Bicycling the Bunyan
A long trail cuts through the heart of Minnesota lakes country.
© Beth Gauper
In Hackensack, bicyclists pass statues of Paul and his sweetheart, Lucette Kensack.
It's as wide as seven axhandles and a plug of tobacco, and as smooth as a flapjack griddle.
It unfurls over a landscape dotted with lakes created, according to north-woods legend, by the tracks of a giant lumberjack and his faithful blue ox.
It's the Paul Bunyan State Trail, and it links Minnesota's main Bunyan shrines. In Brainerd, a winking, talking Paul welcomed generations of tourists to "Paul Bunyan's Playground'' until it was moved to a nearby theme park.
Hackensack is home to the buxom, 17-foot Lucette Diana Kensack, billed as Paul's sweetheart until a "marriage certificate'' was found by town boosters. In Bemidji, a stern 18-foot Paul started the colossus fad in 1937.
A 25-foot kneeling Paul is in Akeley, three miles west on the nearby Heartland Trail, which meets the Bunyan along Minnesota
The Bunyan stretches 106 miles, from Bemidji in the north to Baxter/Brainerd in the south. The first 7½ miles from Lake Bemidji State Park are a beauty, hugging the eastern shore of Lake Bemidji and crossing the Mississippi River as it heads east.
Bicyclists ride two miles of city streets to catch the newest stretch of the trail to Walker, where the Bunyan heads west, sharing the Heartland Trail.
From a parking lot/trailhead on Minnesota 34, it turns south, plunging into Chippewa National Forest on a nine-mile up-and-down stretch that local bicyclists call "the Pyrenees.''
I rode it once on an organized bike tour and was just behind a rider who took one of its hairpin turns too fast, went flying off the trail into a tree and had to be air-lifted to a hospital in Fargo. The next time I rode it, I kept my hand on my brakes.
A late-summer ride
One August, I kept riding south through Hackensack, which has a small downtown that's missed by anyone zooming
through on Minnesota 371.
In Hackensack, that's a shame: There's a small beach and a fishing pier on Birch Lake, a playground and, of course, the voluptuous Lucette, Paul's sweetheart/wife.
In late summer, the trail was thick with wildflowers: prairie thistle, gayfeather, the vivid yellows of tansy and goldenrod. On a nearby meadow, a farmer was baling hay; ahead, an in-line skater approached with the wind at his back and a blissful look on his face.
Cattails announced the wetlands around Beuber Lake, and the scent of raspberries wafted into my nostrils. Bushes were laden with ripe berries, so I popped a handful into my mouth before continuing on the sumac-lined stretch to Backus.
There was another beach in Backus, in a small city park on Pine Mountain Lake, a block west of the town's old brick
From Backus, the stretch to Pine River is the trail's least attractive; it follows the highway and is unshaded, making it hot on a summer day.
So in Pine River, I rode through town to a little sand-bottom swimming area on the river, next to a grove of red pines with a Lincoln Log pavilion. Pine River has a flourishing main street that includes a bakery and cafes.
© Beth Gauper
On Lake Bemidji, a bicyclist crosses the spot where the Mississippi River leaves the lake.
The trail continues along the highway until three miles north of Pequot Lakes, where it ducks behind sheltering trees.
Pequot, famous for its fishing-bobber water tower, is split into two downtowns: the old-fashioned side, where the locals shop, and the tourist side of boutiques and galleries. The big log Silver Creek Traders is a tourist outpost, full of gourmet foodstuffs and upscale furnishings for vacation homes.
The stretch south to Nisswa is peaceful, though busier, and sometimes I could hear the highway on the other side of
the trees. East Twin Lake appeared on my left, blue and inviting, then Lower Cullen Lake.
I could see a beach on its far side, but none along the trail; as it turns out, there are no public swimming areas near the trail after Pine River.
Then I passed a shady city park and emerged into downtown Nisswa, which was in the middle of a Crazy Days sidewalk sale. I
looked around the little town in the middle of the woods — no houses, just a collection of shops shops.
I didn't begrudge Nisswa its milling mob; in winter, most of the shops have to go into hibernation.
And even above the hubbub, I could hear the trill of a loon. Heading south away from the highway, I rode deep into the heart of lake country, where I got a rare glimpse at the maze of roads between the tiny mom-and-pop resorts that still draw people back year after year.
It was early evening, and the crickets were making a racket. I rode through grassy fields occupied only by power lines, then
past Mollie and North Long lakes and the Train Bell Resort in Merrifield.
The last stretch into Brainerd was a corridor of green, with the trail sandwiched between a golf course and Northland Arboretum.
A pack of women passed me, riding hard. In the draft, I heard one of them say, "Seeing that Mile 1 marker makes the whole trip worth it.''
Trip Tips: Bicycling the Bunyan
Paul Bunyan State
Trail: From the south, the trail starts in Baxter at Northland Arboretum, along Excelsior Road just off Minnesota 371.
The 15 miles to Nisswa is flat, straight and quiet.
© Beth Gauper
Bicyclists ride the trail through downtown Nisswa.
After Nisswa, the trail follows 371, separated by trees, until three miles north of Pequot Lakes, where it loses its tree
cover until Backus.
The seven miles from Backus to Hackensack and the nine up-and-down miles through national forest, nicknamed the Pyrenees, are the most scenic.
It meets the Heartland Trail on the north side of Minnesota 34, 2½ miles east of Akeley. It shares the next 7¾ miles to Walker, through woods and bogs, with the Heartland.
On the west side of Walker, the trail goes under Minnesota 371, to a short spur that deposits bicyclists in downtown Walker, a stone's throw from the municipal pier on Leech Lake. On the other side of downtown, there's a sand beach in City Park.
From Walker, it heads northwest, paralleling Minnesota 200 to Laporte, where it passes Garfield Lake and then heads into forest to Guthrie and Nary.
On the southern edge of Bemidji, bicyclists must ride two miles of city streets to connect with the trail on the southern edge of Lake Bemidji. From there, it's 7½ miles along the east side of the lake to Lake Bemidji State Park.
Bicyclists can keep riding around the lake on another 10 miles of city streets and sidewalks, a very pleasant loop.
Bunyan-Heartland-Migizi trail system: Add in the Heartland State Trail between Park Rapids and Cass Lake and the Migizi Trail around Cass Lake, bicyclists have 162 miles of paved, off-road bicycle trail, except for city streets in Bemidji and Cass Lake.
For more about riding the Heartland, see Towns of the Heartland Trail.
Dining: There are cafes and a pizza place in Nisswa. Just south of Pine River, Bites Grill & Bar is right on the trail and caters to bicyclists with picnic tables and box lunches.
In Walker, the short spur off the trail leads downtown, which has many places to eat. For more, see Dining up north: the Best Bets.
When to go: For vacation atmosphere, go in summer. For a quiet ride with great color, go in late September or early
For more on fall trips in the Brainerd Lakes area, see Autumn at the lake.
Last updated on February 15, 2012
Sign up for our free weekly newsletter
Get our weekly stories, tips and updates delivered a day early directly to your Inbox. Wondering what you'll get? Take a look at our newsletter archive.