John F. Kennedy said it this way, “Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.” I’d have to agree.
In my home state of Minnesota, biking opportunities abound. The League of American Bicyclists ranks Minnesota fifth in the nation in cycling, and rightly so.
The land of 10,000 lakes also feels like the land of 10,000 bike trails. Personally, my favorite trails are paved and off-road. I love the transformation from an old, abandoned railroad bed to a beautiful Minnesota bike trail, and that’s the story of many of them!
Another appeal of biking is that it is uncomplicated. Sure, you can gear up, spend a bundle, and get a bunch of gadgets — we own some ourselves. But at the end of the day, it’s pretty much just you, your helmet, and your bike; and hopefully, someone to share the experience with, which makes it all the richer.
Here are 15 beautiful trails (listed alphabetically by trail name) to get you started on biking in Minnesota.
1. Cannon Valley Trail
Cannon Falls To Red Wing (Southeastern MN)
19.7 Miles, Paved
The Cannon Valley Trail is one of our favorite “rails to trails” bike trails. It’s built on a former Chicago Great Western Railroad line, which means a low grade, or a fairly flat ride. We love it because it runs right along the Cannon River and the mature trees create a canopy overhead. We often start this ride at the halfway point in Welch, where there’s ample parking and sweeping valley views. One of the trail anchors is Red Wing, which is an old river town popular for its stunning bluffs, shops, and history.
Pro Tip: From April 1–November 1, those 18 and older need to purchase a Wheel Pass when using this trail. Wheel pass fees are $5 a day or $25 a season, are available along the trail, and are subject to change.
2. Central Lakes State Trail
Osakis To Fergus Falls (North Central MN)
55 Miles, Paved
Another former railroad bed turned paved bike trail, the Central Lakes State Trail was built on an abandoned Burlington Northern Railroad corridor. It winds past lakes (no surprise), farm fields, open grasslands, wetlands, and forests. I loved biking past the old granaries, standing tall against a clear summer sky. The trailhead in Fergus Falls has a lot of parking and we found that the trail south of Fergus Falls is one of the most scenic parts.
Bonus: This trail connects to the Lake Wobegon Trail. If you’re feeling ambitious, you’ve got 120 miles of paved trail ahead of you!
Fergus Falls is in Otter Tail County, and apparently, proud of it. At 40 feet long, Otto the otter is quite impressive!
Pro Tips: No fees or passes are required for cyclists to use state trails. Settle the trail dust with a cold brew from Copper Trail Brewing, Alexandria. For great eats and fresh juices of all kinds, try The Fabled Farmer in Fergus Falls, on the opposite end of the trail.
3. Dakota Regional Trail
Wayzata To St. Bonifacius
13.5 Miles, Paved
Once again, we have an old railroad to thank for beautiful biking on the Dakota Regional Trail. It delivers gorgeous views of the bays and inlets of Lake Minnetonka, plus golf courses, Gale Woods Farm, bridges, and wooded areas.
Bonus: West of St. Bonifacius, you can pick up an additional 12.5 miles of paved trail into the town of Mayer.
Pro Tip: There is no fee for general use of Three Rivers parks and trails, but special activities may require either a pass, permit, or parking fee.
4. Gitchi-Gami State Trail
Split Rock Lighthouse To Beaver Bay (Northeastern MN)
33 miles, Paved
The Gitchi-Gami State Trail is still in development, but the part that’s finished is already spectacular. When completed, it will cover 86 beautiful miles along Minnesota’s gorgeous North Shore of Lake Superior, connecting Two Harbors to Grand Marais. 33 miles are complete now, and smaller northern sections are also complete. Another plus, it’s great for summer biking because Lake Superior keeps excessive heat and humidity away.
5. Glacial Lakes State Trail
Willmar To The Kandiyohi/Stearns County Line (Western MN)
22 miles, Paved
Another rails-to-trails option is the Glacial Lakes State Trail, located on a former Burlington Northern Railroad bed. We started our ride in Hawick, small town USA, and rode through Spicer set on scenic Green Lake, all the way to Willmar (38 miles round trip). This trail takes its name from the work of glaciers that moved through this area thousands of years ago. As we biked, wildflowers lined the path and we passed picturesque farms. The trail is especially scenic in the southern end, with more shaded canopy for summer rides.
6. Grand Rounds
South Minneapolis (Uptown Area)
51 Miles, Paved
If you want to see the best of Minneapolis, check out the Grand Rounds bike trail that follows the scenic byway of the same name. This urban bike loop gives you a taste of great scenery, historic sites, art, gardens, shopping, and dining. It follows the Chain of Lakes (Lakes Nokomis, Harriet, Bde Maka Ska, and Lake of the Isles), past Minnehaha Creek, Minnehaha Falls, and the downtown riverfront along the Mississippi River.
Flower lovers can’t miss the wildflower garden at Theodore Wirth Park — the oldest public wildflower garden in the U.S. — or the Lyndale Park Rose Garden at Lake Harriet. On the way, ride or stroll across the iconic 1883 Stone Arch Bridge (pedestrian/bike only and the only one of its kind over the Mississippi).
Pro Tip: The Twin Cities has an extensive network of bike trails. This one is a superstar, but there’s a lot more where this came from.
7. Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail
Harmony To Preston (Southeastern MN)
18 Miles, Paved
The Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail is another railroad-grade trail that passes through lush wooded areas and rich farmland. Harmony is the southern trailhead and claims to be the “Biggest Little Town in Southern Minnesota.” It’s also Amish country. Enjoy — and likely, give your credit card a workout — the quality woven baskets, wooden toys, furniture, rugs, and baked goods for sale in shops and farmers markets.
Bonus: The Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail also intersects with the 42-mile Root River State Trail.
Pro Tip: Check the trail map (PDF) for steep hills at the southern end of this trail, and plan accordingly. An “out-and-back” always works here.
8. Heartland State Trail
Park Rapids To Cass Lake (Northwestern MN)
49 Miles, Paved
The Heartland State Trail was one of the first rail-to-trail projects in the country. It’s marked by glacial lakes, flowing streams, and the Chippewa State Forest, which has a large population of bald eagles there and in the surrounding area.
Bonus: The Heartland State Trail connects with the Paul Bunyan State Trail and other regional trails. It is only 21 miles from Itasca State Park and the headwaters of the Mississippi River.
9. Luce Line State Trail
Plymouth To Cosmos (Twin Cities And West)
63 Miles, Various Surfaces
The Luce Line State Trail is another former railroad-grade trail. The ride starts in a wooded setting with sugar maple and basswood trees then advances west into the tallgrass, open prairie. This trail also gives you the chance to ride your bike on every kind of cycling surface:
- Plymouth 30 miles west to Winsted – crushed limestone
- Winsted to Hutchinson – paved
- Hutchinson to Cedar Mills – crushed granite (larger than crushed limestone so the biking is more rugged)
- Cedar Mills to Cosmos – natural trail (mowed grass)
Pro Tip: For prairie areas without a lot of shade cover, be sure to have sunscreen and plenty of water and snacks.
10. Medicine Lake Regional Trail
Plymouth To Maple Grove
20.7 Miles, Paved
The Medicine Lake Regional Trail connects both Elm Creek Park Reserve and Fish Lake and French Regional Parks. It provides great views of Rice Lake in Maple Grove and Medicine Lake in Plymouth. The ride around Medicine Lake is very scenic, with towering trees, beautiful homes, parks, beaches, and even a covered bridge.
Bonus: The trail gives you access to the Bassett Creek and Luce Line Regional Trails, as well as many community trails.
Pro Tip: Both the Medicine Lake Regional Trail and the Dakota Regional Trail are a part of the Three Rivers Park District.
11. Mississippi River Trail/US Bicycle Route 45 – Minnesota Segment
Itasca To The Iowa Border, Following The Mississippi River
Roughly 600 miles, Paved With Road Riding
Imagine exploring the Mississippi River on a bicycle, from the river’s headwaters, through 10 states, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico! Minnesota’s segment of the Mississippi River Trail (MRT) links 10 state parks, state and regional trails, five campuses, plus scenic overlooks, historic and geological markers, locks and dams, streetscapes, and more. It uses existing bike trails where possible but also follows the shoulders of low-traffic, paved roads. This path is the granddaddy of them all and incorporates some of the other Minnesota bike trails already named.
12. Paul Bunyan State Trail
Brainerd To Bemidji (North Central MN)
100 Miles, Paved
The Paul Bunyan State Trail traverses through unique small towns, mighty forests (this is the north country, after all), clear blue lakes and rivers, and more. The 9-mile segment through the Chippewa National Forest has rolling hills, curves, and an 8 percent grade, which is significant, depending on fitness level. Although not without hills, one alternative is to use the Shingobee Connection paved trail to Walker.
Bonus: This trail intersects with the Mississippi River Trail and the Heartland State Trail.
Pro Tip: Don’t miss the charm of small-town Minnesota with such wonders as a giant Paul Bunyan and his sidekick, Babe the Blue Ox. Bemidji claims to be Paul’s birthplace, and who am I to argue? The 18-foot statue is quite convincing.
13. Root River State Trail
Fountain To Houston (Southeastern MN)
42 Miles, Paved
The Root River State Trail is a gem, with its dramatic bluffs, meandering river views, and southeastern Minnesota charm. Watch the steep, half-mile segment between Vinegar Ridge and Houston. The incline to Fountain can also be challenging.
Pro Tip: Lanesboro is a delightful town with shops, restaurants, a theater, and lodging of every kind, from charming bed and breakfasts to woodland cabins and inns. It’s a great place to explore or stay overnight if you’re in the area.
14. Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail
Mankato To Faribault (Southern MN)
39 Miles, Paved
This bike trail and corresponding Sakatah Lake State Park take their name from the Dakota tribe, translated “Singing Hills.” Indeed, the hills sing here, courtesy of ancient glaciers that dropped mounds of rocks and minerals (called moraines) to create rolling hills. Fear not, the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail is on a former railroad bed and fairly flat. It follows a stretch of the Cannon River and passes by many lakes and farmland.
15. Willard Munger Trail
Hinkley To Duluth (East Central/Northeastern MN)
70 Miles, Paved
The Willard-Munger State Trail is another “rails to trails” and a great choice for biking. The trail has a lot of variety with rock walls and sweeping views passing near Banning, Moose Lake, and Jay Cooke State Parks.
Maps for most of the trails can be found on the official website of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Other trail maps can be found here:
Do you ever feel like you’re flying when you’re on your bike? Turns out, you’re in good company. For inspiration, Wilbur and Orville Wright considered the humble bicycle and made a creative connection between cycling and flying. When riding a bike, it’s essential to lean to retain balance, and they realized they could apply that same concept to flight. And the rest, as they say, is history.
So go ahead, the next time you get on your bike, fly. (Even if it’s only in your mind.) You can’t go wrong when you hit any of the beautiful bike trails in Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes.