Minnesota's Paul Bunyan Trail paved, now longest in stateby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
Pequot Lakes, Minn. — This is the first summer season when people can ride on a fully-paved Paul Bunyan Trail in northern Minnesota. The last stretch of paving on the recreational trail is now complete.
Visitors can hop on a bike in Brainerd and ride 110 miles north to Bemidji on a paved trail, making it the longest bike and snowmobile trail in the state.
DNR studies show trail use statewide has declined over the past decade. Even so, communities along the Paul Bunyan Trail say it's having a positive impact on their local economies.
Railroad tracks used to run through a downtown section of Pequot Lakes, but now the tracks have been replaced by a recreational trail.
Tina Chant and her family have just come off the trail for a picnic in the park. After that, they'll do some shopping in the local stores.
"We ride it every year from Nisswa to Pequot, which is only like five miles, but with the kids that's plenty," Chant said.
The Chants drive north from the Twin Cities every summer to vacation in the Brainerd lakes area. Their kids range in age from three to eight.
Tina's husband Mark Chant says the trail gives them a chance to do something together as a family, and at the same time get closer to nature.
"It's beautiful," he said. "The kids enjoy it and it's nice and quiet and an easy ride for all of us. And it's a lot of fun."
The Paul Bunyan Trail is one of the most scenic stretches in Minnesota. It snakes through pine forests and along the shores of 21 lakes while passing through a dozen communities.
Those towns have gotten an economic boost from the trail. A DNR study estimates that in 2007, summer trail users pumped more than $1 million overall into the small towns along the route.
Ruth Ann Hanson, director of the Chamber of Commerce in Pequot Lakes, said the bicycle traffic from the trail has quadrupled the number of visitors to the welcome center.
"The trail is probably one of the greatest assets we have in this area," Hanson said.
The state started paving sections of the Paul Bunyan Trail in the mid-1990s. But Hanson says only in the past few years have towns along the route started working together on trail strategy. Towns that used to compete for tourism dollars now get together to talk about ways they can cooperate.
"We try and meet on maybe a bi-monthly basis, kind of see what everybody is doing," Hanson said. "We're looking at ways we can appeal to the bicyclists. What are they looking for? What can we as the towns along their trail, what can we do to make their experience a more pleasant experience?"
The effort has meant that more and more businesses offer products and services that appeal to trail users, like free shipping when trail riders make purchase too big to carry. Vendors are frequently allowed to set up shop right at the trail's edge. Local hardware stores are more likely to carry inner tubes for flat tires, and some may even offer to fix the flat themselves.
There isn't a lot of data as to how many people use the trail. A DNR study a few years ago estimated that it got more than 80,000 hours of use in the summer of 2007. That's a nearly 50 percent drop from a similar study in 1996. It reflects a trend of declining trail use statewide, though the reason for the drop isn't clear.
Nine miles to the north in the town of Pine River, Chamber director John Wetrosky says he hasn't noticed a decline. He says last year he counted trail users from 28 foreign countries. And he guesses that thousands of people from the Twin Cities have come on the trail through Pine River.
Wetrosky says people walking or riding the Paul Bunyan Trail can have a quiet experience that's tough to find in larger communities.
"The nice thing we have is that we are removed far enough from a big metropolitan area," Wetrosky said. "We had a guy that spotted two timber wolves north of town last week, just off the trial. So we have things here yet that are pretty hard to see anywhere else.
Wetrosky says he thinks trail tourism will grow.
Pine River and several other communities along the Paul Bunyan Trail will get a boost later this month when more than 1,000 bicyclists pass through as part of the Star Tribune's Ride Across Minnesota, a charity event for multiple sclerosis.