Friday, June 25, 2010

Bike trip destinations: Trail Blazer Bar & Grill

Distance from downtown Mankato: 14 miles from downtown if you're sticking with bike trails.

Route I took: Pretty easy route to navigate, just stick to the bike trails. After hopping on the Minnesota River trail in town, you follow it until it turns into the Sakatah Trail by Riverfront Drive and then take Sakatah all the way to the restaurant in Madison Lake. Fair warning: Part of the trail is ripped up just outside of Mankato by the railroad tracks for road construction. There is still gravel to mark the trail, but the pavement ends for a few blocks.

General ease/challenge of ride:
You'll have to climb hills to get out of the river valley, but the grade is so gradual that you'll be able to do it without shifting gears much. Once out of the valley, the hills are very moderate and there's a decent amount of shade from trees planted around the trail to keep the sun from bearing down. Distance-wise, at 14 miles one-way, it's a decent trek, but nothing too crazy. Besides, there's plenty of park benches to stop at along the way if need be. The biggest challenge of the ride is avoiding the bumps and cracks on the trail along the way, as several areas of the Sakatah Trail are in serious need of resurfacing.

Safety of the ride: Aside from having to cross 3rd Avenue and Riverfront Drive in Mankato, there really isn't that much traffic you have to worry about. Most of the intersections on the trail are either low-traffic roads, or are visible enough from a distance to see whether or not a car's coming. You'll also have to be careful crossing the final road before the restaurant, as that happens to be the Main Street of Madison Lake.

Appeal of the destination: As far as convenience goes, it doesn't get much better for bikers that the Trail Blazer. The restaurant is literally right on top of the Sakatah Trail. It's also happens to be at a convenient central location for surround towns: 10 miles out of Mankato, less than 30 miles from Faribault.

Aside from it's convenience, the characteristic I found most appealing about the Trail Blazer was the relatively cheap price of food there. Nothing on their menu totals much more than $10 and their food selection covers a wide variety of dinner fare, from appetizers to burgers, sandwiches, walleye and steak. The chicken sandwich and fries you see in the picture only set me back $7.50, definitely cheaper than most of your average sit-down establishments. The best bang-for-the-buck item on their menu is easily the Red Eye Special breakfast combo (served until 1 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays), which includes three eggs, three slices of bacon, hashbrowns, toast and your choice of either a Bloody Mary or a screwdriver all for the price of $6.95. I'm getting hungry (and thirsty) just thinking about it.

Atmosphere-wise, it may be a restaurant on a bike trail, but it's definitely geared toward fisherman, which makes sense since Madison Lake is a fairly popular fishing hole in the area. Novelty fishing lures hang from the rafters and antique angler artifacts hang on the walls, as do pictures of some of the behemoth fish caught in the area. The restaurant also has a thing for wooden statues, some of which can be seen on the left-hand side of its website. Live music has also been known to perform there on weekends.

Another appeal of the Trail Blazer isn't even in the restauarant itself, but in the campground located right next to it. There's nothing all that special about the Sakatah Campground; it's basically 25 RV rest areas with a shower building and a fire pit. But for any cyclist carrying a tent, it makes for a nice secure location to set up for the evening if it starts getting too dark to bike. The rates ($25 a night for an RV site, $15 a night for a tent camping area) are also pretty reasonable.

The only real bad thing I can say about the Trail Blazer isn't even all that bad: The food was relatively forgettable. The fries were very bland (I'm kind of a french fry connoisseur, don't ask me why) and the chicken sandwich was in the good-not-great range. However, I can forgive the food being average for three reasons: the prices are reasonable, the beer selection is very good, and the restaurant has free popcorn available to patrons. Trail Blazer also scores bonus points for having a "Welcome Bicyclers" sign on their building. It's the little things that win cyclists over.

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