Dakota County has parkland, and the Minnesota Off Road Cyclists build bike trails.

An alliance between the two dating back to 2000 has produced 12 miles of single-track, hand-built dirt trails over the fields and through the woods at Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Eagan.

They have become the most popular off-road trails in the metro area, said Reed Smidt, president of Minnesota Off Road Cyclists, the passionate mountain bikers who put $250,000 of their own money, their own design and their own labor into building public trails on 250 acres at Lebanon Hills.

The park has 12 of the 85 miles of mountain bike trails in the metro area that have been built and are being maintained with the help of the cycle group.

What makes Lebanon Hills such a popular destination is the variety of trail features, the progression of easy to advanced riding, the long trails and a skills area where riders can practice before they head out.

"It gets a lot of use. It's definitely a gem in the metro,'' Smidt said.

Beth Landahl, Dakota County's manager of park operations and outdoor education at Lebanon Hills, credits the cyclists for the success of mountain biking in the park.

"They really got serious and took it upon themselves to be the advocates and champions for mountain biking throughout the state," she said. They gave Lebanon Hills a popular activity it was unlikely to have without them, she said.

John Lundell, a 43-year-old mountain biker from Rosemount, has led the trail building and maintenance at the park for the past five years.

He took over the job from mountain bikers Tim Wegner of Rosemount and Dale Gundberg of Apple Valley, who were early champions of building sustainable mountain bike trails and the first to build them in Lebanon Park in 2000.

"They didn't say 'We are going to release a bunch of mountain bikers in the park and destroy your land.' They said 'We are going to show you how to build sustainable trails,' '' Lundell said.

Before then, mountain bikers were riding on steep ski trails at Lebanon Hills, going too fast and wiping out at high speeds, Lundell said. "Dakota County was hauling people out by ambulance every other day.'' Concerned about that danger and eager to stop hauling in gravel to shore up trail erosion, the county decided to give Wegner and Gundberg the chance to deliver what they were promoting: a low maintenance trail meandering through nature.

To begin with, the county offered land in a corner of the park for a trail less than a mile long. After seeing it perform as promised, the county entered into an alliance with the bike group that produced the 12 miles of trails in the park today.

Why are the bikers willing to put their back into trail building and maintenance for free?

"It is actually a lot, a lot, of work,'' and volunteers burn out, Lundell said. Each trail seems to attract five to 10 key volunteers. "It seems like what drives most of us is our love for mountain biking. We see a trail and we want to participate in it."

Anyone can join the trail work at the west trailhead every Tuesday at 6 p.m., unless it's raining or the trail is wet. The trails are closed when wet to protect them from rutting.

One of the largest maintenance tasks is using long-handled trimmers to clip the growth along the trail.

Lundell rides the trails year-round, two days a week in the summer and six days a week in the winter, on his balloon-tired bike. "You can float on snow. It's a funny feeling," he said.

The appeal of mountain biking is "you get an intimate experience with the outdoors and the woods," Smidt said. "It's really peaceful in the hills. You don't have to worry about cars or stoplights. You get a great workout."

The west trailhead was opened by the county last fall in response to the growing interest in mountain biking.

The spot has restrooms, changing rooms, running water, a picnic table and a 74-car paved parking lot. The previous gravel lot had space for 30 cars.

"There was a need for basic services at this popular facility," Landahl said. The facilities are also used by skiers and hikers.

With the new parking and restrooms open, "we are seeing more beginning riders, more families and more women out riding, and they are trying it out on the bikes they have in the garage,'' Smidt said.