The next leg of our journey once again took us more northward than westward, from Mankato to Alexandria, Minnesota, two cities I'd never even heard of before this trip. But both had rail-trails, and that's what lured us -- and the fact that they aren't tourist destinations so hotel reservations were easy to come by even in the busy summer travel season.
The afternoon we checked into our hotel, Barry went out on a short reconnaissance ride to determine how we'd begin our ride and access the trail we planned to ride the next morning. I just had to share the photos he took of a two gaggles of geese along one of the many lakes in the area crossing the road in front of him. So cute!
The trail also hooks up with the Lake Wobegon trail in Osakis. We knew we wouldn't be able to ride the whole trail, but we figured we'd see how far we could get. You can see all the lakes along the trail on this PDF trail map.
The next morning looked like a good one for a long ride on this near-flat trail, and any thunderstorms were supposed to hold off until late afternoon, knock wood. So, we headed out, first taking in a few sights in Alexandria on our way to the trail. We had a nice five-mile ride over to the trailhead.
At last we arrived at the trailhead and headed east towards Osakis, as we wanted to ride on a bit of the Lake Wobegon trail as well.
They don't call this the Central Lakes trail for nothin'!
As we kept riding, the clouds started building up. Hmmmmm....
There had been big storms a couple of days before, on our second full day in Mankato. Guess this tree came down then.
In Osakis, we continued on the Lake Wobegon trail, which didn't seem very different than the Central Lakes trail, just a little bit narrower. These trails were both in very good condition, especially compared to some portions of the Sakatah Singing Hills trail that we'd ridden down in Mankato. Here I am pointing out the sign for Barry to take a photo of.
We liked these cute metal animals outside a feed store in West Union, one of the small towns along the trail.
When we stopped for a quick break in West Union, we decided to turn back. The sky was getting darker to the west, and we still had a long way back. If it wasn't raining by the time we made it back to Alexandria, we hoped to continue farther west to see how far we could get.
When we got back to Alexandria, the skies looked very threatening. However, it hadn't started raining yet, and we both wanted to get a few more miles in, so we risked riding another couple of miles west. There was still more lakes to see, like this reflective beauty.
After we'd gotten about two miles northwest of Alexandria, we started seeing some lightning in the distance, so we decided we'd better turn around and high-tail it back to the hotel. Barry is just a blur he's riding so fast!
There were a few small climbs in the five road miles back to the hotel, so it seemed to take forever to get there, but we made it just as the raindrops started flying -- hours earlier than Weather Underground had indicated. My odometer read 51 miles, and I was actually disappointed as I'd hoped for a metric century (62.5 miles) -- crazy, huh?! At that point, I was just glad to beat the rain.
We hope to get back to finish riding this trail one day -- it was well-maintained and scenic with all the lakes. It seems that we left Minnesota in the nick of time, though; the state has been besieged with unusual amounts of rainfall and resulting flooding. We had plenty of rain while we were there, but still got in some good bike rides.
Our hotel was a quick two mile ride, mostly downhill, to the western terminus of the trail. We planned to ride it all the way to the eastern terminus in Faribault, then turn around and ride back. That would give us somewhere upwards of 80 miles, but since the trail is mostly flat, it's much easier to put in the big mileages, as we'd found when riding Iowa's Raccoon River Valley trail just a couple of days prior.
The trail started off with smooth asphalt in great condition with some very pretty scenery.
But we soon hit a long gravel section. Signs of things to come?
It was worth riding on gravel for a short ways to see lovely Madison Lake, however. We had it all to ourselves.
The next obstacle we encountered was a detour in the next small town along the trail. We didn't take a photo, but we had to ride through a gravely, sandy area off the trail as well as a grassy area to re-access the trail.
After this point, there was a long stretch of trail that was in very poor condition, filled with cracks and bad patches, requiring us to repeatedly stand up out of the saddle. I am afraid that Iowa spoiled us for trails in sub-par condition, as the trails there were so nicely maintained. On road bikes, these types of cracks jar your wrists, knees, shoulders, and so forth. And unless you rise up off your saddle, your butt as well. If we'd had our full-suspension mountain bikes, we would have been fine, but on skinny tires, owie! We commented that given the name of the trail, the only thing singing was our butts.
Due to the poor condition of the trail, we decided to detour onto the road in the small town of Elysian. There was a map of the local area at the trailhead, so we planned our route and took off, hoping for better luck. Remember, it was Friday the 13th....
On the outskirts of town, there were some beautiful lakes. This "central lakes" area of Minnesota is absolutely gorgeous, with lakes seemingly everywhere you look.
Once we got outside of town, we realized that we'd traded one evil for another. The rural roads were cracked as well and at regular intervals, there'd be a big BUMP. Barry happened to catch this photo just as I had gone over one. Every crack required standing up off of the saddle, and this gets pretty tiring over many miles.
And even the road was not immune to detours! We had to go a bit out of our way due to this unexpected road closure.
Finally, we arrived in Waterville. Since we realized the road was no better than the trail, we figured we'd ride through town, see how the trail conditions were on the east side, and if it continued to be bad, just turn around and head back to Mankato.
Fortunately, the trail was in excellent condition as we headed east out of Waterville as it approached the very beautiful Sakatah Lake State Park, so turning around was not needed. If only it were all this nice! The trail was totally shaded for several miles through the state park, so we didn't take any photos, but the park was gorgeous, with a huge lake. Would have loved to have explored it on foot (or kayak!) as well.
And we were in luck, the trail conditions continued to be excellent all the way until we reached the eastern terminus at Faribault.
Not long after turning around in Faribault, we stopped for some refreshments at this well-located DQ right along the trail.
Re-energized, the ride back to Mankato started well with some beautiful wild phlox along the trail.
At about mile 56, disaster struck. All of a sudden, I couldn't shift into a lower gear. Barry checked my bike and discovered my rear shifter cable had broken. This same thing happened to him not too long ago in the Kansas City area, and being right near a Lenexa bike shop, he was able to get it repaired immediately. Since the trail is essentially flat, I knew I could probably get along without a repair for the rest of the ride (30 miles left), even though I was in a somewhat noisy gear (30t x 12t for cyclists reading this).
Hmmm, I'm beginning to believe in this Friday the 13th thing after all....
Back we went through the state park, bad sections of trail (bump bump bump owie!), and the small-town detour, where more bad luck ensued.
I didn't handle the sandy, gravely area of the off-trail detour very well with my skinny tires since I was trying to stay outside a couple of other cyclists (riding more suitable bikes for off-road conditions), and I went down on my left side. Ended up covered with dust, a big bruise on my butt, and little abrasions all over my left shin from the sharp gravel. It burned and hurt, and I still had miles to go until the end of the ride.
Fortunately, we made it back to the hotel with no further mishaps. I did have to walk my bike up one steep hill on the way between the trailhead and the hotel since I no longer had a low enough gear with the shifter cable shot, but it was not too long.
Here I am with my frayed cable, once we returned to the hotel. I was just glad for this ride to end, and I did end up with 86 miles total, my second longest ride of the year!
We rewarded ourselves with a delicious takeout dinner from Chipotle and pie from Baker's Square. The meal made all the bad luck of the day worth it. I am thinking I may avoid riding on Friday the 13th in the future, though!
Although we only have a sample size of two trails on which to base our opinion, it certainly appears that the state of Iowa knows how to do rail-trails right. After being amazed by how well-maintained, wide, and lovely the High Trestle Trail was the day before, on our second full day in the Des Moines area, we were equally delighted by the Raccoon River Valley Trail, which runs along an abandoned railroad line.
We were able to access the trail by riding from our hotel on the city trail system in Clive, where we were staying, in just a couple of miles -- always our favorite way to go, when possible, rather than having to take the car. Once we got to the start of the Raccoon River Valley Trail (RRVT) in Waukee, we paid our $2 daily fee per person (a bargain!) and got going. We were pleased to see how well-marked it was with mileages to each town along the trail noted on charming signs. Ya get what ya pay for!
Here's a map of the trail showing the towns we went through. I rode all but the Herndon to Jefferson piece; Barry rode it all (of course!)
We started out heading west, riding the loop in a clockwise direction. I was planning to ride the 70-mile inner loop of the trail, and Barry planned to ride the entire trail, so it was going to be a long day. Fortunately, the trail is mostly flat with no grades greater than 1-2%. And we had beautiful weather for it, sunny and not too hot or excessively windy. And since we were riding on a weekend, there wasn't much traffic on the trail at all. We were able to keep up a pretty fast pace, though we still stopped for plenty of photos.
The trail was a mix of asphalt and concrete and in excellent condition. This made the miles fly by. We wish all trails were so well-maintained and would gladly pay user fees on all of them to reap the rewards.
Early on especially, we rolled through shady, tree-lined areas that are hard to get good photos of, so most of our photos show the farms and fields that are also in abundance along portions of the trail. We rode through a fair number of small towns as well.
In the tiny dot on the map of Herdon, Iowa, we split up. Barry continued riding north to take in the "tail" of the trail, where he'd do an out-and-back of approximately 24 miles, and I turned east to continue the inner loop. I'd wait for him in the larger town of Perry while getting a bite to eat and reading the paperback book I'd tucked into my back pocket.
Here are a few shots Barry took of the portion of the trail I didn't get to see. Looks like he got to see some cool sights.
Barry learned that one of the trail towns on this section, Cooper, had a claim to fame involving Johnny Carson. A tiny town of only 50 residents in 1981, the town put out a call for someone famous to become their honorary 51st citizen. The Johnny Carson Show found out about the contest and called the town saying that Johnny himself wanted to be that 51st famous "citizen". The show ended up flying several residents of Cooper to appear in a hilarious episode of the show. As a result, Johnny was named the 51st resident of Cooper, and a large plaque and stone honor him in the town to this day. Here's a link to read more about this story if you are interested.
So what was I doing while Barry was taking in all this history? Why, visiting Jamaica, of course! Not quite the island, but it was a cute little stop on the trail where I bought a soda and took a stretch break.
Ten miles later, I arrived in Perry, the largest town along the trail before getting back to Waukee and Clive. The trail was routed through an attractive downtown, and I rode around awhile looking for a coffee shop Barry had found online, but apparently it had gone out of business.
Eventually I settled on a cute restaurant, Gep's, in a train car right by the trail where I could sit outside, eat, and read. Their menu was short and heavy on sno-cones, but I hadn't had a hot dog in so long I just had to try one. I had really worked up an appetite, and it was delicious! We eat a lot of granola bars on our rides, that often I crave things that aren't sweet.
After eating, I sat and read my book for awhile waiting on Barry. I enjoyed sitting near these cheerful petunias.
Before I even expected him, he rolled up. He was pedaling so fast I almost couldn't get my camera out in time to snap a shot before he whizzed by. He was thirsty, so I bought him a Gatoraid at Gep's, then we headed on to finish the trail loop.
When we finally got back to our hotel in Clive, I had at least 6 miles more on my bike computer than we had estimated my ride to be ahead of time. It was a long day, and ended up being my longest ride of the year by quite a lot -- 88 miles! Barry ended up with 114 miles -- but then again, he always does the mega-miles!
Naturally an effort of this magnitude warranted a celebratory feast. We used a $5 off coupon for Romano's Macaroni Grill and enjoyed a delicious meal and wine. We even brought home enough of our entrees for the next night's dinner.
(I didn't realize that my camera lens was smudged, so the photos aren't the greatest, but you get the idea.)
Emily & Barry
We're a long-married, early-retired couple who are currently traveling as nomads with no fixed home base. After years of living in North Carolina (Emily's home state), we spent 18 months living oceanfront on Ambergris Caye, Belize, a year road-tripping the US in a Honda CR-V, a year in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, and are now roaming North America in our 32' motorhome, Pearl, following warm weather whenever possible.
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