It’s All About Connections: A Vision for the Dakota Rail Regional Trail

Posted 04/18/14 by Leeann Sinpatanasakul in America's Trails

Photo © Three Rivers Park District

As an important transportation bill continues to move through Minnesota’s state legislature, RTC continues its focus on trail projects with the potential to greatly impact communities across the North Star State.

Smooth, paved bicycle paths? Check. Lakeside vistas and activities? Check. Scenic rural trails? Check. Connections to nearby trails? Well…not just yet. 

Welcome to the Dakota Rail Regional Trail, a pathway currently less than 30 minutes west of the Twin Cities by car. As you may have guessed from the name, the trail was a railroad corridor owned by several companies over the years, including the Dakota Rail. Before its closure in 2001, the railroad ran through three counties from Wayzata, Minn., to Hutchinson, Minn., in McLeod County. 

The county would like to add 22 miles to the existing trail—and another check mark on its list of benefits for communities and trail users—but for now, the 25-mile paved trail only runs through two counties, snaking its way around Lake Minnetonka and Lake Waconia to end at the edge of Carver County. 

Photo © MN Bike Trail Navigator

Unfortunately, the trail abruptly ends near the county line, and because of unsafe bridge conditions over the creek, it is impossible to reach the City of Lester Prairie in McLeod County without doubling back to the nearest road.

For years, Lester Prairie and the McLeod County Parks Department have struggled to extend the trail just two miles into town. Like many trail projects, their main challenge has been funding, but Lester Prairie isn’t deterred. Never one to give up, Chris Schultz, a member of the town’s Parks Board, is planning to submit a Minnesota Legacy Grant application—their fourth—this fall. He is hopeful that, this time, their application will be successful.

In the short term, Schultz says that extending the trail to Lester Prairie will bring visitors to the small city, and the economic revenue that comes with visitors would benefit the local population of just less than 1,700 people. More importantly, he believes the trail connection will raise the quality of life and contribute to the vitality of the community, adding an intrinsic value worth more than any dollar amount. 

Thinking long term, Schultz and the parks department envision much more for the Dakota Rail Regional Trail than just the small extension into Lester Prairie. The county would like to extend the trail west to the city of Hutchinson. For them, the big picture is all about connections. The 77-mile Luce Line State Trail runs north and parallel to the Dakota Rail Regional Trail, and an extension of the Luce Line to Hutchinson is already in the works. Linking the Dakota and Luce Line trails in Hutchinson would create the “longest contiguous trail section that is closest to a major metropolitan area in the Midwest,” according to Schultz. 

The goal is not to simply pave another mile of trail for the sake of paving another mile of trail, but to make strategic connections and to build a network of trails that benefits users.

The vision is for residents in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area to be able to start in Wayzata, ride the trail all the way out to Hutchinson on the Dakota Rail Regional Trail and come back on the Luce Line Trail as a weekend trip. Schultz hopes trail users will come out to enjoy the beautiful rural setting and the aesthetic value of country life. 

Not bad for a trail only half an hour away.

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