The Unabridged Top Ten Bike Rides in Minnesota

[The north end of the Munger Trail.]
Last week, MPR kindly included me in their list of "bike experts and bicyclists" (redundant?) to describe their top Minnesota Bike Rides.

But I have to say, the list I provided to MPR was incomplete. I had to edit it down, and since jotting those notes in a drunken stupor, I've changed my no less then three times.

Here's the full, unadulterated, unabridged, uncensored, unabbreviated list (normally I would put this in a highly annoying slideshow format, where you have to completely reload the page each time to see the next entry on the list until you get all the way to #1, but I'm feeling lazy today...):

#10 Munger Trail -- This lovely trail runs from Hinckley to Duluth, and to be frank, it's a bit boring. It's straight as an arrow and flat, and there are only a few little towns to break up the monotony. But the path itself is wide and nicely maintained, and the best part of is the finish. Much like the boring drive up 35, the spectacular destination makes the trip worth it. At the northern end of the Munger, the trail begins curving as you climb up the hills approaching the lake. There you'll find a bike-only connection to the gorgeous William O'Brien Jay Cooke State Park along the Saint Louis River, and a path leading right into Duluth proper, one of Minnesota's most interesting cities to visit. The moment when you first glimpse Lake Superior over the next hill is a great feeling.

[Lovely roads on the periphery of Pepin.]

#9 Biking around Lake Pepin -- If you spend all your time in the Twin Cities, its easy to forget that the Mississippi River becomes this breathtaking mile-wide juggernaut just a few hundred miles to the South.  Running South from the Twin Cities, Lake Pepin is the first point where the river reaches sublime proportions, and biking around the lake is a wonderful way to spend a few days. Both sides of the lake are lined with lovely little towns -- Wabasha, Maiden Rock, and Stockholm are my favorites -- and there are lots of little touristy spots to discover. While the main highways have decent shoulders and make for nice riding (especially the Wisconsin side), the back roads leading up the bluffs on either side are superb. You'll have many unforgettable moments coming down steep descents into a glorious view of the river.

#8 Midtown Greenway all the way to Mound Minnesota -- The Midtown Greenway is great, and is an obvious member of this list. But one of the best thing about it is that it keeps going and going and going Westward right through the curli-que suburbs and into the prairie countryside. My favorite Westward trip is to begin at the Greenway, continue to the bicycle crossroad of Hopkins, and then jog North up to the trail on the North side of Lake Minnetonka. From there you can continue right through the backyards of insanely rich people until you get to the small city of Mound on the far side of the lake. There, right next to the bike path, you'll find the best mini-golf course in the history of human creation: Big Stone Mini Golf and Sculpture Garden. The most fun golf holes imaginable, goats, sculptures, and picnic areas all combined with a Tim Burton vibe. The first time I happened across this place (on a bike, no less), it instantly shot to the top of my Twin Cities' To Do list.

[The path down to the river from the ERR.]
#7 East River Road -- It's hard to choose between the East and West River Roads, but if pressed, I'll take the East side. (Except for the part next to the river near Bohemian Flats, the West River Road is just too highly organized for my part. It lacks the precarious wilderness and bluff-top views of its Saint Paul twin.) My favorite part of the ERR is the southernmost stretch winding around Highland Park where the path undulates high atop the river bluff. You feel like you're bicycling on the edge of a mountain. The road continues North past the rocky outcrops along Summit Avenue all the way to Southeast Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota. (For an extra thrill, drop down to the riverside path cantilevered over the Mississippi underneath the Franklin Avenue bridge.)

#6 Nicollet Mall
-- Even though I'll often avoid it for expediency's sake, I love biking down Nicollet Mall. Sure you have to ride slowly, stopping often at the ill-timed lights, weaving between buses, cursing cabs, and avoiding people with shopping bags. But to cruise through the heart of the city surrounded by all kinds of people strolling and chatting, to hear street musicians and smell sidewalk caf├ęs, to know that there are a million things to do...  This is what makes Minneapolis a great city.

[The eastern portion of the Gateway Trail.]
#5 The Gateway Trail -- The Gateway Trail, running North-East out of an industrial area in Saint Paul's North End, is gloriously beautiful. The trail runs through the East Side's urban woods where you'll see lots of neat back yards, and share the path with group of kids playing hooky or families walking to fishing spots. North Saint Paul is an under-rated destination, at the midpoint of the trail. And from there, it curves through forests alongside a horse track, and even cuts through patches of oak savannah as you get towards its outer edge. For a destination, you can choose between the "quaint" city of Stillwater (full disclosure: not my favorite place, unless there's a bike race), or better yet, turn off and go to the Gasthaus Bavarian Hunter. Or better better yet, take the trail all the way to the end and jump into Square Lake, one of the metro's most perfect swimming spots just a few miles down the road.

#4 Practically Any City Street Late At Night -- People who haven't ridden bikes in the city don't understand that late-night riding is one of its greatest joys. Apart from a few main drags (e.g. Lake Street), after about 10 pm bicyclists pretty much have the streets to themselves. Bicycling late at night is blissfully quiet: you're alone in a big city with only the moon, the wind in the trees, and occasional lights shining from a house as you pass by. Late at night, I've often gone the entire distance from South Minneapolis to points deep into Saint Paul without encountering a single car along the way. It's nothing short of blissful.

[The Minnesota River Trail near Mendota in Spring.]
#3 Minnesota & Mississippi Rivers from 494 to Downtown St Paul -- My favorite Twin Cities' bike ride begins at the Big Rivers regional trail across the Minnesota River from Bloomington. This gorgeous wide riverbluff trail is unbeatable, running through the quirky old town of Mendota, dropping down into the river flats of old Lilydale alongside the river's haunted caves, and popping out at Harriet Island, right next to downtown Saint Paul.

On this ride, you get everything: ragged river flats wilderness, bluff-side views, super-quirky small towns, ancient Minnesota history, a hint of suburban mall schlock, and the very heart of the city. The whole thing's off-street, and nicely maintained. When they're done with the Lilydale construction, it should get even better.

[A rustic road in Western Wisconsin.]

#2 Any Ride that Goes to Wisconsin -- It's a little known fact that the best thing about biking in Minnesota is its so easy to get to Wisconsin. Much to Scott Walker's chagrin, Western Wisconsin is filled with sparsely-travelled paved county roads that wind through rural countryside. The parts along the bluffs boasts "rustic roads", which will take through glorious hillsides. Wisconsin's driftless area is gorgeous, and filled with you lots of hills to climb and descend, and isolated valleys. Even better,  at least every ten miles you'll come across a tiny town, each of which has at least one tiny bar where you can get refreshment and cheese for less than the price of a coffee in the Cities. Truly, Wisconsin is bicycling paradise.

#1 Anywhere I Haven't Been Yet -- It's easy to get stuck in a rut, to keep going back to the same places you know and love. But really, the best ride is one that you haven't been on yet. Make it a rule that you'll always try to bike in loops, never retracing your steps, always taking a new route when you can. That's how you'll discover new ground, find the next Big Stone, the next amazing town, the next forgotten neighborhood.  Get to know your city one new road at a time.

[Bike with your dog on Lake Street.]


Julie Kosbab said...

I'm strangely (legendarily) fond of the Roseville Res trails that connect to the St. Paul water facility, and then out to Jackson/Arlington. You can connect them to almost any nice place in either St. Paul or Minneapolis.

Jinwen said...

The pics looks so nice, wish I could bike there

Amber Sausen said...

I'm so glad you included the city at night--it's pretty magical to have the big city streets to yourself!
Also, regarding Munger trail, I think you meant Jay Cooke State Park?