A scenic trail through Dakota County will be part of a 3,000-mile national bike route along the Mississippi River through 10 states from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.
Dakota's 27-mile Mississippi River Regional Trail between South St. Paul and Hastings will be one of the few stretches of the national route through Minnesota that follows an off-road trail near the river. Most of it relies on highway shoulders and low-use roads to traverse the state.
"Our part of the national route is going to be outstanding," said Kurt Chatfield, Dakota County planning manager. In some locations it will offer scenic vistas of the river valley, and other parts of the trail will take riders close to the water.
"Being part of a national route is a good thing for Dakota County and a good thing for Minnesota, and we are optimistic that it might lead to more use and more tourism and some of the economic development benefits of that."
After spending several years with local authorities up and down the river to settle on the national route, the Minnesota Department of Transportation is now seeking federal designation for 600 miles from Itasca State Park to the Iowa border. If approved by the organization that names federal highways, it would become the Mississippi River Trail -- U.S. Bike Route 45.
The river's scenery, its history as an early transportation corridor, the physical challenge its length offers riders and the link it forms between river states all made establishing a bicycling route along the Mississippi a national goal.
The federal designation may make it easier for the county to attract grants for future improvements to its trail, which is expected to be completed in 2016, Chatfield said.
The county recently landed a $77,500 Legacy grant from the Minnesota Historical Society to develop historical and cultural displays along the county trail.
Legacy grants have been available since 2009, a year after Minnesota voters passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to restore water quality in lakes, rivers and streams, protect wildlife habitat, support parks and trails, and preserve the state's arts and cultural heritage.
The amendment increased the state sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent beginning July 1, 2009, and continuing until 2034.
Dakota County will use the money it received for research to select information for educational displays at 10 locations along the trail.
The displays would be "tailored to a changing audience that interacts with history and media differently than in the past," the county said. There will be "interactive, hands-on and narrative" information presented -- more than the standard two-paragraph plaque, Chatfield said.
"The Mississippi River is an awesome national resource that is right in our backyard. We think that with all the use of this trail that we expect to occur, that it's a fantastic opportunity for people to learn about the river."
Each display will be accompanied by a map of the trail as well as benches or picnic tables where people can take a break.
Early next year the county will call for bids from consultants who want to do the work. The Dakota County Historical Society is expected to join the competition for the contract.
When the plan is finished, the county will seek another grant to build and install the displays. How much more will be needed won't be clear until the plan is finished in about a year.
Historical themes that will be showcased along the trail include the Kaposia Landing, an early Indian settlement in South St. Paul, as well as the stockyards that once thrived there on the banks of the river.
Other areas of note include the Rock Island Swing Bridge pier; the Pine Bend Bluff Scientific and Natural Area; the Spring Lake Lock and Dam No. 2 in Hastings; downtown Hastings, and the old, and now gone, town of Nininger.
Laurie Blake • 952-746-3287