The newest bike trail in Stillwater was bound to be popular anytime. But in this year of quarantines and canceled sports leagues, it's already drawing especially large numbers of cyclists and joggers.

Finally connected by the historic Stillwater Lift Bridge and opened to the public this spring, the new St. Croix River Crossing Loop Trail allows those on foot or two wheels to see the river up close while taking in some of the best views in the river valley.

"I love it," said Amy Gleason of Stillwater, a runner who uses the trail frequently. "I love that I can do a loop. I've been waiting for that Lift Bridge to open up forever."

The 4.7-mile trail was essentially finished last year, but repairs to the historic 89-year-old Lift Bridge in downtown Stillwater delayed the opening of the full loop until this year. It's now possible for those on the trail to wind through downtown along the riverfront, turn onto the Lift Bridge and cross into Wisconsin, where a monster of a climb awaits.

The trail completes the remaking of traffic patterns in downtown Stillwater, where a steady stream of vehicles has been replaced with a walkable park and plaza area that's drawn socially distanced crowds this summer.

Nearby restaurants have captured some of that business at outdoor tables in alleyways and on street areas set aside by city decree for dining. At least one entrepreneur has begun offering trail-seeking crowds a way to enjoy themselves, renting electric bikes.

The trail's width and signage make it easy to use for joggers, who have room enough to slip past slow-moving groups. Gleason also likes the parking near Sunnyside Marina, making it easier to drive to the trail for a run.

The question is, which way to go? Those who do the loop clockwise must make their way up the long climb on the Wisconsin side, rising the full height of the bluff as the trail slowly winds to the north before turning south. Head the other way and it's a scenic ride or jog down the hill, with a picturesque view of Stillwater's steeples, the old courthouse and the feed mill scrolling into view as the road turns west.

"My philosophy is pay your dues up front," Gleason said. "Start with the Lift Bridge, go to Wisconsin and hike the mountain." That way the rest of the trail is smooth sailing and a gradual downward slope.

Gleason was so excited about the bridge that she was there the day it opened and for several days after. At first she noticed lots of folks lingering on the bridge, taking in the view. Now she sees more regulars like herself, walking, jogging or biking.

Her only suggestion for an improvement: a line or big sign to clearly demarcate the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, showing where one state ends and the other begins. "I was disappointed that they didn't make a bigger deal of where the border is," she said.

A big change

The Lift Bridge, built in 1931, was for many years a vital interstate link for vehicle traffic. Locals became accustomed to a stream of cars and trucks passing through the heart of downtown, particularly during the shift change at nearby Andersen Windows in Bayport.

Local businesswoman Kari Patsy said that when she opened Kari's Create and Paint Studio downtown six years ago, cars and trucks used to line up on Chestnut Street outside her door when the bridge was raised for boat traffic.

"On any rush hour there was honking, that vibe of a downtown city," she said. "It's nice now not to have all that noise and just cars sitting there." Even so, the change was so big at first that Patsy said she missed "that feeling of busyness."

For her, the other bonus of the Loop Trail is that she can often ride her electric bike to work from her home in Bayport and back. "It takes me 10 minutes to drive a car into work and it takes me 20 minutes to ride a bike," she said. "Why wouldn't you ride a bike?"

Families and big groups seem to enjoy the trail, she said: "It's a way for people to get out and enjoy the outdoors."

The trail's popularity has been good for Mike Herman, who rents electric bikes out the back of his Greenbridge Coffee Shop.

It's just his second season renting bikes and the first in his new location on Main Street, but his phone has been ringing off the hook.

"I think it's that people right now are so bored of sitting in their house," he said. "It's people looking for something to do."

The pandemic has hurt a lot of tourist business downtown, even with new rules that allow eateries to serve outdoors on sidewalks, patios and streets. But Herman's bike business has been strong. It costs $45 for a two-hour rental, enough time to do the Loop Trail and a section of the Brown's Creek State Trail to the north of Stillwater.

For scenic beauty, Herman says Brown's Creek is the clear winner. The 5.9-mile trail winds through a narrow valley up and away from the St. Croix River to the popular Gateway Trail, which runs all the way to St. Paul. Opened in 2014, the Brown's Creek trail has been so popular during the pandemic that the Department of Natural Resources warns on its website that it may not be possible to socially distance.

For most two-hour rentals, Herman recommends doing the Brown's Creek trail and then returning to downtown Stillwater to do the Loop Trail. He tells people to ride the Loop Trail counterclockwise so they can spend the last few minutes coasting down the Wisconsin side of the river valley before crossing the historic Lift Bridge.

"It's beautiful," he said. "Just being on that bridge is cool."

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329