The thunder of flowing water can be heard well before the Mississippi River comes into view along the Soo Line Trail. Two miles southwest of the trailhead on Hwy. 10 in central Minnesota, bicyclists, walkers and winter snowmobilers come upon a former railroad trestle bridge where the Great River plunges 46 feet over the hydroelectric Blanchard Dam.
The impressive sight lures people out to enjoy fall-color views, fish quietly along concrete outcrops, hop across stones carpeted with well-misted moss, or sift through sandy banks in search of staurolite. Also called cross rocks or fairy stones, staurolite features a Maltese cross pattern and is found in only a few places in the United States.
The tallest dam on the Mississippi, the Blanchard Dam was built 98 years ago, forming a wide stretch of the river known as Zebulon Pike Lake. Trail lovers shouldn't miss hopping on the Soo Line and Lake Wobegon trails for the "bridge to bridge" ride, a 14-mile section that connects the dam with a quaint covered bridge in Holdingford. Along the way, the route crosses squiggling creeks and meadows edged with wooded rolling hills, with a soundtrack of birds, cows and maybe a distant train whistle.
Bowlus, population 274, is a 4-mile pedal from the dam. A former train depot and park provide space to rest and play, while Jordie's Trailside Cafe draws in riders with caramel rolls for breakfast, hand-pattied burgers and skinny fries for lunch, and a case full of tasty pies. Books and antiques give the space a homey feel, while outdoor dining tables tuck into whimsical gardens and a pond.
At the Stearns County line, the Soo Line Trail becomes the Lake Wobegon Trail and continues to Holdingford, population 743. The Lake Wobegon Trail was named in 1998 for the assortment of real Minnesota towns — particularly Holdingford — that inspired Garrison Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon community on his long-running radio show "A Prairie Home Companion."
Towns on the 65-mile Lake Wobegon Trail network sport timeless skylines of grain bins and church steeples, and downtowns with cafes and taverns. You'll also find fresh murals, art and Holdingford's Art in Motion, a spacious venue and trailside destination.
Now in its third year, it can hold up to 175 people and combines an airy gallery with rotating exhibits, artists in residence and a studio that often features drop-in family-focused activities. Visitors enjoy espresso drinks, homemade soups and desserts, and gourmet sandwiches beneath vibrant murals inspired by biking.
Outside, Karl Unnasch's 40-foot-tall stained-glass sculpture "Burnt Matchstick" lights up at night, while pollinator garden paths and a labyrinth invite people to enjoy the landscape as it changes through the seasons. While Saturday evening wood-fired pizzas and live music on the patio are done for the season, the cafe and its October Art Market stay open until Oct. 29. Art in Motion owner Greg Konsor uses the winter to plan the next year's events and exhibits.
"We think we've gotten to where our sweet spot is," Konsor said, referring to Holdingford's blend of art, nature and biking.
That theme continues on the south side of Holdingford, where metal characters in a playful sculpture make moonshine, sing in the church choir and travel by train, among other glimpses of history. A 186-foot-long covered bridge over the South Two River offers a generous stretch of shade and frames the scenic countryside ahead.
The barn-red covered bridge marks the end of the "bridge to bridge" ride, but the moos of contented cattle coax cyclists to keep going. Whether you're using muscle or the assistance of an e-bike, the trail offers a laid-back way to discover more of central Minnesota's small towns.
What to do
The 65-mile paved Lake Wobegon Trail can be accessed at almost a dozen trailheads, including one in Albany, Minn., off Interstate 94 about 85 miles northwest of Minneapolis. Other eastern trailheads with restrooms and water include River's Edge Park in Waite Park (just west of St. Cloud), St. Joseph near the water tower, and at downtown Avon (look for the bandshell and observation tower). Additional access can be found in Freeport, Melrose, Sauk Centre, West Union and Osakis, where cyclists can connect to the 55-mile Central Lakes Trail.
Riders who prefer company — and incentives — can join a number of trail events: The Caramel Roll Ride, with sweet treats, is on the second Saturday in June; the Lady Slipper Nature Ride offers the chance to see the state flower blooming on the third Saturday in June; and the Caramel Apple Ride reveals the first hints of fall color on the first Saturday after Labor Day.
One-speed-bike rentals are offered by Art in Motion in Holdingford. There is also a self-serve bike-share program ($1 per hour) at the Waite Park and St. Joseph trailheads. For family riding, various bike styles plus Burley trailers and bike-trailer attachments are available at Touright Bicycle Shop in Little Falls.
Runners will lace up for the Lake Wobegon Trail Marathon on May 4, 2024. With home base at Holdingford High School, the annual event welcomes up to 450 runners who can use it to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
Little Falls, a town of 9,000 north of the Soo Line trailhead, is best known for the Charles Lindbergh House and Museum and the adjacent Charles A. Lindbergh State Park; the Pine Grove Zoo, and the Minnesota Fishing Museum and Hall of Fame.
St. Cloud-based Lisa Meyers McClintick (@minnelisa on Instagram) wrote "Day Trips From the Twin Cities" and has written travel features for the Star Tribune since 2001.