Let’s Talk About Rail Trails

If you’re like me, the term “rail trail” may sound self-explanatory and also highly obscure at the same time. When I first heard the term, I had no idea that the trail I had been using for the past year and a half is just that…a rail trail.

So what is a rail trail? Simply put, it is a trail that was made when a railway line went out of commission and the rails were removed.

The Gandy Dancer in St. Croix Falls is one of many former railway paths turned recreational trail. Thanks to the railroad that once serviced the small towns that ran parallel to WI-HWY 35, we now have a lovely crushed limestone and gravel trail that allows people to get outside and enjoy nature while keeping themselves out of traffic. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a cyclist who enjoys biking in the road. I understand road cycling is great! It’s just not for me. Too many stupid and/or inattentive drivers make me paranoid to fully enjoy road cycling. Therefore, I look to rail trails and boy do they deliver.

Today’s almost 2-hour long bike ride was on the Hardwood Creek Regional Trail in Hugo, MN. I strapped my bike to the bike rack and jumped the boarder to explore some of Minnesota’s trails. This particular trail extends from Hugo up through Forest Lake where it then meets up with the Sunrise Prairie Regional Trail. That trail then continues farther north to North Branch, MN. A total distance of 25.2 miles one way.

I went as far as Wyoming, MN today which is a round-trip distance of 23.1 miles. This time I planed ahead. I filled my Camelback with half water and half zero sugar G2. I brought a half of a banana along with me just in case, and I brought my husband’s external battery phone charger with just in case my phone died while I was biking.

Both of these trails run parallel to US HWY-61 and for the first 3.5 miles or so the western wind gusts were quite strong. Naturally, I go faster on a paved trail instead of gravel so this wasn’t as bad as the crazy windy day that I experienced on the Gandy. I just hunkered down, listened to my audiobook, and found my zen.

When I made it into Forest Lake, I started encountering a little more foot traffic but because people were social distancing properly (standing or running six feet apart), we all gave each other plenty of breathing room. In the city proper, there are two bridges that have a decent, albeit brief, climb which I really felt in my quads. But hey! I just shifted into a lower gear and powered my way up and over those walking bridges like a boss. One year ago, that would’ve been a serious physical trail of endurance, but now, it’s a minor annoyance. In true Birkie spirit, I hear-by dub those bridges “the hump” and “the lump” in honor of a series of climbs on the Birkie trail called “the hump, the lump, and the bump.”

I had planned to bike for 2 hours so I turned around when I got to the one hour mark in Wyoming, MN. Thanks to the headwind now turned tailwind, I made it back to my car 10 minutes faster!

I could’ve gone for another 10 minutes but I was listening to my body this time. Around mile 18, my stomach grumbled and I was starting to get thirsty despite the water I was drinking. My legs were heavy (partially due to muscle soreness from yesterday’s bodyweight workout) and I was ready to be done. In the grand scheme of things, that extra 1.5-3 miles wouldn’t have made a difference to anything other than my ego.

So…all in all. It was a pretty successful workout.

If you have a minute, take a look at the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy website at: https://www.railstotrails.org/. Last year they announced a long-term project to connect rail trails and construct new ones to create one contiguous trail trail that runs from Washington D.C. to Seattle, WA. Their project is what inspired me to set my “bike across America” goal.

It’s a great website and they have an awesome project that could use all of the publicity it can get. Their website also has a huge database of rail trails with maps, information, and user reviews. (It’s how I learned about the Hardwood and the Sunrise Prairie trails).

Tomorrow’s plan: Rest day with some leisurely walking

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