Happy new trails

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 30, 2011 - 6:03 PM

Elm Creek Park Reserve in the northwest metro has a new single-track bike trail built with sustainability and all degrees of riders in mind.

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Terry Lillibridge of Plymouth, left, and Don Weber of Coon Rapids rode the new 12.7-mile, single-track mountain bike trail at Elm Creek Park Reserve. The trail, which volunteers helped design, has three levels of difficulty: 2.2 miles are rated “easy,” 8.1 miles as “more difficult” and 2.4 as “most difficult..”

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Larry Schonhardt usually rides his bicycle on pastoral trails and roads in the western suburbs. But his friends kept telling him that he had to try a brand-new single-track mountain bike trail that's unlike any other in the northern suburbs.

"A lot of my friends volunteered to build it, so of course they're going to be biased," said Schonhardt, 54, of New Hope, as he arrived at the Elm Creek Park Reserve, in Champlin.

Two hours later, Schonhardt returned to the parking lot, having just navigated the picturesque 12.7-mile trail's hills, turns and straight-aways.

"Fabulous," said Schonhardt, who logged 7,000 road miles on his bicycles last year. "Even better than advertised."

Hard-core cyclists with layers of dirt and sweat covering sun-baked faces, and casual riders out for a stroll with the family, all seemed to agree: There really is no trail like this in the northern suburbs.

The new one-way trail was purposely built to be too narrow for a vehicle to navigate or for cyclists to ride side by side. But it will suit anyone on a bicycle -- with 2.2 miles having a difficulty rating of "easy." Another 8.1 miles are rated "more difficult," and 2.4 miles are rated "most difficult."

But the pristine surroundings on this trail also provide the perfect setting for hikers, snow-shoers and runners.

"We wanted this to be a natural trail, through the woods, with all the twists and turns," said Jay Thompson, a project manager with the Three Rivers Park District.

"There aren't a lot of tricks to this course. We want families to use it."

The park district also wanted volunteers to help. The trail was designed in partnership with volunteers from Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists (MORC), who offered expertise, enthusiasm and energy.

C.J. Smith, 50, lives just a mile from the trail, which starts at the park entrance off Hayden Lake Road. Long before the trail opened in late June, Smith was at the park, working every day. During the winter, he compressed snow along the trail. He cleared fallen trees and brush blocking the trail's path. He continues to monitor the trail Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, cutting back vegetation that might interfere with riders.

"On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I ride," he said. "Some weeks, I ride every day. I can't stay away.

"When I'm out there working, 90 percent of the people I meet along the trail thank me and tell me the trail is awesome," said Smith, who works in a greenhouse in Maple Grove. "That means a lot. So does seeing kids on their BMX bikes or the casual riders. It tells me that this is everyone's trail."

"It's phenomenal," said Joy Adams, 27, a bicyclist from Golden Valley. "Some of the best single track I've been on."

Adams, who hopes to ride professionally one day, marveled at the trail's "good, cut corners," the multiple levels of difficulty and "those little surprises."

A nod to the environment

The surprises were well planned, said Charlie Evenson, a forester with the Three Rivers Park District, who designed the trail with Thompson.

"We studied the topography on computers and then went out there and studied every inch of this trail," Evenson said. "We were very conscious of where water might flow over it, of not disrupting the environment and, frankly, what was possible," he said.

The southern 2.5 miles of trail were built exclusively by volunteers, about 85 of them, mostly provided by MORC, Evenson said.

"They pledged their support to maintain the trail," he said. "The story of this trail isn't just the trail. It's also these volunteers."

For others, it's the beauty and the convenience of having a trail that can fit any bike and any rider willing to combat the occasional cloud of mosquitoes.

For Dr. Richard Buyakika, 37, an internist from Champlin, the trail that runs by his house offers additional opportunities to get on his Schwinn three times a week. If he doesn't want the challenge of the new trail, there's still the two-way asphalt loop that runs around the park.

"It's convenient and clean," said Brandy Jenkins, 30, who rode with Buyakika. "We just moved here from North Carolina and it was so refreshing to find this.

"The only thing wrong is the mosquitoes."

Adams constantly waved away bugs as she patiently went over the nuances of the trail with a newcomer.

"The mosquitoes aren't bad if you're moving," she said as she mounted her 10-year-old racing bike.

She was soon gone, having hit the trail. But wasn't that the point?

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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