Lebanon Hills has long been known as a premier, if not the premier, off-road cycling destination in Minnesota. And it just got better.
On Aug. 10, Lebanon Hills opened a facility with restrooms, a picnic shelter with grills, and a heated changing area. They also opened a new skills area with turns, jumps, berms, rock gardens and bridges.
According to riders, the course is popular because of its variety of challenging features: Fallen trees leveled on top to create "tree rides." A "camelback obstacle," a humped bridge over fallen logs. A triangle of stacked logs called a "monster log pile." A terraced stair section that riders tackle head on.
Even in the wintertime, helmet lights can be seen through the trees on frosty nights, going up the switchback.
"It looks like a bunch of rogue coal miners out riding," said Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists volunteer Dave Tait of Apple Valley.
The improvements are already a hit with riders.
"I've been waiting all summer for this to open up," said high school sophomore Peter Liffrig of Eagan. He bikes at the skills course several times a week.
Warren Bartholomew, who just moved to Burnsville, echoed his thoughts.
"Awesome," he said. "This is fantastic."
"All this design was based on our interviews with the users," said Josh Kinney, a landscape architect and facility development specialist with Dakota County Parks.
Tim Wegner of Rosemount, who runs a company that designs and builds sustainable trails, said the trail system has changed considerably over the past couple of decades. In the '90s, it was a couple of miles of gravel that often washed out into ruts during rains. "It was like all washboard, and it was terrible," Kinney said.
Wegner said after heavy rains in 1994, parts of the trails developed three-foot gullies, and there was talk of closing sections.
Over the years, the park rerouted sections and created the approximately 10-mile-long trail system -- with beginner, intermediate, expert and double-expert trails -- with attention to water runoff and conservation. They redesigned the trails following contours of the landscape, avoiding flat sections that wash out easily, and armoring consistently soft or wet sections with rock.
About 90 percent of the work and upkeep, Kinney estimates, is done by volunteers. "They just created it out of love for the sport," he said.
Case in point: Tait used to snowshoe the entire trail system before the county purchased a snowpacker.
Volunteers build and conduct monthly inspections on features, and Tuesday nights are trail work nights with volunteers headed up by "dirt bosses." They update the trail's Facebook page almost daily with notices and weather closures. (See it at www.facebook.com/lebanonhills.)
"Dakota County gave us this opportunity," Wegner said. "These guys made it happen."
"It's been great to see how it's changed over the years," said Tony Steyermark of south Minneapolis. "I think they've made it a lot broader. There's some pretty great double expert stuff in here. There's a lot more technical features, harder rock gardens and drops. The cost of failure becomes a little bit higher. It's really a blast."
"They're fantastic," said Sue Welch of Northfield, coach of the newly established Canon Valley high school mountain bike team. "I'm excited to get the kids out here."
"It's just a variety of terrain for all different levels of riders," said Bill Esslinger, visiting with sons Quinn, 11, and Sean, 16. "I see lots of families around here. People say it's the premier mountain biking spot in the state, and I think that's right."
Or, as Sean puts it, "Everything's cool out here."
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.