Towns of the Heartland Trail

Bicyclists find plenty of personality along this northern Minnesota path.

In Akeley, the state's biggest Paul Bunyan spends his summers posing with vacationers.

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On the first Sunday in August, hundreds of people clog the only street of the Restaurant Capital of the World.

Tiny Dorset claimed that title because its restaurants outnumber its houses. Still, the eateries in this lakes-country oasis will be hard-pressed to make enough quesadillas and snowball sundaes for everyone who wants one at Taste of Dorset.

During the festival, the town raffles off its mayor job (maybe that's where Rod Blagojevich got the idea). One year, I spent $1 and voted for myself, but a kindergartner from Chicago won. Hmmm.

Dorset is just one of the fun stops on the Heartland State Trail, the nation's oldest paved rail trail and now part of the nation's longest paved bicycle-trail system.

The world's largest tiger muskie is in Nevis, and the friendliest Paul Bunyan is in Akeley.

Walker is home of the goofiest winter festival, when the town hauls hundreds of ugly eelpout out of Leech Lake, Minnesota's third-largest lake.

Minnesota has a lot of great bike trails, but none of them is quite as Minnesotan as this one.

I ride the Heartland every year from a resort near Akeley, which calls itself Paul Bunyan's birthplace.

It's got a good claim: Although the legend was started in the pineries of Maine, the first printed reference to the giant came in advertising for T.B. Walker's Red River Lumber Co., which operated one of the world's largest sawmills in Akeley between 1899 and 1918.

Akeley is the home of a giant Bunyan who kneels with outstretched hand outside the town's Paul Bunyan History Museum, which includes Paul's cradle and celebrates Paul Bunyan Days every June.

The Heartland roughly follows Minnesota 34, also Lake Country Scenic Byway. The first 10 miles of the trail, between Walker and Akeley, are the most scenic, skirting bogs and allowing glimpses of hidden lakes.

Walker, named for the lumber baron whose art collection became the foundation of the famous Minneapolis art center, is a longtime sportsmen's haunt that in recent years has been infiltrated by import shops, galleries, cappuccino stands and fine restaurants.

It gets crazy in summer during Crazy Days, when sidewalk sales draw shoppers like sheep to salt.

And this summer, it became the crossroads of the nation's longest paved bicycle system, with the completion of the 16 miles to Guthrie on the Paul Bunyan State Trail.

The Paul Bunyan State Trail joins the Heartland 2 miles east of Akeley, and in Walker, it breaks off and heads northwest to Bemidji and Lake Bemidji State Park. The Heartland heads straight north, toward Cass Lake.

Adding the Migizi Trail, which circles Cass Lake through Chippewa National Forest, bicyclists now can ride 162 miles without getting off a paved bicycle trail, except for city streets in Bemidji and Cass Lake.

Heading westward from Akeley, the six miles to Nevis follow busy Minnesota 34 and are least scenic, but the trail breaks into rolling lake country west of Nevis.

Nevis, a town of 375 on the east end of serpentine Lake Belle Taine, has its own giant, a 30-foot-long wooden tiger muskie it calls the world's largest.

It's also got a cafe, pub, restaurants and miniature golf, and the Park Rapids Water Ski Team performs free shows at Lake Belle Taine's Halvorson Beach.

The next five-mile stretch ends in Dorset, where bicyclists often end up lounging on the covered boardwalk outside the old-fashioned Dorset House, which dispenses cones and root-beer floats.

The town's 1920 schoolhouse now is the Heartland Trail B&B. Dorset also has a small playground, but there's an even better one at the end of the six-mile ride into Park Rapids, in Heartland Park.

From Heartland Park, bicyclists ride over the willow-shaded Fish Hook River on a lacquer-red footbridge and into downtown.

Park Rapids, which bills itself as the gateway to Itasca State Park, is the trail's largest town at 3,300.

It's a classic resort town that hums with activity on summer days. People park their cars in the center of the wide downtown streets and walk to the confectionery, old-fashioned movie theater, souvenir shops and MinneSoda Fountain, a longtime haunt frozen in the '50s.

There are another 17 miles of paved bicycle trails in Itasca State Park, to the north, and serious cyclists often plot routes on county roads through Paul Bunyan State Forest, between U.S. 71 and the Heartland State Trail.

But then, that's another chapter in the story of this bicycling nirvana.

Trip Tips: Towns of the Heartland Trail in Minnesota

Heartland State Trail: The 27-mile section between Park Rapids and Walker was the nation's first paved rail trail when it opened in 1977. An extension to Cass Lake makes it 47 miles.

A bridge in Akeley is being replaced; bicyclists who ride around it on Minnesota 34 should take care.

Events: Akeley's Paul Bunyan Days are the fourth weekend of June, Muskie Days in Nevis are the third weekend after the Fourth of July and Walker Bay Day is the first Saturday in August.

Taste of Dorset is on the first Sunday in August. Food is served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; get there early for the best selection of homemade pie.

Beaches: There are beaches on the Fish Hook River, near the Park Rapids trailhead, on Lake Belle Taine in Nevis and on little Lake May on the south edge of Walker.

On the west end of Walker, the trail goes under Minnesota 371, and a short spur deposits bicyclists in front of Chase on the Lake hotel and the municipal docks on Leech Lake. On the other side of downtown, there's a sand beach in City Park.

Just south of Cass Lake, head onto the Migizi Trail to reach the beaches of South Pike Bay campground and, farther on, Norway Beach.

A two-trail loop: For a fun 28-mile road loop, get off the trail in Akeley and take Hubbard County 12 to Cass County 6, which skirts Ten Mile Lake and joins the Paul Bunyan State Trail north of Hackensack. 

Ride through "the Pyrenees'' to the Bunyan's junction with the Heartland and return to Akeley.

Lodgings: In Dorset, the Heartland Trail B&B is in a 1920 schoolhouse. In Nevis, the 1912 Park Street Inn B&B is across from the city beach.

In Walker, Chase on the Lake is a hotel with a small beach on Leech Lake. There's also an AmericInn on the west edge of downtown, very close to the trail.

Camping: Akeley's City Park and Campground on the 11th Crow Wing Lake has nice campsites, showers, a beach and a playground.

Dining: Walker has the best selection of restaurants. For more, see Dining up north: Longville to Walker.

Craft breweries: In Walker, Portage Brewing Co. has a taproom and patio on South Fifth Street, behind the Village Square on main street.

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