Rails to Trails
Over Memorial Weekend I had the opportunity to bike from Park Rapids to Walker, Minnesota. The journey began sunny and warm, but storms in the area caught up to me a few miles south of Walker. Despite getting drenched with rain, the journey on the Heartland State Trail was very interesting.
This particular trail is 49 miles long and was one of the first rail-to-trail projects in the country according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. It is located on a former railroad track except for a four-mile segment north of Walker on a low-volume traffic road. On the day of my ride, the multi-use trail was filled with runners, walkers, bikers, and even horseback riders. If I had continued on, the trail would have eventually connected to the Paul Bunyan State Trail system.
Nested into the woods in-between a few small towns, there trail is home to a multitude of wildlife. I saw a few doe's and numerous birds. The area is home raccoon, fox, beaver, porcupine, muskrat, coyote, weasel, mink, bobcat, and even black bears. I did see a large beaver dam on one of the many lakes scattered along the trail.
The most interesting parts of the journey were the small towns along the way. My first stop was Dorset, an unincorporated community with a population of 22. The town boasts of two restaurants, a small putt putt course, a few clothing shops, an antique shop, and a bookstore. It is well worth stopping if you are nearby or biking on the trail. The second town was Nevis, a much larger community with 390 residents. While I did not stop to shop, I did see a similar composition of retail establishments and restaurants and a giant muskie at a picnic shelter.
There are no stops after Nevis until you reach Walker, a town of about 940 on Leech Lake. You would not think the town was so small because the bustling tourists filled main street despite the dreary weather. While heavy forested, the trail offers glimpses of the city as you approach such as the water tower, a welcome sight as the rain was coming down pretty hard at this point in my journey.
The Heartland Trail represents the great land use combinations I love. It offers a peaceful ride that delivers you from one city to the next, separate from vehicular traffic. It is also a driver for the local economies of the small towns located along the trail. I have never visited Dorset or Nevis by car, only by bike on this trail. This kind of trail is replicated in Minneapolis through the Greenway, another rail-to-trail project that offers bikers a separated mode of transportation throughout the commercial nodes of the city. It is important to continue the work started decades ago and preserve these corridors that were once used for trains to again move people to their next destination.