Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Learning the Loops: Sakatah/Madison Lake

Note: This is Part 3 of a four-part series on the bike loops listed in the Greater Mankato Visitors Bureau's biking/hiking trails map

Distance: About 15 miles.

Directions: Like the other loops, it all depends on where you want to start from. According to the DNR website, a section of the Sakatah Singing Hills Trail is currently closed between Lime Valley Road and Highway 22 until the end of August to replace a bridge, install a large culvert and replace/repair several smaller culverts. Since the parking lot along Highway 22 is also closed, I'd recommend starting from the River Hills Mall parking lot, biking on the path along Highway 22 and linking up with the Sakatah Trail after it crosses County Road 12. Once you reach the trail, turn right and head east to Madison Lake. Once you get to Madison Lake, take a left on Main Street (the road just before reaching the Trailblazer Bar & Grill) and then take an immediate left onto County Road 26. Follow that for about 7 miles until the road intersects with 589th Ave. At that point, take a left, follow the curve to the right onto 227th Street and follow that until you see the Sakatah Trail along the side of the road.

Once the the repair work is done along the Sakatah Trail, I'd recommend starting from the trail head parking lot on Lime Valley Road or at the parking lot located along Highway 22.

Recent wrinkle: A bike path was recently built that links the Sakatah Trail and County Road 12 about a mile east of Mankato. It runs runs parallel to 589th Ave. If you're on the Sakatah Trail, this is the street where the bridge is being built over the railroad tracks. If you're on the back roads portion of the loop, it's the street where Ron's Auto Repair is located. I'm not quite sure how the path adds to this route (the Sakatah Trail and County Road 12 already cross paths in Mankato), but it's another option.

Notes on the route: Might as well call this the "lake loop." Aside from Madison Lake, you'll bike past three other lakes (Ballantyne, Gilfillin and Eagle) in the 15-mile ride and you'll see Eagle Lake twice.

Difficulty-wise, at 15 miles, it's far and away the shortest and easiest loop of the four. Unless you're starting from the Sakatah Trail head (again, not an option at this point because that stretch of trail is closed), the only inclines you'll encounter are a few rolling hills on County Road 26. There isn't a lot of wind cover, but as I've mentioned before, part of the appeal of biking a loop is that a head wind for one stretch can quickly become a tail wind. Since half of the loop takes place on a bike trail and most of the other half sticks to one road, it's also pretty easy to navigate.

I would also consider this loop to be the safest of the four. The back roads on it are well-maintained roads with low traffic, wide shoulders and no problematic intersections to speak of. Ironically, the biggest safety concern of the entire loop used to be on the Sakatah Trail when
trail users had to cross the railroad tracks and bike on a dirt however. However, that concern was resolved earlier this year when the trail was rerouted to run parallel with the bridge being built over the railroad (pictured right). Highway 22 isn't the safest road to cross, but once the repair work is finished, that won't be an issue.

Fair warning: There are no bike shops on this loop or in Madison Lake, so be sure to pack a repair kit just in case. I found this out the hard way when I got a flat tire in Madison Lake last fall and had to call a friend to come pick me up.

Places to eat along the route: Since the Mankato portion of this loop is on the outskirts of town, I'll keep the eating options confined to Madison Lake. With that in mind, there's two major spots to grab a bite in town: The Trail Blazer Bar & Grill and the Boatlanding Restaurant and Resort.

The Trail Blazer was a bike trip destination of mine for a blog post last summer, so I won't waste much space rehashing what I liked about it. The food is very reasonably priced, they have regular drink specials and the atmosphere has a cool fisherman's vibe to it (they also have some interesting wooden statues to glance at, some of which can be seen on the left side of their website).

The Boatlanding Restaurant and Resort is an eating spot I'm relatively unfamiliar with. I've biked past it and hung out on the beach in the resort, but that's about it. According to locals I talked to, the restaurant is known for making delicious pizzas and having a sizable spread for Sunday brunch. It's also known for having surprisingly decent prices on meals for a restaurant that's linked to a resort. The resort's website can be found here, but despite having a restaurant tab, it doesn't have anything listed about their menu or food prices.

Things to see/do along the route: I haven't attempted it yet, but if you can figure out how to pack a fishing pole on your bike, there's probably some pretty good fishing spots along this route (after seeing a RAGBRAI rider tow a keg with his bike last summer, I'm convinced anything is possible). I've had good luck with darkhouse spearfishing on Ballantyne in the past and I know that Madison Lake is one of the more popular fishing holes in the area. Though my co-worker Doug Monson might be the person to ask about area fishing prospects.

Beyond that, the plethora of lakes on this loop also has the inviting prospect of stopping off somewhere to cool down in the water. I've already mentioned the beach on Madison Lake, but according to the loop map, the Eagle Lake public access off County Road 26 is also a viable option. Based on my own experience, I can say that the public access area has relatively clean water and isn't too rocky to walk on.

Beyond fishing and swimming, this loop also has a camping option if you're looking to make it an overnight trip. The Sakatah Trail Campsite (located right next to the Trail Blazer) has tent camping for $15 per night.

Possible ways to expand the loop: The Sakatah Trail runs all the way east to Faribault, so that's a pretty straightforward option to lengthen your ride. The best place I know of to eat along the trail between there and Faribault is Tucker's Tavern in Elysian. Fantastic burgers and enough Vikings memorabilia to make you bleed purple and gold. There's also a disc golf course in Morristown if you're willing to pack a frisbee for the ride.

If your looking for off-trail expansion options, try biking past the Sakatah campground in Madison Lake and taking a left onto 1st Street/County Road 26. That will lead you past Duck Lake into the Lake Jefferson/Lake Henry area. From there, you can either take looping back roads back to Mankato or continue on County Road 15 to Cleveland, home of Kokomo's Bar & Grill.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Man conquers mountain, but not without a price

As the subject matter of my blog would indicate, I consider myself to be in relatively good shape.

I go for runs pretty regularly, I weight lift and I can rip off a long bike ride without too much trouble. I won't be setting any marathon records in the near future, but I also won't be gasping for air after walking up a flight of stairs.

With being in shape comes the expectation that you can perform most physical activities with ease, even if it's an activity that your body isn't used to. The activity might feel taxing at first, but if you're in good enough shape, your body should be able to adapt to it as you go.

As I would come to find out the other day after doing a day hike near Seattle with my step brother Derek, that's not quite the case for me.

One of the goals I had while visiting Derek in the Pacific Northwest last week was to do a hiking trip of some sort. He's a pretty avid hiker and I figured the area was probably brimming with good trail options in the surrounding mountain ranges.

Derek suggested McClellan Butte, a 4.6-mile hike up roughly 3,300 feet of elevation. According to him, it was a popular trail in the area that featured a relatively easy climb and some pretty impressive views at the summit (the first photo is an actual picture of the mountain, it certainly doesn't LOOK easy).

One thing to know about my agreement to do this hike: I haven't done any serious hiking in years. The last trip I did was a week-long excursion in the Grand Canyon more than three years ago, and that had much more gradual elevation changes for most of the trek. I've hiked most of the parks in the Mankato area, but mountain ranges aren't exactly common in southern Minnesota.

Despite knowing all of this, I reasoned that I was in good enough shape to keep up with Derek on the hike. Besides, nobody wants to look like a wimp in front of their brother. So instead of asking him to slow down and rest more frequently, I pressed on and tried to zone out whatever pain might have been creeping up my legs.

About midway through the hike to the summit, my legs felt limber and my cardiovascular system seemed like it had adjusted to the activity. I figured that meant I would get through the hike with no issues and wouldn't have any residual effects in the days that followed.

As it turns out, I was half-right.

As the photo on the right would indicate, I did indeed make it to the summit of McClellan Butte. And aside from a pretty embarrassing fall in a snow bank along the trail, I handled the hike about as well as a novice hiker can be expected to handle it.

However, when I tried to get out of bed the next morning, it became obvious that the hike had written a check my body was having trouble cashing. My legs felt stiff, my knees were sore and my hips ached. It hurt to go up and down stairs and any attempts to stretch were met with angry shrieks from my leg muscles telling me something along the lines of "I told you this was a bad idea, you idiot!"

Matter of fact, my lower body still feels that way two days later. I've gone on a couple of decent bike rides since the hike, so it's not as bad as the first few days after a marathon (the time period I like to refer to as a "cardio vacation"). But for a guy who thought he was in pretty decent shape, it's a pretty surprising revelation.

Lesson learned: Take it slow with new activities. The hike was an absolute blast and one of the highlights of my trip, but I think my legs would've appreciated another rest stop or two along the way.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bike trip destinations: Morgan Creek Vineyards

Distance from downtown Mankato: Roughly 20 miles.

Route I took: We'll keep it simple this time. Head west on Riverfront Drive until you reach the Highway 169 on-ramp at the end of the road. At that point, bike on the sidewalk adjacent to the highway over the Le Sueur River and follow the residential streets (Olive and Main) to the starting point of the Minneopa Trail. Take the trail to Highway 68 and then hop on 68 for about 15 miles until you reach County Road 47. At that point, take a left on 47, follow that for about two miles, and take a left onto County Road 101/478th Ave (fair warning: it's a dirt road). The winery will be on your left.

Note: The end part of the map for this trip is incorrect. I accidentally mapped the route about three miles too far on County Road 47. Unfortunately, won't allow me to edit an already-published route and doing the entire map over again (each of them takes an hour or so to make) seems a little redundant. So the "END" sign on the route is the actual location of the winery. Please adjust accordingly.

General ease/challenge of ride: At 40 miles round trip, it's a definite workout. There's also two sizable dips in the road along the way, so there's two pretty decent hills you'll have climb going both ways. If you're biking to the vineyard, the first climb is around Mile 10 on Highway 68 after the Judson turnoff, and the second climb comes after you onto County Road 47.

Both the hills are pretty decent climbs, but I wouldn't say they're any tougher than -- or even equal to -- some of the steeper inclines in Mankato. So if you've biked up Lookout Drive or bested the South Route Trail, you can definitely handle these downshift dandies (channeling my inner Dick Vitale).

Safety of the ride: When I was planning a bike ride to New Ulm two years ago, I recall a coworker advising against using Highway 68 because he said it had a lot of challenging hills. At the time, I was still pretty new to road cycling. I mostly stuck to bike trails and avoided hills like they were hot lava.

That's not really the case anymore, as biking up Potter Hill on RAGBRAI last summer convinced that almost any incline can be conquered with a little grit and a lot of downshifting. However, at that point, hearing that a road had steep hills was about the same as someone telling me that it was covered with broken glass.

Consequently, I relied on back roads and having to ride on Highway 14 after Courtland to get to New Ulm. The ride wasn't terrible, but as a steady stream of cars were zipping past me on Highway 14, I couldn't help but wonder if Highway 68 would've been the better option.

Well, after doing this ride, I can firmly say that it is the safer option. Traffic on Highway 68 is considerably lighter than Highway 14 and it has enough of a shoulder where motorists can keep their distance. I can't attest for the entire stretch of 68 to New Ulm, but up until County Road 47, there aren't any blind turns in the road where cars can suddenly appear without warning. Since the ride is predominantly out the country, there also aren't any busy intersections to worry about.

Appeal of the destination: I always thought vineyards would be a something of a fish out of water in Minnesota. After all, how can a practice that relies so heavily on the weather thrive in an area where there's snow on the ground 6 months out of the year and temperatures routinely drop below zero in the wintertime?

However, Morgan Creek Vineyards is one of a growing number of wineries in the state debunking that notion.

Founded in 1993 by Georg and Paula Marti, Morgan Creek was part of the early winery movement in Minnesota. According to the tour guide, they were the eighth winery in the state at the time; today more than 40 such wineries exist. The last name of Morgan Creek's founders should sound familiar to locals, as Georg is the great great grandson of August Schell, founder of Schell's Brewing Company in New Ulm.

The story of how Georg and Paula came to own the livestock farmland that the vineyard currently resides on is also pretty interesting. Supposedly, they were walking across the land looking for firewood when they came across a massive oak tree in the middle of the field that still stands today (pictured right). Enamored with the tree, they purchased the land on a spur of the moment decision and immediately went to work on wine making. They planted 500 vines the first year and had their first vintage season in 1998 (most wines take about 5 years to make).

The wine-making process began slowly for the Martis, but Morgan Creek and other area vineyards received a shot in the arm in 1996 when the University of Minnesota developed Frontenac, a cross-bred cold hardy grape that could withstand the state's brutal winters. The U of M has since added to Frontenac with three other cold hardy varieties: La Crescent, Marquette and Frontenac gris.

Today, Morgan Creek produces more than 15 varieties of red and white wine and harvests more than four tons of grapes per year. Their distribution is relatively light compared to major wineries, but they have a loyal regional following and hold their own at state-wide wine-tasting competitions. Morgan Creek also has the distinction of being Minnesota's only underground winery, as their production area is tucked into a hillside to help regulate temperatures (a very important part of brewing and wine making).

As a visitor, the main appeal of Morgan Creek Vineyards is pretty straightforward. It's a winery, which means there's wine, and more importantly, it means there's wine tasting. Visitors have the option of sampling four or eight wines, with the prices being $3 and $5 respectively (I
opted for eight wines, might as well make it worth the trip). The winery also has a restaurant on site (with a lovely patio area, pictured right) to enjoy the wine with. I didn't take a long look at the menu (I had Cliff Bars packed), but I saw several sandwich and pizza options.

Beyond the wine tasting, Morgan Creek also has hourly tours and a gift shop stocked with corkscrews, t-shirts and -- surprise, surprise -- full bottles of wine! Since the prospect of toting a wine bottle home on my bike seemed obtuse, I decided the tour would be the better route. The major points of the tour are to explain the history of the vineyard and give a brief rundown of the wine-making process. Those on the tour will also get to see the various machines used to make wine (at right is the bladder presser, which uses pressurized water to bleed the minerals out of the grape skins).

Since I was the only person on that particular tour, the guide let me walk around the vineyard at my own leisure and was pretty cool about letting me get close to some of the equipment.

I won't say that Morgan Creek is cheap entertainment. The tour and wine tasting is $9 collectively (compared to $3 at Schell's Brewery, with the admission including a free beer) and the vineyard lacks any drinkable tap water, meaning you'll have to buy bottled water if you didn't bring extras for the ride home.

However, the informative tour and a surprisingly-diverse selection of wine for taste testing make it worth the trip.

If you have the schedule flexibility to plan your trip in advance, Morgan Creek has several events at the vineyard that feature live music and grilled dinners. Here are some of the upcoming events worth checking out:

  • Jazz Nite with the Jim McGuire Jazz Trio is held on the first Saturday of every month from May to November
  • Winedown for the Weekend is every Friday with music from pianist Ben Marti
  • The Annual Great Grape Stomp is on Oct. 1, complete with belly dancers and competitive grape stomping

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Learning the Loops: Kasota Prairie/St. Peter

Note: This is Part 2 of a four-part series on the bike loops listed in the Greater Mankato Visitors Bureau's biking/hiking trails map

Distance: 34 miles, though the distance increases if you decide to explore areas of St. Peter or forget to take a key left turn (the latter of which happened to me).

Directions: I began the loop by hopping on the Minnesota River Trail at the Main Street entrance downtown and heading north. When the trail intersects with 3rd Ave, take a left and continue heading north. After about three or four miles, the road curves to the left and turns into 355th Ave. Continue on that road until you get to Kasota, where you take a right on Hill Street and a left two blocks later onto Rabbit Road.

Continue north on Rabbit Road until it ends on Highway 99. Take a left onto Highway 99 and follow it through St. Peter. Once out of St. Peter, the road turns into County Road 5. About a mile or so past the Swanson's Tennis Center/Linneaus Arboretum area of town, take a left onto County Road 40 and follow that until the T intersection with Highway 99, where you then take a right. About 3 miles down the road, take a left onto County Road 13 and follow that back into North Mankato, where it becomes Lookout Drive.

Once in North Mankato, you have a couple of options. The trail map directs you to bike north on Lake Street, take a right on Lind Street, follow that across Highway 169 and head south on the Minnesota River Trail until you reach the Veterans Memorial Bridge, when you then take a left back into Mankato. However, if you're tired from the ride and want to end it quickly, turn onto Lee Blvd. off of Lookout Drive, hang a right onto Belgrade Ave, take another right onto Sherman Street, and then follow the sidewalk as it leads to the Highway 169 bridge and takes you back into Mankato near the YMCA and Burger King on Riverfront.

Notes on the route: It might be the second-longest of the four loops, but the KasotaPrairie/St. Peter ride might also feature the least amount of hills. Aside from having to climb up a small hill in St. Peter, there's no real inclines that stick out and the biggest elevation change on the whole ride is the wonderful downhill on Lookout Drive once you get into North Mankato (I recommend stopping at the lookout point and taking in the view, you can see almost all of Mankato). Because the first half the ride is still in the river valley, you also don't need to deal with as much wind as the other rides.

Safety-wise, I've always been a little skittish about riding on highway roads in the country. They're deceptively busy, they usually don't have much of a shoulder and cars that drive on them feel the need to go 65+ miles an hour without taking cyclists into account. That being said, Highway 99 west of St. Peter was surprisingly safel. It had a generous shoulder and motorists kept their respective distance.

Having to cross Highway 169 in St. Peter was no fun, but aside from that, there weren't many problematic intersections. The biggest safety concern of the whole ride is likely the lengthy downhill stretch of Lookout Drive. It's a busy road and it's also very steep, so I wouldn't recommend trying to set some sort of speed record on the way down.

The other memorable thing to note about the loop is the left-hand turn onto County Road 40 that I missed. This resulted in an extra 6 miles of riding on rolling country roads. I don't mind extra miles, but I do mind getting lost on roads with nothing but farm land for scenery.

Places to eat along the route: With all respect to the Prairie Saloon in Kasota, this ride is all about showcasing the main drag of St. Peter. And for a modestly-sized town along Highway 169, it doesn't disappoint.

Probably the most well-known sit-down restaurant on the route is the Whiskey River, which is located right off of Highway 99 before you cross the Minnesota River. According to locals, the meals there are a little pricey (their website also indicates that as well), but the food is considered excellent and venue offers a scenic view of the river. If you're looking to save a few dollars on a meal, look at their website and click on the "Newsletters" tab ahead of time. They have monthly coupons you can print out and use.

The place I stopped to eat at was the River Rock Cafe, which is located a couple blocks to the left on Highway 169 once you get into St. Peter. EXCELLENT atmosphere, friendly waitstaff and surprising amount of food options for a venue known for its coffee. If you need something to read while you're there, they also have a decent library of donated books and magazines to browse. Based on a quick look at previous Free Press editions, if you time your trip right, you might also hear some live music there from time to time.

I wish I could confirm how tasty their lunchtime sandwiches were, but since money was tight that, my cafe patronage was limited to a strawberry scone and a hot cup of green tea (not a coffee drinker, sorry). They also could not have been friendlier when I asked to fill my water bottle up for the ride home.

According to an April article in the Free Press, River Rock also scores high points for its reliance on local farmers for meat and other products. The cafe also has a plot in Kasota where it grows most of its own produce. Very cool to see a local cafe keep all of its products locally-grown.

Aside from River Rock and Whiskey River, other places to grab a bite in the area include Patrick's Pub, Erbs & Gerbs and Godfather's Pizza. I've heard Patrick's has some pretty decent drink specials, but I can't confirm that myself (remember, money was a bit tight that day).

Things to see/do along the route: As mentioned before, this route is mainly a showcase of St. Peter as a community. I've always thought St. Peter would be a cool town to explore for a day, but I couldn't figure out a bike route that dodged having to pedal on Highway 169. Thanks to this loop, that isn't the case anymore.

My main goal of biking out this loop was to finally play a full round at the disc golf course in St. Peter at Riverside Park (I attempted to play there a couple years back and lost my disc midway through the round and scuffed up my legs on thistle bushes, good times were NOT had). Unfortunately, due to flood damage and lack of upkeep, most of the holes are either inaccessible or overgrown by tall grass. Out of the three holes I played, the photo on the right represents the most well-kept fairway I saw. Not exactly the 18th green at Augusta National.

However, that's not to say there aren't other cool things to do in St. Peter. For me, the best part of the trip was taking the time to walk around Gustavus Adolphus' campus. Growing up in the St. Cloud area, I came to appreciate the quaint setting and classical-style buildings at St. John's University/College of St. Benedict. Gustavus is a lot of the same, with picturesque architecture, odd-looking statues (see right) and a wide open flow to the campus (TONS of open fields for lounging and playing soccer or ultimate frisbee). The college doesn't have the same sense of seclusion to it that St. John's has (thanks largely to a vicious tornado that ripped through the area in the mid-1990's) but it has the same studious/social setting that reminds me of why I miss college.

Other areas to check out in town include the scenic Minnesota Square Park (also a good place to charge your mp3 player, as I found out), the Roy T. Lindenberg outdoor pool (located over by Veterans Memorial Park), an Amish furniture store and the Traverse des Sioux Treaty Center, which is located on the north end of town.

Quick history lesson on the last attraction: According the Minnesota Historical Society's website and Wikipedia, the U.S. government signed a treaty with the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands of the Dakota Indians in 1851 in which the Sioux gave up more than 20 million acres of land to settlers for the promised payment of of $1.66 million. The land made up the vast majority of present-day southern Minnesota and parts of Iowa and South Dakota.

After the treaty, the Traverse des Sioux settlement was established just north of St. Peter, eventually growing into a town of about 300 people. However, the town lost its county seat of Nicollet County to St. Peter in 1856 and was eventually abandoned in 1869.

If you're looking for non-St. Peter related points of interest, there really aren't many that come to mind. The wetlands mentioned on the map weren't really prominent when I biked the loop, though that might have been due some exceptionally-dry weather at the time.

One thing that's pretty easy to find outside of St. Peter is the Kasota Stone Quarry. It's located right off the route and can be seen clearly from the road. While walking through a quarry full of bulldozers might be a little dangerous (at least it seemed like it to me), it is pretty cool to see the stone that was used to help build Target Field.

Possible ways to expand the loop: The easiest one I can think of is to keep heading west on Highway 99 into Nicollet. If your appetite is back by then, you can swing over to Schmidt's Meat Market and grab some beef sticks. If you want to loop back into Mankato from there, bike across Highway 14, hang a left onto County Road 25 and follow the back roads until you get to Lookout Drive. If you feel like getting a few golf swings in, the Northern Links is right on the way (though I'd recommend renting clubs, they might be tough to haul on a bike).

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Now on Twitter

Not sure how many of my regular readers are Twitter users, but if you're dying to hear more on all topics related to health & fitness, yours truly has now joined the world of 140-character tweets.

That's right folks, I'm now on Twitter. A feed of my Twitter account can be viewed on the right-hand side of my blog below my profile. There's only one tweet at present (the obligatory "holy crap, how does this all work?" tweet), but rest-assured, there will soon be more. I will most likely keep the tweets related to health & fitness -- with an emphasis on the Mankato area -- though I may occasionally drift off topic if something else strikes my fancy.

I've been reluctant to join Twitter up to this point. I figured Facebook was enough of a social networking addiction. However, I've been looking for other ways to add to my blog's content and I figure Twitter gives me a more concise platform (the 140-characters thing is going to take some getting used to) to write about workouts, community happenings and random cycling adventures.

Here's to hoping my tweets can be interesting!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Bike trip destinations: Seven Mile Creek

Distance from downtown Mankato: Between 7 and 7 1/2 miles, depending on how much you want to use the bike trails in North Mankato.

Route I took: Pretty straightforward route. After crossing the Veterans Memorial Bridge into North Mankato, take a right onto the bike trail that runs along the Minnesota River. The trail will take you all the way to the Kiwanis Park at the north end of town, at which point you have to (gulp) hop on Highway 169 for the remaining four miles. The entrance to Seven Mile Creek will be on your left.

I've spent much time trying to map out a route that avoids Highway 169, but it's pretty unavoidable because the park's lone entrance is right on the highway and there aren't a lot of back roads leading to that area. Old River Bluff Road, which runs parallel to the highway, isn't paved in certain sections. The St. Peter Loop on the Greater Mankato Bike Map is an option, but that still requires you to use the highway in order to double back to the park's entrance.

General ease/challenge of ride: Difficulty-wise, this is probably one of the easier rides I've done. The distance is very mild, there aren't any difficult climbs and the river valley bluffs and trees provide good wind cover. If you're pedaling at a consistent clip (which you're likely to do, since nobody wants to bike on Highway 169 any longer than they have to), you'll easily get to the park in under an hour.

Safety of the ride: Since it involves having to bike on Highway 169, this isn't the safest ride I've ever done. However, compared to busy country roads with no shoulder, it's really not that bad. The shoulder on 169 is at least 6 feet wide and there's rumble strips separating from traffic lanes. Really, the biggest concern is broken beer bottles (there's a lot of 'em) and other debris that typically litters the sides of major highways. The in-town commuting is relatively safe, though I would advise riders to utilize the bike trail in North Mankato. It doesn't add that much distance to your trip and you won't have to worry about cars zipping past you.

Appeal of the destination: Fair warning to readers: Unlike many of the other bike trips I've written about, there is no restaurant at this destination. It also lacks the photogenic natural attraction to draw in visitors (think Minneopa Falls).

However, that shouldn't suggest that Seven Mile Creek doesn't have any appeal as a biking destination. Quite the opposite, actually. The park has some of the best hiking trails in the area (roughly 8 miles worth), and if you're game for hiking up steep inclines, there's some pretty cool river valley viewing spots. It's not strictly a summertime park either; it also makes for great snowshoeing in the wintertime.

Beyond hiking, the park has several other outdoor activities for visitors to indulge in. There's volleyball courts, playground areas and picnic areas near the park's main entrance and the stream running through the park is regularly stocked with brown trout (I can't be the only person that thinks of this movie when I think of trout fishing). Since the eating options at Seven Mile are non-existent, I recommend packing a lunch if you plan on doing any serious hiking.

Truth be told, Seven Mile Creek actually reminds me a lot of the parks my mom used to take my brothers and I to for day trips. Most of the parks had great hiking trails (check), cool playgrounds (check), water for us to go swimming in (check) a picnic area to have lunch at (check) and didn't charge any fees for admission or parking (check). Presumably, my mom took us to these parks for three reasons: cheap entertainment, good exercise and as a means to pry me away from the TV for a few hours. I thought about asking my mom if she ever took us to Seven Mile when we were kids; it really wouldn't have surprised me.

My most recent trip to Seven Mile Creek had the unfortunate luck of being right after a few days of heavy rainfall. Already reeling from the floods of last fall, a few hiking areas of the park were either underwater or nearly underwater (see photo on the right) and the park's usually-crystal clear stream was pretty murky thanks to area soil getting carried into the creek by flood waters.

The fresh rainfall also made the trails interesting, as the steep inclines and declines became mud-slicked and required some careful hiking to navigate. On one particularly steep gorge, I actually had to grip onto small trees and bushes in order to climb out of it.

It might not have been the best day to bike out to the park, but at least it made the hiking memorable.