Bicycling the Bunyan
A long, paved trail cuts through the heart of Minnesota lakes country.
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.
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 34.
It's the longest paved rail trail in the nation, and the seventh-longest overall.
It's also a gorgeous trail to ride on. The Bunyan stretches 121 miles, from just north of the spot where the Mississippi goes through Bemidji to the Mississippi River in Crow Wing State Park , south of Brainerd.
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.
From Bemidji, bicyclists ride a quiet, forested stretch of trail to Walker , where the Bunyan heads west toward Akeley, sharing the Heartland State Trail.
From a parking lot/trailhead on Minnesota 34, the Bunyan 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.
Looking for beaches
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 storefronts.
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.
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 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 stretch into Baxter-Brainerd was a corridor of green, with the trail sandwiched between a golf course and Northland Arboretum.
And now the trail crosses a bridge over Minnesota 210 and heads six miles south to Crow Wing State Park , next to the Mississippi River and just off Minnesota 371.
Trip Tips: Bicycling the Bunyan
Paul Bunyan State Trail : From the south, you can start in Crow Wing State Park or in Baxter at Northland Arboretum, along Excelsior Road just off Minnesota 371. The 15 miles from Baxter to Nisswa is flat, straight and quiet.
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 State Trail.
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 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 goes past the downtown, through the university and to city parks and beaches.
For more, see Bicycling around Lake Bemidji.
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 170 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.
When to go : For vacation atmosphere, go in summer. For a quiet ride with great color, go in late September or early October.
For more on fall trips in the Brainerd Lakes area, see Autumn at the lake.