Trail Pairings: Stillwater
Time for a visit
After three years of repairs and retrofits, the historic lift bridge in Stillwater re-opened to the public on June 1, 2020. What used to be a major traffic connection into Wisconsin over the St. Croix River counting about 18,000 cars a day is now only open to non-motorized traffic. Motor vehicles cross the river over a new bridge a mile to the south. Along with a new bike trail and separated bike and pedestrian paths over the new bridge, the Saint Croix River Crossing Loop Trail makes for a five-mile circle route that connects Stillwater and its neighbor across state lines, Houlton, WI.
This new trail connects seamlessly to the Brown’s Creek and Gateway State Trails and brings the mileage of recreational trails in the area to near 30. Stillwater also has two breweries, so it was time for the first Trail Pairing by bike this year. It ended up being a story with a lot of bridges.
St. Croix River Crossing Loop Trail
At 9am on a Saturday morning a steady stream of walkers and bikers moved up and down the riverfront trail in downtown Stillwater as we unloaded the bikes. The air was already steamy and people zipping by were glistening from an early workout in the hazy morning sun. Our plan was to take our crew of four on the new loop trail and generally poke around town and meet up with two more riders later.
During my last visit to Stillwater the lift bridge was still in use as a regular traffic route into Wisconsin. I remember cars and trucks rumbling across the span almost constantly, bringing noise and the smell of exhaust. Every time the bridge went up to let boats through, traffic backed up into downtown, creating a mess of cars, trucks and motorcycles trying to work their way through the city, that was already filled with pedestrians visiting the many shops and restaurants.
I’m happy to report that people now have reclaimed at least part of Chestnut Street, aka Highway 36. They were walking, jogging, biking, rollerblading and moving in whatever other kind of non-motorized way they could think of, e-bikes excluded. There was even someone on one of those elliptical-bicycle hybrids. More power to ya, exercising-outside-on-inside-equipment-person.
Gone are the rumbling semis spewing gray exhaust. The area in front of the bridge has turned into a people-friendly, circular plaza with room for casual strollers and bikes entering and exiting the trail. The bridge itself looks good in its new coat of historically accurate olive, a mixture of Nobrac Olive, Ironhide Green No. 38 and Superior Graphite 10743, to be exact. (read more about the restoration process here)
On the concrete bridge deck, the former road has been painted with lines for bike and pedestrian lanes to keep things orderly. The lift bridge operator still sits in his little cubicle, wearing a safety vest and helmet, and raises and lowers the span every thirty minutes between 8am and midnight. When we passed by he was engaged in a conversation with a passerby through the window, answering questions about the bridge. I assume he likes his job much better now.
Somewhere in the middle we unceremoniously crossed into Wisconsin and right after the bridge, the climbing began. It’s not a very long climb, maybe a quarter mile, but it packs a punch. About two-thirds of the way up the hill, there was a little spot to pull over and enjoy the view of the river and the town of Stillwater, tucked into the green hills. It turns out getting to the top of the hill was about the toughest part of the whole trip. We continued on a flat trail along Houlton’s city streets and arrived at the brand new trailhead on the Wisconsin side. It had restrooms, a bike repair stand with tools and a bottle filling station. Surrounded by hills brimming with wildflowers was a small amphitheater with stone seats and colorful artwork etched into concrete panels. (Read more about the Art Bench Trail here)
After passing through a tunnel under a County road, all of the work so far paid off: The rest of the trail, just about three miles, sloped downward, all the way back to Stillwater. We crossed the river over the St. Croix Crossing Bridge, which is now the way for four lanes of traffic to move between the states. On the north side of the span, facing Stillwater, a separated bike and pedestrian lane travels a mile over the St. Croix River and slopes from 150 feet high on the Wisconsin side to about 100 feet on the Minnesota side. A blissful cruise with hands on your brakes, but if you don’t stop at one of three overlooks on the bridge, you’ll miss the spectacular view to the north, the old lift bridge, Stillwater and boats cruising in the tan waters down below. The way the sun was shining on the river, we even spotted dozens of catfish hanging out in the shallows.
Each overlook has plenty of room for bikes and people and has interpretive panels about the nature and history of the river. The cool thing was, literally, the breeze. 100 feet or more above the river, a steady wind was keeping the shirt dry, even thought the sun was really cranking the BTUs. We kept cruising downhill until we were off the bridge and rejoined Stillwater’s existing bike trail past the marina along the river. I checked my odometer; it was just about a five-mile loop.
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The four of us grabbed breakfast sandwiches and coffee drinks from the Daily Grind (iced coffee with a double shot of espresso, if you’re wondering) and waited for the other two crewmembers to arrive at the Pedestrian Plaza between Commercial Street and Water Street. What a great place to people-watch in the shade. The variety of folks strolling up and down the promenade from the shops to the river was just amazing.
There was the gaggle of eight spandex-clad bicycle racers with matching American-flag jerseys, duck walking their bikes around in their clip shoes; the super-buff, hyper-tan old guy who just stepped off his boat and whose white hair and sneakers were in blinding competition to reflect sunlight; the very well dressed, professional couple; the bride and her entourage in full regalia on the way to the bridge for a photo op; the middle-aged biker couple sweating in their leather vests and chaps without the benefit of a 50 mile per hour wind; the instagramming Mommy, trying in vain to get her hot and crabby toddler to do something photogenic; the skateboarding teenager wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the name of a band that was already on the classic rock station when I was his age-the list goes on. They were all there, going by in a constant stream. I almost forgot about my sandwich. When the last two crewmembers arrived, we decided to do the loop again. I wanted to go counter-clockwise this time, but I was overruled. After the second round, it was time to visit our first brewery of the day.
Lift Bridge Brewing Company
The taproom is about two miles southwest of downtown Stillwater in a business park near Highway 36. The unassuming building blends into the neighborhood, but the inside hosts a cozy wood bar with scattered tables and a huge wall of merchandise. While air conditioning sounded nice, we plopped down at a picnic table under a tree on the manicured lawn, fresh off the bike, damp and feeling a little salty. It was noticeably cooler here than in downtown, a slight breeze kept everybody happy, and the beers started to roll in. It was a pleasant afternoon in the shade with good friends. It was also good to get away from the bustling boulevards of downtown for a bit.
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I went straight for an old favorite, Farm Girl Saison. At 5.5 % ABV and only 12 IBU, it was the perfect pairing with a hot and sweaty bike ride. It reminded me of some choice German wheat beers, but with less banana flavor and a little more zip at the end. My second choice, Resting Kölsch Face (please don’t forget the Umlaut, it’s important to people like me) came in at 4.8 % ABV and 21 IBU.
This was our first visit to a taproom since taprooms were officially re-opened during the COVID-19 pandemic and it felt good, yet strange, to be out again. There was a check-in procedure to get seated, plenty of tables outside, and a battery of Porta-Potties with a hand washing station. A huge thank you goes out to the staff that was running beers out to customers and constantly wiping down tables and chairs, all while wearing masks on a sunny day. “It’s soooo hot”, our waitress said.
As relaxing as Lift Bridge was, it soon became time to check into our hotel, rip off those bike shorts, take a shower and visit our next taproom.
Maple Island Brewing
The taproom is right in downtown Stillwater, facing the town’s main drag, St. Croix Trail on one side and, more importantly, Water Street with its river views on the other side. We grabbed a table on the patio and started digging into the beer offerings. Against my own rule of reserving stronger beers for the colder months, I had the Imperial Scottish Ale with its 10% ABV and 24 IBU. A great beer, which I’ll have again next time I visit for some skiing or fat biking. But with temps in the high 80s, I decided on the Cream Ale with 4.8% ABV and 15 IBU. This is my recommendation for finishing up a bike ride. It worked perfectly. After a tasty burrito from the Mexican food truck in the parking lot, I tried one of Maple Island’s hard seltzers in the black cherry flavor. That turned out to be my number two pick. If you’re not into beer and you want to chill with your beer-loving friends, or you have a scorching hot burrito on a near ninety-degree day, this is for you.
We relaxed on the patio for a while and enjoyed the unique Stillwater sound track: People chatting and laughing, the rumble of motorcycles on the road and the reliable sound of the horn telling us the lift bridge was about to be raised or lowered. Before we turned in for the evening, we witnessed another Stillwater show: Hot air balloons rose up from the green hills across the river on the Wisconsin side and gently floated over the river into Minnesota. What a perfect cap on a busy day of trail pairing.
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Brown’s Creek State Trail
The Sunday after our loop trail ride the crew was just down to Jen and I and we decided to ride from Stillwater to Pine Point Regional Park and back for a leisurely 20-miler. Leaving from the Stillwater trailhead, the Brown’s Creek State Trail gently climbed out of the river valley toward Duluth Junction. Even on a hot day the trail was remarkably cool because it’s hidden under a canopy of trees for much of the way.
Brown’s Creek was a constant companion on our ride, sometimes in plain sight or hidden at the bottom of a ravine, barely visible through the dense foliage. It was a short ride, but there are traces of Minnesota history tucked into the woods that go a long way back. About two miles from Stillwater we paused at an interpretive stop with benches and a plaque. Here, we caught a glimpse of Minnesota’s oldest stone bridge. Built in 1865, it allowed the Point Douglas to Superior Military Road to cross Brown’s Creek and it’s still standing today. (More about this bridge here)
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Gateway State Trail
At Duluth Junction, we turned onto the Gateway State Trail and headed toward Pine Point Park, where the trail ends (There is another trail connection across from the park and it appears to be heading back toward Stillwater, but we’re still researching).
The feel of the Gateway was very similar to the Brown’s Creek Trail: Lots of shade, huge trees and the occasional creek. It did have more of a boulevard feel. The path appeared much wider because of the adjacent horse trail. The highlight of this section was yet another historic bridge. Not as old as the stone bridge, but still very interesting. It’s one of five known remaining wrought iron bridges in Minnesota and it’s well travelled, too. Built in Sauk Centre, MN in 1873, it moved twice and ended up in its current location in 2012. That, by the way, was cool bridge number four for the weekend.
At Pine Point Park we turned around and biked back toward Duluth Junction, but not without stopping at Gateway Trailside Café for a BLT and some of their famous lemonade. As always, the way back on the last day of an excursion took a little longer, because neither one of us really wanted the trip to end. We will have to come back another time to see what the rest of the Gateway Trail looks like. There may be more bridges.