I had the privilege of biking 7 different bike trails in Minnesota over the course of a week. On some, like the Mesabi Trail, I merely got a taste of the biking experience. But there wasn’t one I found lacking. In fact, Minnesota is one of the most progressive and bike-friendly states I’ve run into in the United States.
There are literally hundreds of miles of paved trails and well over a thousand miles of natural surface trails in the state to explore. I hope this selection of bike trails in Minnesota sparks an interest on your part to go out and discover the beauty and landscapes you can enjoy from the seat of a bike.
Updated April 2020. This post includes some affiliate links. If you make a purchase via one of these links, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.
The Heartland State Trail
Minnesota’s Heartland State Trail slices right through the heart of northern Minnesota. Over its 49 mile length you can bike (or hike) between Park Rapids and Cass Lake.
The cycling is flat and easy as far as Walker. This part of the trail is one of the first of the rails-to-trails in the United States. For the final four miles past Walker, you can look forward to some rolling hills.
The biking is pretty on the Heartland Trail through a mix of farmland and wooded areas with a few lakes and marshes along the way providing more expansive views along with some bird life. I also enjoyed the peek a boo views of well-kept farms with their white picket fences.
There are several stops along the Heartland State Trail you’ll want to make.
It’s only a two block detour off the trail in Akeley to see the 25 foot tall Paul Bunyan statue, the largest in the state and one of the largest statues in the country.
It was built by Dean Krotzer, six sons and a son-in-law and finished in 1985. Reportedly the sculpture is eight times the size of a Krotzer man and required 4.5 tons of welded steel. Take the requisite selfie picture.
In Nevis, pull over at Muskie Waters Co. If you’ve got kids, a stop here for a sundae, ice cream cone or a shake may be just the bribe you need to keep them moving. Adults can look forward to a caffeine fix.
My cycling companion for the afternoon, Steven Frick, a local firefighter recommends eating next door at The Iron Horse Bar and Grill. There was no time for that on the day I rode, though it looked like a great place to have a break and enjoy a beer.
About halfway along the Heartland Trail you’ll intersect the Paul Bunyan Trail, the longest paved trail in the state at 123 miles. (It connects Crow Wing State Park to Bemidji State Park.)
If you’ve got the time and the inclination you could certainly make the day into an epic one – cycling an out and back section of the Paul Bunyan Trail along with the Heartland Trail. You could arrange a shuttle with Embracing Pines B&B to shorten the day. (See below for more information.)
If it’s a hot when you arrive in Walker have a swim in the poorly named Leech Lake. I have no idea if there are leeches. Let’s hope not. At the very least head down to the lake and enjoy the view. The town itself is a pretty one so if you’ve got the time, explore the few blocks that make up the downtown.
Where to stay in Walker
There are a number of places in Walker were you can stay including Chase on the Lake and Embracing Pines B&B, where I stayed, situated right beside the Paul Bunyan Trail. They offer a shuttle service for both the Heartland and Paul Bunyan Trails – with preference given to guests. You can expect to be very well fed here – and sent to your room with fresh-baked cookies.
The Mesabi Trail
Called the Best Rural Bike Trail in Minnesota by the Star Tribune, the 120 mile Mesabi Trail weaves through 28 mining communities between Grand Rapids and Ely. bike through a landscape of rolling hills referred to as the mesabi Iron Range, home to large deposits of iron ore.
Enjoy excellent signage along the trail – and shuttles along with bike rentals are easy to arrange.
The Headwaters of the Mississippi in Itasca State Park
There isn’t a lot of biking to do in Itasca State Park but it sure is pretty. And the bike trail does take you to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, the second longest river in North America. The river flows south for 2,552 miles through 10 states to reach the Gulf of Mexico.
Itasca State Park is both the oldest and the second largest state park in Minnesota. In a year it will see 525,000 visitors!
The actual paved bike path through Itasca State Park is just 5.8 miles one way. But there is the option to do a pretty loop ride which would include some cycling on one way roads. The bike ride is a hilly one. It’s not particularly onerous but don’t go expecting a flat, straight path. As it winds through a gorgeous landscape of red and white pine, trembling and big-tooth aspen, in addition to white birch, stop occasionally to listen for birdsong.
Twenty species of warblers along with tanagers, nuthatches, vireos and black-backed woodpeckers are just some of the 222 bird species that have been sighted here. Audubon identifies the park as an Important Bird Area.
You can rent bikes from Itasca Sports – with a location on the lake close to the Mississippi Headwaters. Bikes rent for $6.00 per hour and $27 per day. Helmets are provided. They also rent electric assist bicycles.
The Gitchi-Gami Trail – one of the prettiest bike trails in Minnesota
Pour over a map of Minnesota and if you look closely you’ll find the Gitchi-Gami Trail (an Ojibwa name meaning Big Sea or Huge Water) hugging the north shore of Lake Superior. The longest section of the trail starts in Gooseberry Falls State Park less than an hour’s drive northeast of Duluth and the starting point for the day.
While the trail is broken into five pieces totaling 30 miles, I only cycled from Gooseberry Falls to Beaver Bay. As you’ll see from the pictures, the trail is gorgeous – offering loads of Lake Superior coastal scenery. The landscape near the lake, the largest freshwater lake in the world by area, offers exceptionally rugged scenery marked by outcrop, cliffs, and beaches.
Ultimately, the Gitchi – Gami Trail will be 89 miles in length and will run from Two Harbors to Grand Marais. The idea behind the trail is to increase accessibility to Lake Superior, showcase Minnesota’s state parks in the area and connect communities along the North Shore.
The trail winds along the shore of Lake Superior but you can’t always see the lake. And there are times you cycle parallel to Highway 61. Don’t let that stop you. There are enough places along this trail where you feel far removed from civilization.
Try and allow time to explore some of the beaches you pass as they’re a great place to look for agates.
The Cannon Valley Trail – one of the easy bike trails in Minnesota
If you’re looking for a fun, pretty bike ride in Minnesota that’s easily accessible from the St. Paul – Minneapolis or the Rochester area, then the 22 mile (one way) paved Cannon Valley Trail needs to be on your radar. (An additional two miles is opening from Cannon Falls to Lake Byllesby Park.)
It follows the former Chicago Great Western Railroad Line so the grade is minimal, descending just 115 feet from Cannon Falls to Redwing. Of all the trails I rode in Minnesota (seven of them in total) this was the quietest. Rarely are you near a road.
The trail follows the scenic Cannon River as it flows through hardwood dotted hillsides, past cliffs, farms, a ski hill, the Cannon River Turtle Preserve, and the Red Wing Archaeological Preserve. I did see a wetland observation deck. If you are a birder, bring your binoculars.
Facilities along the Cannon Valley Trail
Along the length of the trail there are numerous stations where you can fix your bike or have a picnic. In total, there are three access points with parking – Cannon Falls (park near the Cannon River Winery near 4th and Mill Streets), Welch and Redwing at Bay Point Park on Old West Main Street.
In Welch, located at Mile 10, you can get drinking water. Bike just 1/3 of a mile down the highway (towards the river) and you’ll find the Trout Scream Cafe. This is the place for an ice cream stop. It’s also the starting point for canoeing and rafting adventures in the summer.
The Welch rest area has bathrooms, water, bike tools and parking
The Gateway State Trail – one of the must do bike trails in Minnesota
The Gateway State Trail is an 18 mile, mostly flat converted rail bed. It starts in St. Paul and finishes just outside of the pretty town of Stillwater on the banks of the St. Croix River. To reach Stillwater take the Brown’s Creek State Trail for four miles.
The Brown’s Creek Trail was actually my favourite section, especially where the gnarly old oak trees line the paths. If you’re visiting St. Paul or Minneapolis this is a bike trail that definitely needs to be on your must cycle list.
Bike trails in Minnesota – The St. Paul – Minneapolis experience
St. Paul and Minneapolis are excellent cities for getting around by bike. They’re both great, but different. What I loved was the sheer number of dedicated bike lanes and the ease of exploring the best areas of both cities on a bike.
In St. Paul the first section of the Capital City Bikeway, was completed in 2017. It’s a bit of a maze to follow – at least the first time you ride it but a great addition to the city.
I loved Summit Avenue. It starts at the impossible-to-miss Cathedral of Saint Paul, the third largest church in the United States, with its 306 foot high copper dome. From there it eventually runs into a narrow but beautiful park along a section of the Mississippi River – with full-sized bike lanes down each side of the road.
The bike ride involves a lot of architectural eye candy – including the Governor’s mansion and the former home of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
You can hook up with more bike-friendly trails and head in either direction if time allows. If not retrace your steps to the cathedral and then cycle three blocks west and hang out at what appears to be a local favourite – Nina’s Coffee Café.
I had two opportunities to bike in Minneapolis.
The first, a tour of the hot spots in the city with Alyssa Kohn, the owner of Minneapolis by Bike and the second a fast paced ride with David Cronin from Le Meridien Chambers Hotel, a luxurious hotel in the heart of the theatre district – that I highly recommend. Of note is the fact that Le Meridien Chambers offers bikes to their guests. Take advantage of them!
From a little hole in the wall Alyssa offers bike rentals and guided bike tours with a difference. Instead of stopping to describe an area, she narrates the tour via headphones so you can cover a lot more ground. Guests can still ask questions so it sure makes for a seamless experience.
Over a few hours we covered some of the best bits of Minneapolis including Hennepin Avenue, immortalized in songs by Tom Waits and Lucinda Williams as well as the Prince movie – Purple Rain.
From there we crossed the Hennepin Avenue Bridge, rolled over Nicollet Island Park, stopped to get some of the best views of the city from the Water Power Plant and continued across the historic Stone Arch Bridge.
Its here on the pedestrian and bike friendly bridge that you get a great view of the Mississippi River. The last part of our journey continued through the core of the city on nice wide bike lanes to end near Loring Park. What a great way to get a quick overview of Minneapolis!
Cycling with David was a fast, fun experience. In one hour we covered about 18 miles. That gave us enough time to ride around one of the lakes and cycle a small section of the Midtown Greenway.
There wasn’t time to snap photos but the lasting impression I came away with was how accessible from my downtown hotel the green space is.
Further reading related to biking trips
- The Whitefish Bike Retreat: A Mountain Biker’s Paradise
- Biking the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park
- 5 Great Bike Rides in the Banff Area
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Thank you to Explore Minnesota for making this trip possible.