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Trail blazers: Minnesota's Heartland offers 49 miles of paved pleasure

DORSET, Minn. - Today this little tourist town of 20-some residents will be overrun as thousands flock to the "Restaurant Capital of the World" for Taste of Dorset.

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DORSET, Minn. - Today this little tourist town of 20-some residents will be overrun as thousands flock to the "Restaurant Capital of the World" for Taste of Dorset.

The annual festival includes tasty tidbits from the area's restaurants, live entertainment and a mayoral election.

But you can bet many of the hungry folks who attend will ride into town on two wheels or a pair of rollerblades.

The Heartland Trail, Minnesota's first rails-to-trail project, runs through the center of Dorset. The 49-mile-long bicycle path links Park Rapids to Cass Lake and winds through the state's pristine lake and pine country.

To protect the asphalt, a separate snowmobile and horse trail run nearby.

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Occasionally trees that line the path allow a glimpse of farmland or highway. Bodies of water -- from ponds to lakes to stagnant marshes -- and wooden bridges add character to the trail. It's no wonder the Heartland is a favorite among recreational cyclists.

The last time the Department of Natural Resources surveyed riders -- a couple of years ago -- the Heartland Trail had 30,000 summertime users, says Tony Walzer, who works in the DNR's Bemidji Area Trails and Waterways office.

That number increases each year.

"As we complete segments of the trail, we see more use," he says. "People like options."

The initial project, an 8-foot-wide paved trail from Park Rapids to Walker, was completed in 1977.

Twenty years later, the trail was repaved and widened to 10 feet. Last summer a 22-mile extension from Walker to Cass Lake was paved.

But the Heartland also leads cyclists to other paths.

Right now there's only a half-mile gap between the Heartland Trail and the Paul Bunyan Trail, which runs between Brainerd and Bemidji. They meet near Walker.

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Once that's completed, scheduled for next summer, the trail combinations and possible distances will be nearly endless, Walzer says.

But the trail isn't only for serious, long-distance cyclists. It is well-designed for recreational biking, walking, jogging or in-line skating.

All of the towns between Park Rapids and Walker have trailheads with plenty of parking and space for picnics. And the distances between towns range from 5 to 10 miles -- a reasonable length to ride, stop and turn around.

A former Great Northern Railroad railbed, the trail is flat except for a four-mile segment that runs through hilly terrain.

"A lot of people will just bike from Park Rapids to Dorset or from Dorset or Nevis to get lunch or ice cream," says John Corbid, who co-owns Heartland Trail Bed & Breakfast in Dorset.

The B&B rents bicycles for $5 per hour or $20 per day. The business also rents bike trailers for small children and tandem attachments for slightly larger youths. Businesses near other trailheads also rent bicycles.

On a recent Saturday, the five miles of trail between Dorset to Nevis were quiet, although the bike racks in Dorset were filled. The largest crowd on the trail included swimmers hanging out at an old railroad trestle, which bridges the channel between Shallow Lake and Bell Taine. Their pontoon sat anchored in the waters below.

Only occasional noise from County Highway 18 interrupted an afternoon filled with birdsong.

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Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are the busiest days for rentals, Corbid says. Most renters are people who have come to stay at one of the dozens of resorts in the area.

"I think by Monday they've settled in their cabins and are ready to explore other areas," he says.

And there's plenty to explore.

The trail begins in Heartland Park, off Highway 34 in Park Rapids. From there, the trail passes beaches, the world's largest tiger muskie (Nevis) and a statue of Paul Bunyan (Akeley).

Pines, birch, oak, maple and poplars line the trails. Birdhouses for bluebirds pop up here and there.

The towns along the route are tourist-friendly with antique shops and ice cream parlors.

All and all, a perfect atmosphere for a day's ride.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erin Hemme Froslie at (701) 241-5534

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