Winona's new mountain biking trails bring southern exposure to a cycling scene more apt to produce headlines in central and northern Minnesota parks at systems such as Cuyuna Country, Tioga and Redhead. And they are just an opening salvo in the river city.

Four trails totaling about 5½ miles were built this summer through a partnership among the city, the Department of Natural Resources, Rock Solid Trail Contracting, the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), the Winona Area Mountain Bikers club (WAMB) and others. When completed, there could be about 25 miles of new trail.

All the trails opened this fall, with two official in late November, and all along the slopes and through the forests of Bluffside Park above the Hwy. 61 corridor. The project is part of a larger city project covering about 525 acres of bluffland under 2019's Bluffs Traverse Conservation and Recreation Area plan that will connect Bluffside via trails with two adjacent parks: Garvin Heights and Sugar Loaf, with its iconic rock pinnacle. Two Legacy Amendment grants totaling more than $1.2 million have been fundamental to the trails' initial design, planning and building.

"It's such a cool landscape. Those bluffs are really neat. You're looking over Winona. You're looking over the Mississippi River. You get almost a backcountry feeling when you get away from the previously developed trails," said Mike Repyak, a planning and design director with the IMBA, which along with Rock Solid built the trails.

Repyak said the previous Bluffside system was a spiderweb of trails that "had been loved to death."

He and his team spent part of 2020 assessing the park's landscape. Rock Solid and the IMBA shored up some of the heritage trails and built new ones. The dramatic topography on the bluff — from flat to steep — was challenging. Builders had to consider, for example, water flow and the threat of erosion, and they had to shape grades and terrain for beginning cyclists.

Two of the new Bluffside Park trails are exclusively for mountain bikers, with two others multipurpose. Winter snow promises to bring out fatbikers and snowshoers alike.

Alicia Lano, the city's outdoor recreation coordinator and a project lead, said the atmosphere at Bluffside is exciting.

"You can feel that there is something different and exciting when you are there," Lano said.

As part of the permitting with the DNR to build (and rebuild) trails on the bluff, the city had to commit to balancing its work with the impact on the timber rattlesnakes that live there, she said. The snakes are a threatened species. Planners are restoring five bluff prairies in the Bluffs Traverse system.

"It just goes to show that through recreation, we can have conservation as well," Lano said.

Lano also is excited about the more than 60 high school and middle school mountain bikers who have a new playground to build skills, as well as the feedback from the local club, WAMB, a key volunteer partner and donor.

WAMB President Sam Shortridge and her club oversee the student-athletes in partnership with the Minnesota Cycling Association, which is seeing more kids on wheels every year in its race series. "They have such a beautiful avenue [with these trails] for the love of their sports," she said.

Part of next year's expansion calls for a skills park, tabletop features for more advanced riders and more. One of the new trails — the Dragon Noodle — has several back-to-back berms.

While the trails opened in the quiet of late fall, Shortridge said she also senses a buzz in the community of what's happening up the bluff and its accessibility to all levels.

"I've seen faces out on the trails that I haven't seen before," Shortridge said, "and that was a really cool moment."

She also said the moment resonates with the original trail-keepers.

"To see the work that we have historically done and then what that work looks like now really feels like a beautiful full-circle moment for all of the WAMB members and the broader mountain biking community who has helped steward these trails," Shortridge said.

Winona's burgeoning story fits with the IMBA's advocacy for working on "more trails close to home," Repyak said. And more of Minnesota and parts of the Upper Midwest are hot spots. In recent years, the IMBA has drafted plans for the Rochester Active Sports Club and also consulted the city of Sartell on the design of trails in Sauk River Regional Park.

"It is exciting because it is not requiring people to drive long distances to get on their bikes," the IMBA planner said. "It's throw your leg over the bike in your garage and roll on the trails.

"… That's where Bluffside Park in Winona is awesome. It's front country. It's not the center of town, but it is right there with good access."