Saturday, August 23, 2014

Biking the Cannon Valley Trail

This summer, I've been seeking out outdoor adventures on Friday afternoons - the kind that sound like fun summer activities but sometimes stay in the wishlist category when the season gets away from you. Once in awhile I had to fight the urge to go straight to the couch and the DVR, but each little adventure has been so worth it: I've loved visiting new places (and favorite places) around the Twin Cities. With summer hours at work wrapping up this week, I wanted to cap off this series of mini-adventures well.

The plan: Check off #19 on my 101 in 1,001 list: Go for a very long bike ride. The destination: the Cannon Valley Trail, a 20-mile point-to-point paved trail that connects Cannon Falls to Red Wing in southeastern Minnesota. (I was deciding between this trail and the Gateway Trail that links St. Paul to Stillwater, so I'm hoping to venture up the Gateway Trail this fall.) The fun thing about the Cannon Valley Trail is that it seems much farther away on the map than it really is: I think it took me about 35 minutes to drive there. I parked in Cannon Falls at the trailhead, then started out on my bike ride.

The trail meanders out of Cannon Falls neighborhoods pretty quickly, and I bought my $4 daily pass at the first mile marker and then settled in for the ride. The whole trail traces a former Chicago Great Western Railroad line, so it's flat - it descends 115 feet into Red Wing, so while there are a few spots on the return trip where I noticed an uphill slope, it was all very gradual. And the trail stretches on and on in a beautiful way:

It also follows the Cannon River, and at several points, I could see people on innertubes and kayaks, floating down the river. The day started out overcast, but the sun was out in full force by the time I got back to my car: a good day to be out on the water.

There are several rest stops along the way, but the main one between Cannon Falls and Red Wing is Welch.

At Welch Station (remember the railroad history!) there are restrooms and a drinking fountain and spots to stretch out for a picnic.

There is also a neat wall depicting the Cannon Valley Trail's route.

My key mistake for the entire trip, I learned after I got home, was not wandering the one-third mile away from the trail to see the town of Welch. One of my hopes going into the bike ride was to find ice cream somewhere along the route, and based on the Trip Advisor reviews I read afterward, it sounds like there is a delightful ice cream shop in Welch that I think I would have enjoyed very much (especially on the return trip).

I continued onward without awareness of this ice cream shop, and the trail got more rural. The well-marked trail included caution signs for every type of intersection, whether it was a road or a mountain bike path.  On my bike rides along the Greenway in Minneapolis and Summit Avenue in St. Paul, I'm used to waiting for lots of cars before I cross these kinds of intersections. Here? Not so much.

I did see other cyclists regularly, though I read it's more crowded on weekends. I also saw some cows.

Most of the trail looked like this post's first photo, cutting through the forest. Some stretches, though, were open prairie. I said "Wow!" out loud when I went through this section.

I wasn't necessarily set on getting all the way to Red Wing, but after Welch, the path had little diversions evenly spaced out (a wetlands overlook, an archeological preserve, etc.) that made the miles pass quickly. Then I was at the end of the trail in Red Wing!

I had kind of figured that the trail would end in downtown Red Wing, a place Josh and I visited a few years back with lots of shops and restaurants. Though the Cannon Valley Trail linked up to other trails quickly, it turned out that downtown Red Wing was still 1.8 miles away. Even though my pace and effort was far from aggressive, I knew 40 miles was going to be pushing it for me, and I didn't want to tack on another four or five miles when I was only at the halfway point. Also, I still tend to estimate bike trip durations by my speed from the days when I used to ride my road bike a lot, and on my mountain bike (and with a few photo stops) the leisurely trip was taking a little longer than I expected. I bought a wonderfully cold can of soda at a machine outside a hardware store and then turned around.

The next few miles flew by, and I stopped only to refill my water bottle at Welch Station (again, utterly unaware of ice cream a stone's throw away). Then I got tired (or more specifically, my quads got tired), and the last few miles were slower. If I were to do this trip again (and I'd like to!), I would probably plan for a full day with a lunch stop in Red Wing and an ice cream stop in Welch - or maybe start from Welch, go to Red Wing and spend time downtown before heading back. By cycling from Cannon Falls to Red Wing, then turning around and coming straight back, I think I missed out a little bit on an element of what makes this destination trail especially fun.

But make no mistake: I definitely understand that this trail is special. Less than an hour away from home, I got to ride my bike along an old railroad corridor for 40 miles without seeing one stoplight. I loved seeing how green the trees framing the trail were, and I hope I can return in the next couple of months to see the fall colors, which must be unbelievable. I was happy to be able to spend a Minnesota summer afternoon on two wheels on the Cannon Valley Trail.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, the ice cream shop is pretty dang cute. NEXT TIME. -Sj