Pedaling along a beautiful state trail in eastern Minnesota, bicyclists never would guess it once was hell on earth twice.
In 1894, a 4½-mile-high wall of fire incinerated Hinckley and Sandstone along the St. Paul & Duluth Railroad line, now the Willard Munger State Trail.
In 1918, another inferno destroyed Kettle River, Moose Lake and Cloquet. Hundreds of people died, and dozens of villages were wiped off the map.
In an isolated bluff-country valley, reached only by small, winding roads, lies one of Minnesota's favorite getaways.
There are no condo resorts here, no wine bars and heaven forbid no national franchises. The aroma of manure hangs over downtown on Wednesdays and Fridays, when livestock auctions are held.
Only 750 people live here, and they can't afford to advertise much, so most visitors come via word of mouth.
It was a sunny day in southeastern Minnesota, and everywhere I looked, there were Babes.
Babes bombing along bike trails, Babes prowling the shops of Lanesboro, Babes laughing over white wine in the inn where I was staying.
They were the Fat Bottom Girls Cycle Club from Des Moines, also known as Babes on Bikes, and they were having a swell time riding the smooth, scenic trails of the Root River Valley.
We all know Milwaukee for its beer, bratwurst and oompah bands.
But not many people know its also a great place for bicycling.
Sure, theres a constant stream of bicyclists on the lakefront stretch of the Oak Leaf Trail. From Lake Michigan, bicyclists can veer off onto a secluded stretch of the Milwaukee River or head toward Miller Park on the Hank Aaron Trail.
There's a beautiful pocket of Wisconsin that dairy farmers would have had all to themselves if it hadn't been for a few renegade bicyclists.
In 1967, Wisconsin made a bicycling trail out of an abandoned rail bed that it had devoted to hikers until it saw that most of the users were on bicycles. That trail, the Elroy-Sparta, sparked a national race to convert unused rail beds into trails.
Today, Wisconsin has more than 2,000 miles of rail trails. Of those miles, more than a hundred skirt the edge of coulee country around La Crosse, a dramatic region of high ridges and valleys untouched by glaciers.
Everything thats worth doing, you can do along Chicagos lakefront.
Seniors in Speedos climb out of Lake Michigan after swimming laps. Chess players hunch over boards in a 1957 pavilion that looks like the Jetsons carport. Young people gather for beach volleyball and paddle kayaks in the shadow of yachts.
Overhead, a biplane pulls a flapping beer banner through the sky.
In September, when the air turns crisp, everyone starts thinking the same thing: Time to plan a weekend trip.
is a great time to try out a new bike trail, not only because of fall
colors and invigorating weather but because so many small towns throw
harvest festivals in September and October.
Since trails go right through towns, bicycle tourists are right in the middle of the action but not the traffic jams.
It was a classic fall weekend when we rode the Willard Munger State Trail in eastern Minnesota.
It's a peaceful corridor through forest that, on the second weekend
of October, surrounded us with a warm palette of honey and cinnamon,
mixed with evergreens and the white of birch trunks and milkweed pods.
In late summer and early fall, bicycle trails burst with blooms.
They're a favorite habitat for wildflowers because theyre on disturbed ground and have open, sunny edges. Many trails skirt lakes and bogs, but since most are on old rail lines, fires sparked by passing trains created openings for prairie species, too.
Take the Paul Bunyan State Trail past Lake Bemidji in northern Minnesota. One side is lined with water-loving plants Joe-Pye weed, jewelweed and swamp milkweed, beloved by butterflies and bees.
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.
The pelicans and cormorants of the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge are used to train whistles and the distant popping of trap guns. But they're even more used to the whir of bicycle gears.
Each fall, birds and bicyclists migrate to the same place along the Mississippi River in Wisconsin.
Here, the 24-mile Great River State Trail starts in the refuge, skirts Perrot State Park and goes through the river town of Trempealeau before entering the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge and then the prairie outside Onalaska.
Most people think bicyclists ride for exercise. But really, its for the ice-cream stop.
In western Wisconsin, the Stower Seven Lakes between Dresser and Amery, has everything youd want on a bicycle trail. Its got scenery. Its got beaches and picnic spots.
And in Amery, it has the soda fountain of your dreams. Just look for the place with all the people.
Cruising along western Minnesotas Central Lakes Trail, its tempting to keep a scorecard.
Egret, five. Blue herons, seven. Beavers, three. Turtles, two. Loons, three. Pelicans, 20. Giant concrete coots, one.
Lots of warblers, hurtling over the trail like guided missiles, and warbler-sized dragonflies. Chipmunks racing the bike across blacktop. Patches of wild rose, and fountain grasses waving their pink heads in the breeze.
To a bicyclist setting out on the Lake Wobegon Trail, there are few signs that this is a storied landscape.
Theres a lake surrounded by cattails and frequented by fishermen and canoeists. Theres another lake across the road, where teen-agers flirt and toddlers play in the sand.
Down the trail, a clump of showy lady slippers pops out of the weeds. A great blue heron rises from a slough with languid flaps. A painted turtle scrapes at the dirt next to the trail, making a nest for its eggs.
In the straits between lakes Michigan and Huron, you can find more than one Mackinac Island.
The best-known first was advertised as "the Fairy Isle of Mackinac," and it's not quite rooted in reality. It has a tuxedo shop but no hardware store, a Victorian house called Brigadoon and a fan club that gathers every October in vintage clothing to revere the year 1912.
You get to that island in a horse-drawn surrey, driven by a liveryman in a top hat.
The more I travel through the beach towns of west Michigan, the more I want to see.
So I've slowed down and started touring by the seat of my pants on a bicycle.
Michigan makes that easy with 2,385 miles of rail trails, more than any other state. You can catch a trail all along the Lake Michigan shore, from Traverse City to South Haven.
The Iron Range never has been for anyone who didnt want to sweat.
Ever since iron ore was discovered on the shores of Lake Vermilion, this strip of Minnesota has drawn people who wanted to work.
One of the worlds richest deposits of iron ore lay under the forest, and waves of Finns, Slovenes, Italians, Swedes, Croatians, Poles, Germans and Serbs came to shovel it out.
On rivers, only salmon like to paddle upstream.
People like to paddle the easy part, then get a shuttle from friends or outfitters. But there's another way to get back to your car by bicycle.
Rail trails in this region often follow rivers, so it's easy to make a loop.
If you like to ride bikes and you live in the Upper Midwest, you've lucked out.
This is a bike-crazy part of the country. Michigan and Minnesota rank No. 1 and 2 for miles of rails converted to trails.
Wisconsin pioneered rail trails and for years was the top state, but it has slipped to fourth place, with No. 3 now taken by Pennsylvania. Illinois and Iowa once rounded out the Top 5 but have been supplanted by New York and Washington state.
In summer, it's hard to know what to do first in beer- and bicycle-loving Madison.
Bike along Lake Monona, or on the Capital City State Trail? Have a beer and listen to blues on the lakeside terrace of the Memorial Union, or in the Bier Garten of Capital Brewery?
In summer, this college town is in its element. Its Great Taste of the Midwest in August is the largest beer festival in Wisconsin and the second-longest running craft-beer festival in North America.
In spring, everything moves so fast you need wheels to see it all.
Two wheels are perfect, because bicycle trails are little nature corridors in spring. Warblers zoom back and forth, nabbing twigs for nests, and wildflowers bloom on sunny edges.
You'll also want to check out new trails and see what's new along favorite trails.
When people think of bicycling in Wisconsin, the famous Elroy-Sparta State Trail often is first to pop into their minds. But the state has added many, many trails since the Elroy-Sparta debuted in 1967, and it's time to try them.
All of the trails listed below use finely crushed limestone, except as noted. They're suitable for touring bikes, though a wider tire is better. Chip-sealed trails are like asphalt but softer, and can be nearly as smooth because they don't become pitted.
State trail passes are $5 daily, $25 annual; passes also are good in winter on ski trails. Rates on county and city trails vary; many are free, including the Interurban and Oak Leaf.
There's nothing like traveling the countryside on a bicycle.
From a bike seat, you hear the murmur of wind through field and forest, and you actually notice the sky and its clouds, as mesmerizing as a lava lamp.
You can ride on your own, but it's more fun to join one of the many cross-state rides organized by bicycle clubs and charities.
For a long time, Iowa has been a great place to ride a bike.
It's not as flat as people think, and it has an excellent network of paved county roads.
RAGBRAI, a cross-state bike ride that spawned many imitators when it debuted in 1973, now is so popular that its 8,500 week-long riders, who come from 50 states and 50 countries, are chosen by lottery.
Minneapolis, having once been named Bicycling magazines No. 1 best city for bicycling, is better known for bicycling than St. Paul.
As usual, St. Paul is overshadowed by its larger twin. But youd never guess it from the throngs of bicyclists on the popular Gateway State Trail, on Summit Avenue through town and on the St. Paul Classic tour, started 12 years before the Minneapolis Bike Tour and the states largest bike tour.
Like Minneapolis, the capital city has paved trails around lakes, past historic landmarks and along the Mississippi.
For centuries, people have beaten a path along the Fox River: Pottawatomie Indians, pioneer entrepreneurs, escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad, city-bound commuters . . . and now, bicyclists.
Thanks to a network of abandoned electric railways, this part of northeast Illinois is a hotbed of bicycle trails.
They're all popular, but the 40-mile Fox River Trail past St. Charles, Geneva and Batavia includes an astonishing amount of scenery and attractions: a Dutch windmill, Japanese gardens and a lighthouse plus many forest preserves, gazebos and wildlife sightings, mainly herons and egrets lurking on the shallow river.
Mankato is easy to overlook, even though it's home to a state university, gateway to the prairie and prominent in Minnesota history.
Downtown is girdled by highways and train tracks, befitting Mankato's longtime status as a trade town. Its streets are quiet, except when the many bars throw a block party.
On the first Sunday in August, hundreds of people clog the only street of the Restaurant Capital of the World.
Tiny Dorset claimed that title because its restaurants outnumber its houses. Still, the eateries in this lakes-country oasis will be hard-pressed to make enough quesadillas and snowball sundaes for everyone who wants one at Taste of Dorset.
During the festival, the town raffles off its mayor job (maybe that's where Rod Blagojevich got the idea). One year, I spent $1 and voted for myself, but a kindergartner from Chicago won. Hmmm.
In the forest around Hayward and Cable, its easy to catch speed fever.
This is where the worlds best Nordic skiers compete on the Birkie Trail, famous for its relentless ups and downs, and mountain bikers race on the CAMBA trails, known for 270-degree switchbacks and such obstacles as a boulder called the Volkswagen.
In this pocket of northwest Wisconsin, endurance athletes streak through Chequamegon National Forest year-round, training for the next big race on more than 300 miles of marked trails.
For more than a century, people have marveled at the Chain of Lakes in Minneapolis.
It's not so much the beauty of the lakes, though they're glorious. It's more the fact that ordinary folk can walk, bike, swim and play around them all of them.
It almost wasn't so. Back in 1882, landscape architect Horace Cleveland had to argue his case for putting aside land on the city's lakes, creeks and river.
On Wisconsin's Badger State Trail, no one goes home hungry.
Starting from the south edge of Madison, the 40-mile trail plunges into Little Switzerland, taking bicyclists past a gantlet of cheese shops, meat markets, bakeries and breweries.
But the Badger is best known for its 1,200-foot-long tunnel, cut through solid limestone in 1887. It curves in the middle, so bicyclists without a good flashlight will find themselves in total darkness, their nerves shot by pigeons bursting out of hidden crannies.
In summer, overheated tourists head for the Cool City.
Two Rivers, Wis., gets its nickname from cooling breezes that come from three sides: the East Twin River, the West Twin River and Lake Michigan.
Swimmers can cool off with a dip from Neshotah Beach, a great strip of sand, but theres an even better one five miles north, where Rawley Point Lighthouse towers over the dunes of Point Beach.
Going hiking on the Superior Hiking Trail? You'll want to pack sturdy boots, thick socks, water bottles, maps and rain gear.
Oh, and don't forget the bikes.
There's a bicycle trail on the North Shore, a nice flat one. It's the paved Gitchi-Gami State Trail, with a 14-mile stretch that links Gooseberry Falls to Split Rock State Park and Beaver Bay and a 10½-mile stretch that links Schroeder to Temperance River State Park, Tofte and Lutsen.
For Minnesota bicyclists, there are two seasons: winter and trail construction.
That's a good thing, because bicycle tourists crave more trails, and towns crave more bicycle tourists.
What pairs best with beer? These days, a bicycle.
Beer always has tasted best when you sweat for it. You can still drink a so-called lawnmower beer, but after a bike ride, most people want something flavorful ambers, blondes or pale ales.
Craft beer and bicycles seem to go hand in handlebar. Some beers even are named for bikes, such as Fixed Gear IPA from Lakefront in Milwaukee.
Feel like going for a bike ride, but it's just too hot? Pick a trail with a beach. Anyone who pedals more than a few miles during the dog days deserves a nice, cool dog paddle afterward.
Thats what we got one muggy Saturday on the Lake Wobegon Trail in central Minnesota. From Avon, we rode westward between so many bouquets of purple prairie clover the trail looked landscaped.
This gentle farmland, dotted with lakes, inspired Garrison Keillors fictional Lake Wobegon.
In the heart of the Twin Cities, one of the most popular bicycling routes also is the most historic.
Below Fort Snelling, the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers meet. Everyone came here . . . in the days before trains and cars, everyone had to come here.
Today, one of the easiest ways to travel this route is by bicycle, and paved trails line both sides of the Mississippi from Minnehaha Park in south Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul.
For decades, the scenic bicycle trails around Minneapolis Chain of Lakes have drawn people from the suburbs into the city. Now, its the city folks turn to visit.
Hundreds of people daily ride the Dakota Rail Trail, which takes bicyclists past a chain of ponds, wetlands and bays on the north shore of Lake Minnetonka, through some of its toniest villages.
One of the newest trails connects the oldest trail. From the west border of Minneapolis, the Luce Line Regional Trail passes two swimming beaches and a sea of cattails on its way from Theodore Wirth Park to the Luce Line State Trail.
In Wisconsin's Driftless Area, the 400 Trail and Baraboo River go together like ice cream and cones.
One is good. Both is better.
They follow each other for 22 miles, the trail only a few feet above the river and its sloughs. Snapping turtles think the trail is a beach, depositing their eggs into its crushed limestone, and fishermen walk the trail to get to secret fishing holes.
As often as not, vacationing couples find they're in a mixed marriage: One likes to shop, one likes to bike or hike.
What to do? I've seen dozens of men patiently waiting on benches as their wives and girlfriends scour the shops.
But it needn't be an either/or proposition. Pick one of the destinations below, and you'll find both great shopping and great riding (or running, or skating) routes, plus great restaurants in which to relax afterward.
It's easy to see why the Dakota Rail Trail is the most popular bicycle trail in Minnesota.
This 25½-mile trail between the Minneapolis suburb of Wayazata and rural Mayer winds through the labyrinthine bays and isthmuses of Lake Minnetonka better than any car can.
It's shady, scenic and paved, so it's beloved by in-line skaters as well as bicyclists.
In the middle of southern Wisconsin farmland, theres a mystery that rivals those of the Mayans and Anasazi.
Riding along the 52-mile Glacial Drumlin State Trail east of Lake Mills, I stopped on a bridge over the placid Crawfish River to read a plaque, "Glacial Time in Perspective.
It noted the retreat of the glaciers 143 lifetimes ago and then directed me 1½ miles northward, to where, "17 lifetimes ago, an ancient civilization flourished.
There are certain bicycle trails that inspire loyalty in those who ride them.
For many, its the trail thats closest to home. For others, its the trail that runs by a really fine restaurant. And for some, its the route with the most wildlife.
One of my favorite trails, the 14½-mile Red Cedar State Trail out of Menomonie, WIs., has all of these things and more. Its one of the least crowded trails, because the crushed-limestone surface keeps some people away.
In spring, bicyclists start looking for a good trail and its always most fun to try a new one.
In Minnesota, that would be the paved, six-mile Brown's Creek State Trail between the eastern suburbs of St. Paul and Stillwater, on the St. Croix River.
We rode the trail last week, and it's a beauty. Built along the route of the old Minnesota Zephyr excursion train, it heads east from the popular Gateway State Trail, following a trout stream and gently descending through wooded bluffs.
The can-do spirit of the 19th century can be felt everywhere along a 19½-mile stretch of the Chippewa River.
Jean Brunet built his own dam and sawmill in 1836 and piloted his first raft of lumber to Prairie du Chien himself. Jacob Leinenkugel arrived in 1867 and founded the Spring Brewery.
Ezra Cornell bought up logging and mineral rights in the area, which became the logging center of the world in the 1880s, although the profits went to Ithaca, N.Y., where hed founded Cornell University.