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.

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