Dakota County commissioners last week boarded vans for a bumpy ride through the woods and over the hills of Lebanon Hills Regional Park to get a closer understanding of where a proposed paved trail would weave through the county's largest park.
Some residents have opposed paving a trail, saying it would detract from the natural character of the park. Commissioners wanted to get a feel for that themselves by touring the path of the proposed trail before making a decision as part of adopting a park master plan early next year.
After the tour, Commissioner Mike Slavik of Hastings said the park was in worse condition than he expected.
"I was surprised at the amount of buckthorn and erosion you see in the trail system,'' he said in an interview. The park master plan should include clearing out the brush, reducing erosion and improving the natural resources, including the water quality of the park's lakes and ponds, he said.
The 2,000-acre park is 4 miles long and a mile wide, with 100 ponds, lakes or wetlands. It has 40 miles of unpaved dirt trails for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking and skiing, but no paved walking and biking trails beyond the short walks around the visitors center.
To attract more people to the park and add year-round walking and biking, the county is considering putting down a 6.5-mile, 10-foot wide asphalt trail that would connect seven areas of activity in the park, including lakes and campgrounds.
It's unusual for a regional park to have no paved trails for biking and walking, County Parks Director Steve Sullivan said.
The trail would be flanked by 2 feet of grass on either side. The grading would require removing some trees as well as cutting and filling to level the trail through the hilly terrain.
The tour showed commissioners that there is room for the trail close to the edge of the park and that the route would largely be kept out of the interior natural areas.
The paved trail would be rarely within view from the other dirt trails and would rarely intersect with them, Sullivan said.
In some areas, for example, the paved trail would run close to Cliff Road. Another segment would use the driveway of what used to be a farmhouse.
But the paved trail is proposed to loop around Holland Lake, which is deep inside the park and currently has no dirt trail around it. At 60 feet deep, Holland is one of the deepest, cleanest lakes in the county.
Commissioners did not discuss their own views on the trail but referred it to the county's Planning Commission for a recommendation.
An open house for a public presentation of park plans will be scheduled in November.