Walking, cycling, skating the rail trail
Through the trees, alongside fields and on the shores of the lakes is the Paul Bunyan Trail, a multi-use trail that runs all the way from Brainerd to Bemidji.
The trail is especially popular in the summer with cyclists, inline skaters and pedestrians.
The 112-mile paved trail is a rails-to-trails project, one of four in Minnesota. Along with the Heartland, Casey Jones and Sakatah Singing Hills trails, the Paul Bunyan Trail was created by paving over abandoned railroad lines.
According to railstotrails.org, the benefit of rail lines is they are most often flat or follow a gently sloping grade.
The first paved 50 miles of the Paul Bunyan Trail to open ran from Brainerd and Baxter to Hackensack. Those miles were completed in 1992 over Burlington Northern tracks that were first constructed in 1893.
The Paul Bunyan Trail is the longest paved rails-to-trails path in the nation and is entirely non-motorized, except for snowmobiles.
From south to north, towns along the trail have stops and parks for travelers. The first major stop north of Brainerd, Baxter and Merrifield is Nisswa.
The Paul Bunyan Trail travels right through the center of Nisswa, as it does through many towns on the trail. Nisswa is home to shopping and restaurants very close to the trail, as well as public restroom facilities. Those facilities will be under construction after July 4, but portable bathrooms will be available.
Nisswa is also well-known for its summertime turtle races. Registration for the races begins at 1 p.m. and races begin at 2 p.m.
From Nisswa to Pequot Lakes is six miles of trail that passes alongside several lakes.
Jenna Crawford, Pequot Lakes area director for the Brainerd Lakes Chamber, said the trail from Pequot Lakes to Nisswa has beautiful landscape as it passes through the Cullen lakes and both trees and fields.
North of Pequot Lakes the trail is a little straighter, she said, and follows along Highway 371. She noted that north of Pequot Lakes the trail crosses over the highway on a pedestrian overpass, which people enjoy as a lookout point.
In the heart of Pequot Lakes along the trail, Crawford said there’s a chamber building that’s open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. with drinks, business information, community information and bathrooms.
There are two ends to Pequot Lakes’ Trailside Park, Crawford said. The south side has picnic tables and is less shaded, while the north side is home to the Veterans Memorial, a gazebo, band shelter and Dru Sjodin’s memorial garden, called Dru’s Garden.
Parking and access to the trail is also located at the Trailside Park.
Pine River is the next major stop heading north on the Paul Bunyan Trail. Jenkins, three miles north of Pequot Lakes, offers some stops in the form of gas stations, restaurants and shops, but no public restrooms. There is a parking and access area in Jenkins as well.
Alongside the trail in Pine River, which is nine miles from Pequot Lakes, is the historic train depot and chamber welcome center. The trail also follows along the Pine River for a portion of the route.
Chamber director John Wetrosky said there are 13 places to eat, from delis to sit-down restaurants, within one mile of the welcome center along the trail in Pine River.
Wetrosky also said many bicyclists enjoy walking down Pine River’s main street, Barclay Avenue, to the Pine River dam and picnic area.
“I always thought it was one of the prettiest little places there was,” Wetrosky said.
There’s also a swimming beach and public bathrooms near the dam.
Nine miles north of Pine River, the next town along the trail is Backus. Wetrosky said there is a parking access area in Backus, as well as a portable restroom and water.
From Backus, the next town along the trail is Hackensack, which is seven miles north. In Hackensack, trail users will find that the trail goes right next to the city park, which includes a playground, swimming beach, pavilion and picnic tables.
The city’s library, chamber building and public restrooms are also nearby.
A drinking fountain and water spigot are located on the restroom building, facing the playground, and there’s a pop machine next to the restrooms as well.
Chamber staff also noted that the trail is only about a block away from Highway 371, and many shops and restaurants line the road. The trail was reconstructed just last year.
From Hackensack, the trail goes another 17 miles to Walker, then continues all the way to Bemidji, where it ends at Lake Bemidji State Park.