About this Itinerary
Minnesota’s Heartland State Trail, established in 1974, was one of this country’s first rail corridors to be converted into a trail. In the heart of the state, this nearly 50-mile trail connects the small cities of Park Rapids and Cass Lake, running past chains of lakes, rivers and streams. When water is not the primary vista, towering white pine, spruce fir and hardwood forests offer shade and habitat for various animals, including raccoon, red fox, whitetail deer, beaver and porcupine. The trail also skirts the edge of both Paul Bunyan State Forest and Chippewa National Forest, home to a large population of bald eagles. Public beaches, resorts and campgrounds line the route as well. In short, if swimming, canoeing, fishing or bird-watching strikes your fancy, this is the trail for you.
Because the Heartland State Trail is a rail-trail, the paved trek is fairly level and smooth, though the last four miles in the north leave the level former railroad corridor and the terrain here becomes significantly hillier. Old rail trestles and bridges carry you over waterways, and several small resort towns, hosting restaurants and shops, provide nice off-trail diversions. Near the city of Walker on Leech Lake, indefatigable trail users can connect directly to the even longer Paul Bunyan State Trail.
As this is the Land of 10,000 Lakes, it seems fitting to stay overnight at one of the 100+ lake resorts that surround the shorelines of the area’s waters. The majority require a minimum two-day stay, so we suggest creating a home-base in the centrally-located Walker/Leech Lake area to explore the Heartland State Trail in two round-trip day tours from here: one day bike the southern section to Park Rapids and the next day explore the northern segment to Cass Lake. If you are flying into the area, the closest domestic airport is in Bemidji, 40 miles northwest of Walker. Bike rentals are available from many of the resorts and B&Bs in Walker. Finally, don’t forget to prepare for the ubiquitous Minnesota mosquito—depending on the time of year, you may well have winged-companionship on the trail.
The city of Walker sits on the shores of Leech Lake, the third largest lake in Minnesota. Make your lodging reservations well in advance as people flock to the lake during every season of the year. The range of accommodations cater to most every need: find your spot near the water in a cabin, tent or RV; stay in a cozy B&B or enjoy the central location of a downtown inn or elegant hotel. The Leech Lake Area Chamber of Commerce offers a comprehensive list of places to stay including their amenities, such as bike and boat rentals and shuttle services. Keep in mind that Walker is particularly busy during the annual Eel Pout Festival in February and the Moondance Jam Music Festival held every July.
The railroad and timber industries were prominent influences shaping the early towns and communities of the region. Walker was founded in 1896, following the construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad. The settlement, however, was named after a logging baron, Thomas Walker, in a failed attempt to lure the establishment of a sawmill operation (built in nearby Akeley instead). Indigenous cultures inhabited the region for thousands of years before European settlement, including the Native Americans of the Ojibwe and Dakota nations. Today’s federally-recognized Minnesota Chippewa Tribe is made up of six bands, including the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. Many Ojibwe people live on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation which lies mostly within the Chippewa National Forest and is the most populated reservation in Minnesota.
Spend some time exploring the shorelines of Walker Bay and the attractions of town. Stop in at Green Scene, an organic produce market and deli, to pick up snacks or picnic items for tomorrow’s ride; a weekly farmer’s market also takes place at their parking lot during the summer months. Visiting the Leech Lake Brewing Company could be a nice way to appreciate the liquid diversity of the lakes region and wile away a few afternoon hours at the same time.
Start your morning with a pastry and cup of joe from the Walker Bay Coffee Company. The trailhead and parking area is located just west of downtown on 10th Street S. and Heartland Place. (To get to the trailhead from Walker Bay Coffee Company, head west on Minnesota Avenue and take a left on 10th Street S.; it’s about three-quarters of a mile away). You begin by traveling the length of Lake May, paralleling its wooded western edge with occasional views of the lake and lake homes. An adjacent grass path accommodates both equestrian users and mountain bikers between here and Park Rapids. Much of the distance to the next community, Akeley, is forested with ponds and marshes in the mix. The hills of the Chippewa National Forest are populated with birch, aspen and pines and light occasionally streams through the branches throwing dapples of shadows on the path before you. If you get off the bike to go exploring, as you will likely be tempted to do, be aware that poison ivy also grows in the area.
For six miles, a string of lakes, though not always visible, occupies the eastern border of the trail. The Heartland and Paul Bunyan State Trails are merged for this stretch of the journey. At five miles from Walker, the Shingobee Recreation Area nestles in between Lake Alice and Highway 34. Soon after, the path enters a more open landscape and splits off from the Paul Bunyan Trail. You also get closer to Highway 34 and the possibility of traffic noise. In the remaining 3.5 miles to Akeley, the path crosses several streets— including the busy thoroughfare traveling north to Bemidji—so take caution.
Akeley has a trailhead and rest area as well as a public beach, docks and fishing pier. If you are ready for swimming and fishing, head to Eleventh Crow Wing Lake (right on Hillside Avenue). Too early in the day for this? Greet the large (statuesque) Paul Bunyan instead and admire the mural of Paul’s blue ox, Babe, on a building nearby. Behind the statue is the Paul Bunyan Historical Museum (open Memorial Day through Labor Day) where you can learn more about Akeley’s past logging and sawmill prowess. A railroad depot was built here in 1899 and the town’s population boomed as lumberjacks arrived in droves. The mill was at one time the largest in the state. Today, Akeley is a small town, but there are places to refresh your liquid or food stocks if needed.
About a half mile out of town, a picturesque railroad trestle takes you over Crow Wing River with views of the lake to your right. The trail continues to parallel Highway 34 with a busy traffic crossing at Highway 25. In the 6.3 miles to Nevis, the trail weaves through forests and farmland and over a few roads. Watch for cars and deer. Imagine the chain of Crow Wing Lakes patterning the landscape to the south as you travel to Nevis and beyond. At two miles from Akeley, the trail curves gently from Highway 34 for a secluded and quiet stretch that can be quite colorful in the fall.
Nevis offers you a rest area with toilets, as well as a very large Tiger Muskie sculpture depicting a carnivorous fish found in the local waters. At the edge of Nevis, the trail meets Lake Belle Taine where there is public access to beaches and a fishing pier. In about two miles, you cross another old railroad trestle taking you over a channel between Shallow Lake to the right and Belle Taine to the left. There may be boat traffic below and anglers checking out the bays. Otherwise, the lake is largely out-of-view as you cycle a parallel trajectory to it for four miles. Beyond the trestle is a densely-shaded section. Again, watch for equestrians on the horse trail, deer and other wildlife.
Dorset,the “restaurant capital of the world,” lies 5.5 miles from Nevis. If you are ready for lunch, this could be the place to stop. Dorset claims to have more restaurants per capita than anywhere in the world which, at the time of this writing, means there are four restaurants to a population of 22. The Dorset General Store seems to be a happening place— there are groceries, beverages and it also houses the La Pasta Italian Eatery. The annual Taste of Dorset, held every August, is a fun time to be in town and not just for the culinary feasting that goes on. The festival includes a mayoral race where anyone can win the title by simply entering their name in the drawing.
The final stretch of today’s journey takes you to Park Rapids, the southern terminus of the Heartland State Trail. In the 6.5 miles it takes to get there, the vistas open up to include meadows, fields, farmland and a few residences. If you know what you are looking for, you can find edible berries growing alongside the trail and likely plenty of bird-life will be right there enjoying them as well. On the eastern edge of Park Rapids is Heartland Park which has toilets, water fountains and is the parking area for the trailhead. You may be tempted to stay here awhile and enjoy any number of recreational activities that will likely be going on. If you have prepared for a picnic, find that grassy patch or sandy spot on the beach and begin to relax and recuperate. If not, continue south to cross the bridge that takes you over the Fish Hook River. Travel west on 1st Street E for several blocks and take Main Avenue S. to The Good Life Café. For lunch or dinner, this café features fresh and local ingredients in an appetizing menu which includes home-made pretzels with Gouda and a Walleye B.L.T. Or stop in at Coburns Market (1st Street W.) for deli goodies and take them back to the water.
To really appreciate the relevance of the timber industry to this region’s history, plan your visit around the annual Legends & Logging Days. World champion lumberjacks and lumberjills compete in various activities utilizing saws and axes; the big kick-off involves water, lots of it, so bring your water shoes. Though you may not have the time and energy to explore much of the surrounding area (don’t forget you are returning to Walker!), keep in mind for future trips that the Itasca State Park is about 20 miles north of Park Rapids. In this park, the mighty Mississippi River begins its journey to the Gulf of Mexico and one could spend hours admiring the stars by night and marveling at the beauty of the 32,000 acres by day.
This northern stretch of the Heartland State Trail is less scenic than its southern counterpart, in large part because the rail-trail parallels Highway 371 for much of the ride. Note that you will not cycle through towns between Walker to Cass Lake so make sure to bring plenty of water and snacks with you for the entire 22 miles. Also, there is a parallel treadway for snowmobilers along this stretch. Beginning again at the trailhead, the path heads north through some commercial and residential areas as well as wooded patches. You will have some glimpses of the bay to your right. The trail ends briefly for an on-road stretch on 62nd Avenue NW to resume again after a quarter mile. Soon after, the path splits off from the Paul Bunyan State Trail. Veer right at the split; if the lake is a stone’s through away, you are on the correct route. In less than a mile, another railroad trestle carries you over the Kabekona Narrows which connects two of Leech Lake’s bays. On the north side of the bridge is public access with picnic tables and a large shelter. Enjoy the lake as the trail begins to move away from it at this point.
You will parallel Highway 371 for the next 6.5 miles, passing a municipal airport and Long Bow Golf Club, until the trail temporarily ends at Steamboat Bay Loop Road. Go right on Steamboat Bay Loop Road for 1.7 miles then turn right on Cove Drive for 0.2 miles. The paved trail will resume again on the left and will take you through forests, marshes and open lands. On the way to Steamboat Lake you will cross a short bridge that takes you over a small river connecting Swamp Lake with Leech Lake. The trail then crosses Highway 371; proceed with caution and be mindful that drivers may not be aware of you.
In 2.6 miles, a steel bridge across Steamboat River, once carrying trains, now gives recreationalists a beautiful view of Steamboat Lake. If you go under the bridge (via the walkway) you can see early 1900-era gears that helped open the railroad bridge to let steamboats through as they transported logs out of the lake to Walker. Take a few minutes to explore the fecund bottomlands of the river. The trail mostly parallels Highway 371 from Steamboat Lake to Cass Lake (eight miles), though trees often (thankfully) block the view of the highway. Be prepared to cross Highway 371 once again roughly mid-way through.
At Cass Lake you are in the heart of the Chippewa National Forest, the first National Forest established east of the Mississippi River. You can connect with the paved 18-mile Migizi (meaning “eagle” in the Ojibwe language) bike loop trail to explore the forests and see how many bald eagles you can spot in or above the red pines. The city sits on the southwestern side of Cass Lake, a popular destination for fishing walleye, northern pike and the good ol’ Muskie. The lake links with eight others to make up the Cass Lake Chain, historically part of the Leech Lake Trail, a series of interconnected waterways used by Native Americans, trappers and fur traders. It is believed that the first trading post was established in the area prior to 1760 by a Canadian businessman. After the Northern Pacific Railway came through northern Minnesota in 1898, the town of Cass Lake became a rail center hub and for many years housed the largest switching yards in these northern reaches.
The Heartland State Trail ends near the southern edge of town at Railroad Street. From here, you are close to a couple of buildings of historical note. Five blocks north is the Cass Lake Museum (formerly a railroad depot) and Logging Camp (open May-October), which presents a sampling of the area’s history through displays of logging, railroad and Native American artifacts. Nearby also is the Chippewa Forest Headquarters Building, built in 1935 entirely out of Minnesota products: native red pine creates the structure and 265 tons of glacial boulders makes up the impressive 50-foot high fireplace.
You may, however, be ready to get off the bike altogether, put your feet up for a while and prepare for your journey back to Walker. The seasonal Canal House Restaurant is two miles east of the trail terminus, but puts you on the isthmus between Cass Lake and Pike Bay and offers a basic traditional American menu on the Stony Point Resort grounds and the shores of the lake. Closer to town is the Red Cedar Grill, located in the Palace Casino and Hotel (one of three casinos on the reservation operated by the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe).