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Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Legal Victory for Rail-Trails

Trail of the Month Archive


Trail of the Month: September 2004
Paul Bunyan State Trail, Minnesota

The Paul Bunyan State Trail, named for the legendary large logger, is arguably Minnesota's favorite trail for hiking, biking, inline skating and snowmobiling during the winter seasons. This explains why, in late July, Paul Bunyan State Trail users breathed a sigh of relief as they regained unhindered access along the 110-mile rail-trail in central-northern Minnesota. After nearly six years of battling private land owners for use of the right-of-way, and a series of court appeals, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled July 29, 2004 in State of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) v. Hess that a stretch of the former railroad bed near Bemidji, Minn., did, in fact, belong to the state. In the controversial decision, the state and the Paul Bunyan State Trail secured an enormous victory that will certainly set precedent for future rail-trails.

The trail extends through 16 communities from Brainerd and Baxter, Minn., to Bemidji and winds along the shorelines of 21 lakes, through scenic wetlands, across bridges, and over streams and rivers. At 210 miles, the adjoining Paul Bunyan and Blue Ox Trail running from Bemidji to International Falls forms one of the longest continuous railroad bed conversions in the nation. Most of the route meanders through a quiet rolling backdrop, covered in pine forests and populated by an abundance of diverse vegetation and wildlife. Two state parks, Lake Bemidji and Crow Wing, are located at the north and south ends of the trail, impressively connecting its entirety with very little crossing of open fields or immediately bordering highways.

Starting at Brainerd traveling north along Paul Bunyan's 74.5 miles of paved trail, you encounter 10 towns: Brainerd, Baxter, Merrifield, Nisswa, Pequot Lakes, Pine River, Jenkins, Backus, Hackensack and Walker. Due to terrain an 8.5-mile trail segment between Hackensack and Walker may be difficult for some in-line skaters, those with disabilities, wheelchair users and inexperienced bicyclists. From Walker travel 35.5 miles through Laport and Guthrie to Bemidji on a combination of ballast and sand. Towns are located a short eight to 10 miles apart from each other, making it easy to find rest stops and enjoy the environment. Be sure to stop midway through the trail in Pine River, otherwise known as "the birthplace of the Paul Bunyan State Trail," a town stepped in railroad and logging history. A plethora of interesting restaurants and unique gift shops can be found within one block of the trail so you won't have to go far for a quick bite to eat and some shopping.

The Paul Bunyan State Trail is also engulfed in natural history; thirteen recorded prehistoric sites have been identified near the trail. The region was apparently inhabited for centuries before French explorers came to the area and the Ojibwe and Dakota tribes were present until the logging and railroad industry took over. In 1893 the Burlington Northern Railroad line was built and soon after logging towns sprouted along its tracks. More than one hundred years later these towns serve as vacation destinations for many tourists and provide trail access points, rest areas and services. They also provide a major part of the regional identity and sites of historic interest.

The Paul Bunyan Trail Association continues to work tirelessly to improve the trail for all its avid users. In 2003 the trail opened a trail tunnel connecting 12 miles of bike trails in Baxter and Brainerd. This project was a part of a major highway reconstruction that cost $2.5 million. In the same year 18 miles of trail were completed through Chippewa National Forest, intersecting the Heartland State Trail between the towns of Hackensack and Walker. The 3.5 mile segment from Hackensack to Walker is expected to be paved by 2005. Currently the Paul Bunyan State Trail is working to obtain funding for a trail bridge over Excelsior Road in Baxter, one of the busiest city roads in the area. This project cost is estimated at approximately $1.5 million and is awaiting legislative approval.

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