“I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house.”
— Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1842, “The American Notebooks”
On kitchen tables, in garage workshops, across apartment floors, the region’s cyclists are scanning maps these days in search of the last great rides of the fading year — those sweet rides across golden prairies and through neon tunnels of oak, maple and aspen, carried along in cool air by legs still fresh from the summer. The mountain bikers in particular seem ambitious this time of year.
And they call it autumn riding, by the way, not fall.
Where to go? Because of Minnesota’s rare, almost unduplicated geographic good fortune, it is possible to string together a diverse series of rides in the weeks ahead that cover three of the nation’s principal landscapes, or biomes, as they take on the colors of the season. Three zones converge in Minnesota — the northern coniferous forest in the lake country; the prairie grasslands in the west and southwest; and the deciduous, aka Big Woods, forest on the east and southeast.
Those zones run roughly diagonally, northwest to southeast. However, the autumnal color zones (the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources actually counts five) run more horizontally, east and west. So, in Minnesota, the colors change in a slowly descending wave that, on a given autumn day, spans sections of prairie, hardwood, and conifer forests all at once.
Thus, a case could be made that Minnesota’s definitive autumn biking adventure would be a 143-mile October weekend ride from Morris to Mora, a kaleidoscope of peddling through peak color in all three landscapes in one swell trip. (Fergus Falls to Brainerd basically works, too.)
There are options for riding in individual zones, following the colors north to south:
North (Ride now through early October)
The DNR and the U.S. Forest Service say this region — the northeastern lake country — is a mosaic of conifer, mixed hardwood, and bogs and swamps. Conifers include pines, spruces, firs, and junipers; deciduous types include aspens, oaks, paper birches, mountain ash and maples.
Big ride: The Paul Bunyan and Heartland state trails. The 120-mile Bunyan State Trail extends from Crow Wing State Park to Lake Bemidji State Park, north of Bemidji. It is the longest of Minnesota’s state trails and the longest continuously paved rail-trail in the country — 16 communities, 21 lakes and a trillion maples, oaks and aspens mixed in with the evergreens. It connects with the 49-mile Heartland, between Park Rapids and Cass Lake. (paulbunyantrail.com)
Rough ride: Heck of the North Gravel Cycling Classic, on Saturday, in Two Harbors. A pair of North Woods wonders — 105- and 55-mile rides, on gravel roads, single track and snowmobile trails, without sag wagons. Organizers recommend 35-millimeter tires, at minimum. (heckofthenorth.com)
Rougher ride: Take on the miles of mountain biking single-track (for all skill levels) on the nationally acclaimed system at Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area in the Crosby-Ironton area. The area has become a mecca of sorts, with 25-plus miles of trails. The Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew has been instrumental in developing and maintaining the system. Its quality shows: Hundreds of riders will roll in for the crew’s sold-out Salsa Oremageddon fall races Oct. 8.(dnr.state.mn.us)
Central (Now through mid- to late October)
This region has the tall grass prairie parkland in the west, with a wild array of grasses and flowering plants — envision bluestem, switch grass, prairie sandreed, and cordgrass, pasqueflower, goldenrod, purple coneflower, prairie clover, and most brilliantly of all, the rosy sumacs. In the east is the broadleaf-Big Woods, dominated (in the nonfarmed sections, that is) by sugar maple, basswood, oak, hickory, aspen, elm, ash and ironwood.
River ride: An unplanned confluence of metropolitan and federal infrastructure planning has created a Mississippi River day outing between downtown Minneapolis and Big Lake that takes riders 45 miles along the great river. The key: Metro Transit’s Northstar Rail Line, which starts at Target Field and has stations (with bike lockers) in Elk River, Ramsey, Anoka, Coon Rapids and Fridley. At any one of those stations, riders can connect with the Mississippi River Trail Bikeway, on which to either ride home or catch the train home. The bikeway, by the way, is mostly on roads, but it is either on or close to the Mississippi River, more so once it enters the city.
The weekend train schedules are light. Weekend schedules have just one northbound train in the morning. To ride up the river on a weekend day and catch the train home, you have to watch the clock. Just two southbound trains are scheduled Saturday, and but one on Sunday (at 2:40 p.m.). (dot.state.mn.us/bike/mrt; metrotransit.org/route/888)
Metro mountain bike rides: Autumn adventures into the colorful woods could do worse than the trails of Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove and Lebanon Hills in Dakota County. Elm Creek has 12.7 miles of trails that include what is considered the largest single-track trail “of its kind in the northern metro,” according to Three Rivers Parks District. The trails embrace all riders’ skill levels, with 2.2 miles of trail rated easy; 8.1 miles of trail rated more difficult; and 2.4 miles of trail rated most difficult. (Elm Creek is also among the Three Rivers parks in October and November to offer 10-mile Nocturnal Mountain Bike Races. That is bike races. In the woods. In the dark. What possibly could go wrong?)
Lebanon Hills’ 2,000 acres include 11 miles of single-track mountain biking that, according to lebanonhills.com, is a “challenge to even the hardiest biker.” (threeriversparks.org/parks/elm-creek-park.aspx)
Family ride: Fall Color Bike Ride on the Glendalough Trail in its namesake state park, which conveniently is situated in the transition between prairie and hardwood zones in Ottertail County. This weekend, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, the park plans a fun ride on the paved 12-mile trail, led by a naturalist who will discuss the park’s history and natural autumn splendor. (bit.ly/glenride)
South (Now through mid- to late October)
This region also spans both prairie parkland in the west and the broadleaf-Big Woods zones in the east. It’s unique opportunity, in the far southeast, is the hardwood forests of bluff country, an area whose limestone evaded the last Ice Age, but has since been sculpted into stunning river bluffs, rushing trout streams and, as it happens, cute little towns. It’s the state’s best late-season riding.
Classic ride: Root River State Trail. This paved, 42-mile state trail runs from Fountain, eastward to Houston, through the aforementioned largely cute towns of Lanesboro, Whalan, Peterson, and Rushford, most of which were settled in, and retain at least some glimmer of, the mid-19th century. For extra credit, catch the 18-mile spur, the Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail to the south. The trails are on old rail beds, but they do have some steep sections. (bit.ly/rushride)
Organized rides: Mankato River Ramble, Oct. 9, Mankato. A fully supported ride with routes of 12, 26 or 42 miles, as well as a “The Hilly Half-Century.” The F-Octoberfest Gravel Grinder (put on by F-Town Brewing Co.) on Oct. 8 in Faribault offers nonpaved routes of 50 and 25 miles. Note: The 50-mile gravel route is listed as a “race.” (bikeriverramble.org • bit.ly/f-ride)
Big ride: Try this 59-mile circle route that basically starts at La Crescent, arches north up the Mississippi River to I-90, circles back south to Houston, and then returns to the river, across some the loveliest bluff and river country that can be found. Toughest, too: There is more than 2,000 feet of elevation! (Ride this one counterclockwise to hit the hills, and the big bluffs, first thing.) Find a map at ridewithgps.com/routes/5623975.
Tony Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Minneapolis.