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Signage nearly complete along Mississippi River Trail

The Mississippi River winds south from its headwaters in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, cutting the continental United States in half. For hundreds of years, the river has inspired storytellers and songwriters, but most recently it inspired ano...

Mississippi River Trail Bikeway
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The Mississippi River winds south from its headwaters in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, cutting the continental United States in half. For hundreds of years, the river has inspired storytellers and songwriters, but most recently it inspired another group: Cyclists.
Signs are being installed this summer in Minnesota from Elk River to Itasca State Park, establishing the northernmost segment of the Mississippi River Trail, a 3,000-mile-long bicycle route following the river in its entirely. About 800 miles of the trail can be found in Minnesota.
Liz Walton, the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s project manager for the Mississippi River Trail, said the idea came from southern states, where the land nearest the Mississippi River is especially susceptible to flooding. Organizers wanted to find a way to use that flood-prone land, and found a solution: a bike trail. From there, it became a 10-state effort to line the entire Mississippi River with a bikeable route.
The trail mostly follows the shoulders of roads through Minnesota, but includes paved bicycle trails when possible.
“We’re taking advantage of what’s already been built and good work others have done,” Walton said. “By piecing this all together now, we have a route that we’re calling the Mississippi River Trail.”
The signs, Walton said, help cyclists navigate the route, warn motorists of cyclists and highlight key points of interest. In Minnesota, about three-quarters of the route is on roads - which can require extra caution, even with signage.
“If you want to bike the whole Mississippi River Trail in Minnesota, you really should be an experienced cyclist - someone who’s comfortable with trucks, cars (and) all kinds of vehicles that might be on the road,” she said. Less-experienced cyclists can choose to use trails and paths, away from road traffic.
The signage establishing the trail has been installed in several phases: Southeastern Minnesota in 2013 and the Twin Cities in 2014, with the final segment - Elk River to Itasca State Park - to be finished this month, with only a few sections missing because of construction. The signs along the final portion cost $39,257 to fabricate and $89,144 for the contractor’s bid to install them, Walton said.
To celebrate the completion of the Minnesota segment, a ribbon-cutting ceremony and multiday bike tour - the Headwaters to Hills ride - will take place beginning Aug. 26 at Itasca State Park.
Ride organizers worked closely with the Minnesota Historical Society to highlight the history of the Mississippi River. Many of the stops on the route would otherwise be overlooked, said ride director Kerri Kolstad.
“You can go through in a bus or a car, and I don’t think you get the feeling until you’re on your own pedal power,” she said.
Walton and Kolstad both said they hope the ride becomes an annual event. In the future, the ride may take different routes each year. About 470 miles of Minnesota’s 800 miles of Mississippi River Trail will be featured in the 2015 ride. This year’s inaugural ride will miss Grand Rapids, taking the Heartland and Paul Bunyan trails instead.
“We had to cut out Grand Rapids, and we all felt so bad about that because the forestry center and all the great things that Grand Rapids has to offer, too,” Kolstad said. “We’ll come back through Grand Rapids in the future.”
The ride has a cap of 50 riders. About half of those spots have been filled, Kolstad said.
Along the Mississippi River Trail, Bemidji, Grand Rapids, Minneapolis, St. Paul and Winona are designated as “Bicycle Friendly Communities” for their efforts to provide safe biking, and to encourage residents to bike. Dorian Grilley, executive director for the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, said he wants other communities to step up and accommodate cyclists..
“I think it’s important that communities like Grand Rapids and other communities along the Mississippi River in Minnesota and all along to the Gulf of Mexico are conscious of being bicycle-friendly and inviting visitors that come on bicycle to places in their community,” Grilley said. “It’s not just something that people ride through.”
Grilley credits the public health and tourism industries for driving a renewed interest in biking. Becoming bicycle friendly, he said, helps not only the cyclists, but the community itself by attracting tourists.
Kolstad said she hopes the Headwaters to Hill ride will jump-start the community-centered aspect of routes such as the Mississippi River Trail.
“Not only are we connecting states,” she said. “We’re connecting communities.”

If you go

What: Headwaters to Hills bicycle ride

When: Aug. 26-Sept. 2

Cost: $650 per person, or $600 per person for members of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota

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Information: Register at bikemn.org/headwaters-to-hills before July 15

Online
Mississippi River Trail in Minnesota: www.dot.state.mn.us/bike/mrt

Mississippi River Trail Bikeway
Signs bearing this logo will designate the Mississippi River Trail, a 3,000-mile-long bicycle route running the length of the river. About 800 miles of the trail are in Minnesota. (Minnesota Department of Transportation image)

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