About this Itinerary
Minnesota is known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” and the story goes that the giant lumberjack, Paul Bunyan, and his pet blue ox, Babe, created the lakes with the footprints they left behind as they roved about the state. Though just a tall tale, it is true that Minnesota’s Paul Bunyan State Trail is made up of 121 paved miles, making it one of the nation's longest paved rail-trails. The trail extends north from Crow Wing State Park in Brainerd to Lake Bemidji State Park in Bemidji, passing through numerous communities and tapping the shorelines of 21 lakes. The Paul Bunyan State Trail follows an abandoned railroad corridor built in 1893 and last owned by Burlington Northern. This impressive passage is surrounded by Boreal forests, waterways and scenic meadows and is also imbued in natural history; 13 recorded prehistoric sites have been identified near the trail.
Along the way, it intersects with the Heartland State Trail and the Blue Ox–Voyageur Trail making it possible to explore even more of this region. For those using the trail for the long haul, you'll find towns situated every 8 to 10 miles. Many of the towns have a long history in the railroad and timber industries, and before that, Native Americans of the Ojibwe and Dakota nations lived in the region. The majority of the towns have trailside rest stops and some provide public restrooms and water as well. For more information on trail amenities, visit paulbunyantrail.com.
Trailheads and parking areas are located throughout the length of the trail making it easy to access segments for a day ride. The 121-miles can be ridden in two to three days one way, depending on how much leisure time you want to allow for exploring the communities and lakes. When planning your trip, keep in mind that lodging in many of the lake resort towns requires a two-day minimum stay. Though they have a minimum requirement, the resorts generally provide a choice of camping or cabins, offer boat and kayak rentals and are located on the edge of a lake, so a very nice way to experience more of the region’s beauty and recreational opportunities. One possibility is to pick a central location, reserve several nights, and ride both directions of the trail on day trips from there. Our itinerary suggests a three-day one-way trip from south to north with suggestions for lodging that have no minimum-stay requirements.
Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport is conveniently located just 3 miles east of Brainerd. Embracing Pines B&B offers a trail shuttle service as well as airport pick-up, or you can arrange your own shuttle by dropping off a car in Bemidji; the Jefferson Bus Lines travels between Bemidji and Brainerd. Permitted-parking is available at the northern trailhead in Bemidji State Park or in town (Gould Avenue and 5th Street NE). Trail Blazer Bikes in Brainerd provides bike rentals and servicing.
The southern end of the Paul Bunyan State Trail is located in Brainerd, one of central Minnesota’s largest cities. It is fitting that this rail-trail has its roots here as Brainerd was originally founded as a site for the railroad to cross the confluence of the Mississippi and the Crow Wing Rivers. In 1870, the president of the Northern Pacific Railroad named the newly-created town after his wife and rail construction began soon after to build the crossing that would facilitate further westward rail expansion. The downtown Crow Wing County Historical Society Museum illustrates much more of this influential chapter of Brainerd’s history. Before exploring the town further, however, check in to your accommodation and make sure you are well-prepared for tomorrow’s full day.
In the Brainerd area, you have a range of options for lodging: camping, lakeside cabins, B&Bs, motels and upscale resorts. Whiteley Creek Homestead B&B caters to adults who are seeking a cozy, retro experience with good local food and vintage accoutrements. Crow Wing Lake Campground is 10 miles south of Brainerd on the shores of Crow Wing Lake, and, for convenience, there are plenty of hotels right in town as well.
Brainerd really does owe its existence to the railroad; this becomes more evident as you explore downtown, especially if you take advantage of the guided walking tour which illuminates the stories behind many historic markers and buildings. You will have already noticed the iconic Brainerd Water Tower, sometimes referred to as “Paul Bunyan’s Cup” or “Paul Bunyan’s Flashlight.” Just a block away is The Barn (Washington Street), a local-favorite café known for its homemade pies; surely you will have worked up an appetite after all this walking. (Don’t you need to carbo-load for tomorrow, anyway?)
Day 1: Brainerd to Hackensack (48.5 miles) The trailhead and parking area is located across the Mississippi River on Excelsior Road in Baxter. From here, head north to begin our trail itinerary, or—if you want to lay claim to completing the whole trail—you can head south to bike the newest 6-mile segment of the trail down to Crow Wing State Park (adding a total of 12 extra miles to your journey round-trip). The new section winds through a mixture of prairie and forest backdrops, and provides access to the park’s many amenities, including a primitive campground, historical sites and a sandy beach on the shores of Pelican Lake.
On a map, as you head north through the scenic Brainerd Lakes area, the trail skates on thin green plots between patchworks of blue. In the 10 miles it takes to get to the first community of Merrifield, the trail mostly follows a rural route though be prepared to encounter possible car traffic on several occasions as you cross roads. It is important to be mindful as well of the wildlife that may inhabit the areas you will be traveling through in the next three days: beaver, eagles, osprey, fox, turtles, deer and even black bear and timber wolves. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources lists the reptiles, mammals, birds and fish that are known to live in the region as well as best ways to handle potential encounters.
In another 7 miles, you reach the town of Nisswa, located on the shores of Nisswa Lake. This is a good place to get off your bike, stroll awhile and perhaps enjoy a cup of coffee at Stonehouse Coffee and Roastery. Nisswa is an interesting town, as one might imagine upon hearing that the community races turtles every week during the summer months—a long-standing tradition that encourages constant debate over ideal racing-turtle size and weight. On the north end of Main Street is the Nisswa Pioneer Village, a replica of life here in the 1800s to early 1900s and nearby is Nisswa’s original railroad depot. Main Street was once part of a historical route, the Leech Lake Trail, used for centuries by Native Americans to move about the region. Early-European settlements began developing along the trail as early as the 1850s and this history infuses many of the communities you encounter on the Paul Bunyan State Trail, from missions to fur trading to logging operations.
As you continue north, the trail cuts between Lake Edna and Lower Cullen Lake and then West and East Twin Lakes. The surrounding area continues to be a mix of small communities, bodies of water, woodlands and open fields. Pequot Lakes, 6 miles from Nisswa, is roughly the mid-point of the day’s mileage and a good place to stop for a meal. Given that there are four parks in the area, consider rustling up a picnic for today’s lunch. Lakes Latte (Government Street) makes sandwiches and wraps and Pequot Lakes Supervalu (1.5 miles south of town off of Highway 371) has a deli as well. Otherwise, there are eateries downtown. You could head to Bobber Park for picture opportunities with Babe or to Trailside Park to compare your shoe size to the large footprints that Paul left behind. Sibley Lake Park is located on Sibley Lake and a good place for fishing, should you have managed to pack a fishing rod. During the summer months, you might want to linger at Trailside Park to look for treasures; Market inthe Park, a craft-flea-farmers market, runs there once a week. Have you ever consumed beans that have been buried in iron kettles and cooked over a wood fire during the night? If not, you might plan your visit during Pequot Lake’s annual (and we would venture to guess somewhat unique) Bean Hole Days celebration.
Not to be outdone, the community of Pine River (9 miles further) holds interesting summertime events as well, such as their weekly Duck Races. With just a minimal entry fee, you could race a duck (really a decoy) down the Pine River; there are prizes for the winners. Or you could go to the local Chamber of Commerce and try on Paul Bunyan’s baby boots. Also at the information center is the renovated historic Pine River Depot (circa 1895) which facilitated the delivery of goods, passengers and mail to northern Minnesota for 90 years; it was moved to its current location for preservation. The village was first settled in 1873 when a Scotsman built a trading post in this fertile location of pine forests and rivers with well-established trails, canoe and stage-coach routes. A downloadable Pine River Walking Tour brochure is available to elucidate more of this history. Today, the area between Pequot Lakes, Pine River and Crosslake (20 miles to the east) is made up of 14 interconnected lakes known as the Whitefish Chain of Lakes.
Leaving Pine River, the Foothills State Forest is to the west of the trail, beyond the patches of farmland and backyard woodlands. In 9 miles, you reach Backus, beautifully situated on the shores of Pine Mountain Lake,- a popular spot for fishing walleye especially. Your day’s destination, Hackensack, is 7.5 miles further and smack-dab in the middle of lake country, with 127 lakes within a 10-mile radius of town; it is also the home of Paul’s sweetheart, Lucette. Check-in at Owl’s Nest Motel (one block off of the trail) and head to the public beach and fishing pier on Birch Lake to relax awhile and perhaps catch the sunset. Udoms, a seasonal Thai restaurant, offers some tasty diversity to the limited dining options. If chainsaw carving peaks your interest, plan your trip through Hackensack around their annual competition (usually in September).
Day 2: Hackensack to Bemidji (55 miles)
Back on the trail, the surrounding forests become denser as you continue your sojourn north. Fir, spruce, cedar and pine intermingle with a myriad of hardwood trees, creating a beautiful changing palette of color depending on the season. It is easy to see why the folktales of Paul Bunyan took hold in this landscape; the stories, it is believed, were first circulated among lumberjacks in the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada, initially appearing in print in 1906. The widespread popularity of the figure of Paul Bunyan likely developed after being used in the advertising campaigns of a logging company in 1914.
After leaving Hackensack, the trail continues north for 4.6 miles. It is mostly wooded but the path crosses roads on several occasions and parallels the primary thoroughfare. You finally veer westward, skirt the shores of Portage Lake and take a decidedly westerly jog at Cyphers Lake. This curvy section of the trail is relatively remote - keep a lookout for wildlife and have your camera and binoculars handy. The Heartland and Paul Bunyan Trails merge just northeast of Akeley as you begin again to head north toward Walker.
The city of Walker,23 miles from Hackensack, is yet another scenic and beautiful lake community. Leech Lake is the third largest lake in the state with more than 600 miles of shoreline. Walker is relatively abundant in dining choices so you may want to head to town (take 10th Street S. and head east on Minnesota Avenue W.) to have another cup of coffee or shore up on some needed calories. Otherwise, stay on the trail by crossing 10th Street S. just north of the 13th Street intersection. Enjoy the views of Leech Lake to your left. North of town, the trail splits again as the Heartland Trail continues north toward Cass Lake and the Paul Bunyan Trail deviates gently northwest toward Lake Bemidji.
The journey’s end destination, Bemidji, is another 32 miles from Walker. You pass through several more communities on the way and the trail is loosely bordered by the Paul Bunyan State Forest to the southwest and the Chippewa National Forest to the north. Benedict (milemarker 71) and Laporte (milemarker 76.2) are very small towns but they provide rest areas and Laporte has a grocery and convenience store. At Laporte, if you haven’t eaten lunch yet, gather up picnic-makings from Laporte Grocery & Meats and find a relaxing spot near Garfield Lake to enjoy your repast.
The landscape open ups more and more as you continue north and weave in and out of forests and exposed countryside. There is a pleasant park bordering the trail in Guthrie, a community named after a contract builder of the Minnesota & International (M&I) Railway. The original town site of Guthrie was a loading station and logging camp. The railroad had feeder lines, or spur lines, going out to bring in logs from skidding camps. Guthrie township was established where “Spur 75” intersected with the M&I Railroad. Nary is another short 5.2 miles farther and Bemidji 9.1 miles.
Bemidji is your day’s stopping point; head straight to the old-world Tuscan Villa Calma B&B on the western shores of Lake Bemidji. Pour a glass of complimentary wine, sit on the porch and start to unwind. Your B&B is located near Bemidji State University and close by to a number of bars, grills and restaurants. A nice pasta meal might pair well with that wine; check out TuttoBene, an Italian restaurant that works with area farmers to provide a local, from-scratch menu. If you enjoy the performing arts, the Historic Chief Theater is next door and home to the Paul Bunyan Playhouse, Minnesota’s oldest summer stock company; or, if you are hankering for local brew, the Bemidji Brewing Company is just up the street.
Getting to the B&B and keeping track of the trail while maneuvering through town, however, is not necessarily a straight-forward task. (At this time, the trail route is on-road though plans are underway to create an off-road route through town.) The trail crosses Washington Avenue SE as you first enter Bemidji. Soon after, the trail splits; take the northern route. Stay on the trail until you reach the intersection of Clausen Avenue SW and Rako Street SE. Continue on Clausen Avenue until the T-junction and take the right turn. Reconnect with the trail before Clausen Avenue intersects with Shevlin Avenue SW. The trail now parallels and eventually joins Midway Drive S., taking you between Lake Irving and Lake Bemidji. Stay on Midway Drive to the Bemidji area visitor center (you can’t miss it; look for the very large Paul Bunyan and Babe statues on Bemidji Avenue). The trail heads north from here and runs into Lake Boulevard NE; the Villa Calma is a half mile north of Paul and Babe.
Day 3: Downtown Bemidji to Bemidji State Park (8.5 miles); shuttle back to Brainerd
This morning, there is no hurry to get on the trail. Enjoy your breakfast and coffee and, if up early enough, the sunrise over the lake. Today you will bike along the southern and eastern shorelines of the lake, cross over the Mississippi River and arrive at Lake Bemidji State Park, a scenic 8.5-mile ride. As you are biking through town, keep a lookout for outdoor art pieces that are part of the Bemidji Sculpture Walk, which reflects the people, culture and legends of Minnesota. Reconnect with the Paul Bunyan Scenic Trail at Nymore Park on the southern tip of the lake. In about a mile, the trail joins with the Blue Ox Trail and you’ll travel this route north for 4.5 miles. Just before intersecting with Big Bass Road NE, the Paul Bunyan Trail splits off to the left and the remaining 1.5 miles to the park are beautifully immersed in the pine-moraine of the region.
The park offers enticing opportunities for fishing, swimming, hiking and bird watching so plan accordingly. It is also home to conifer bogs; you won’t want to miss the quarter-mile boardwalk that allows you to get close and observe the interesting plants that grow in this unique bog environment. Enjoy your day and the beauty of the northwoods of Minnesota.