap list.
After some deliberation I picked the Promise West Coast IPA and Jen chose the Little Cannon Brown Ale to round out the day and I even took home some crowlers.
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At the end of the day, back at camp, we had biked almost exactly 50 scenic miles and visited two awesome taprooms, all without getting on the road.
I can only dream about a time when all the planned trail connections in the state are done and the Cannon Valley Trail will be the centerpiece of a network of trails between Mankato, Lake City and Rochester. Until then, get the pizza.