HUTCHINSON, Minn. – Bill Arndt is a snowmobiler whose interest in the Luce Line State Trail dates back more than 40 years to when it was abandoned rail property. Steve Cook has been biking long distances for about that long, but generally not on the Luce because most of it has been surfaced with crushed rock.
But put a map in front of them and each Hutchinson resident can trace the same dream. Start on one end of the trail in the McLeod County town or start on the other end in the Lake Minnetonka area and make a huge, paved loop for recreation, whether on two-wheeler, snow sled or even a horse.
That loop idea is taking a huge step forward with the completion of about 19 miles of new paving on the Luce Line, which stretches between Plymouth and Cosmos, mostly north of Hwy. 7. That roughly parallels the Dakota Rail Trail, a regional trail south of the same highway, now paved for more than 25 miles between Wayzata and its current ending just east of Lester Prairie, although the rail bed extends westward to Hutchinson. Lester Prairie is fewer than 20 miles from Hutchinson, where Arndt is on the City Council and Cook served for 10 years as mayor.
Both see their dream loop as promising big things for recreation and for tourism in their city and nearby towns.
"We're hoping to make it one of the most sought-after trails in Minnesota," Arndt said. "Come out on the Dakota and go back on the Luce Line."
Hutchinson, designated nationally as a bike-friendly community, already had a well-developed local trail system, especially along a fork of the Crow River teeming with waterfowl and lined with local parks. The city had already paved modest sections of the state trail. But it had bigger ambitions. "Everyone sees the value of making that connection to the metro," Cook said.
The latest paving for most of the stretch between Hutchinson and the Carver-McLeod county line dates to a 2013 meeting that local officials from across McLeod County held with state Department of Natural Resources officials, several years after state bonding money for trails was stripped by a gubernatorial veto. "Basically we said, 'What's it going to take to get this project done?' " Cook said. The upshot was a commitment of $1.36 million from the county, cities and their economic development arms. That, plus an additional DNR contribution financed the basework for the trail last year, while a 2014 bonding allocation topped off with Legacy Fund money paid for the $2.2 million in paving completed last week.
It's the longest section of trail the DNR has paved in the last 20 years. But Luce Line boosters are positioning for more. The next phase, once bonding is secured, will push the paving another eight miles west from Hutchinson. But paving the Luce all the way to the Twin Cities may prove a tougher nut. First, there is a short gap at Winsted, close to the Carver-McLeod county line, caused by uncertainty over airport development. That may force the trail to divert from the old rail bed. Then east of the county line, the DNR's master plan calls for the trail to remain crushed limestone all the way to Plymouth, a bow to local sentiment in favor of a softer-surfaced but slower trail. Then the Luce trail ends with a brief paved section in Plymouth, although it's connected to Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis via a paved regional trail developed by Three Rivers Parks.
But trail advocates such as Arndt are hoping that the new section of paved trail will prompt authorities and suburban residents to rethink their hesitance to pave the Luce Line in Carver and Hennepin counties. "Maybe they'll see how wonderful this trail is and continue on through," he said. "I'm so excited about it that I could just scream."
Arndt and Cook know the work it takes to create a trail. Hutchinson area snowmobilers devoted hundreds of hours to clean out old railroad ties and plant trees along the route. Cook spent long hours at the Legislature advocating for the trail, winning a key ally in Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, a senior member of the House capital improvement committee.
Although the paving is completed, some amenities are still getting installed. But some local businesses are ready. Crow River Winery, east of Hutchinson, has put down a short gravel path with a small bridge to connect with the Luce Line. "Before we had the bridge put in, people were jumping the crick with their bicycles," owner Mike McBrady said. Some cycle out from Hutchinson to drink wine and hear live music on the winery patio; others park there and roll east to Silver Lake along a nicely shaded section of trail. Molly's Cafe and Silver Lake Motel also offers a patio and bike rental.
Some communities can't wait to get in on the action. Lester Prairie, for example, raised $30,000 privately to install a compacted gravel surface to connect the Dakota trail for its last mile and one-half into that community.
"In the small towns that are just west of the Twin Cities, it's a great amenity," said local newspaper publisher Chris Schultz. As a state trail, the Luce can be used by bikers, snowmobilers, walkers and equestrians. "It's easy to be an advocate because it supports so many uses."
One of the key pieces that trail backers need is being filled in. McLeod County is working on a trail plan that will sketch out priorities for future trails and policies on matters such as sharing costs, including maintenance. Meanwhile, an engineering firm is being selected to develop a master plan for the Dakota Rail Trail west from the Lester Prairie area to Hutchinson. Both steps are expected to improve chances for state aid.
As a former mayor, Cook sees the economic benefits from both the Luce paving and the potential loop connecting with the Twin Cities. Not many bikers used the Luce Line when it was gravel. "It just wasn't enjoyable," he said. Cook and his wife, Kay Nelson, like biking enough that they put on 5,000 miles in a trip years ago sandwiched between college and starting careers. He rides the mile each day to work as an industrial electrician at 3M, but because his shift finishes three hours before her work ends, the 60-year-old has time to hit the McLeod County roads, depending on which way the wind is blowing. He's accumulated 3,400 miles this year, and the Luce provides new options.
"It helps attract younger people who really like trails," he said.
That's something Steve Mulder likes to see as a doctor and chief executive of Hutchinson Health interested in health promotion. "Having paved trails makes that easier and more inviting for folks," he said. "It's safer, and I think it will draw people. It's a wonderful way to get a good workout."