The Longest Biking Trail in Minnesota

longest biking trail in Minnesota
© iStock.com/imkruger

Written by Gabrielle Monia

Updated: July 31, 2023

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From its dense forests to wide prairies, its 10,000 lakes to its bustling metropolitan hubs, Minnesota offers a diverse landscape to explore on two wheels. In fact, according to the League of American Bicyclists’ bike-friendly state rankings for 2022, Minnesota ranks 5th place in their bike-friendly state rankings for 2022, as one of the best in the nation! There are over 4,000 miles of paved trails to choose from in this state, in addition to all the possibilities that lie off the beaten path. It’s also home to the longest rail trail in the country, the Paul Bunyan State Trail, but that’s not even the longest trail in the state. Read on to find out which route is the longest biking trail in Minnesota.

The Longest Biking Trail in Minnesota:

Pedal and shoe of a racing bicycle

At roughly 700 miles, the Mississippi River Trail is the longest biking trail in Minnesota.

©iStock.com/photoschmidt

The longest biking trail in Minnesota is the Mississippi River Trail which is designated as U.S. Bicycle Route 45 (USBR 45) as part of the U.S. bicycle route system. It follows along the most iconic river in the nation and winds through roughly 700 miles of the state. Parts of the trail are on Mississippi Rivers Great River Road, while other sections run alongside it. Riders who choose to embark on this unforgettable journey will pedal through ancient pine woods, scale soaring river bluffs and discover cultural gems and natural wonders along the way.

This trail is one section of a path that runs the entire length of the country along the Mississippi River from North to South. While the Minnesota portion of the trail runs about 700 miles through the state, the trail also runs through Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The route totals 3,000 miles from the headwaters at Lake Itasca to Venice, Louisiana, near the mouth of the Mississippi at the Gulf of Mexico.

The Mississippi River Trail Route

lake itasca 2

The longest biking trail in Minnesota begins at the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

©Tomaz Kunst/Shutterstock.com

The Mississippi River Trail closely follows the Mississippi River from its headwaters at Itasca State Park, where the impressive river begins as just a small stream, down to the border of Iowa. The trail connects existing shouldered highways, low-use roads and off-road paths designed for cyclists. The route can be divided envisioned as three segments:

  • Northern Segment: Itasca State Park, through the North Woods and Bemidji, Cass Lake (with the option to ride off-road and travel along the Heartland and Paul Bunyan State trails), Grand Rapids, Brainerd, Little Falls and St. Cloud.
  • Middle Segment: Much of this section is bike paths with views of the river and there are many restaurants, museums, parks and festivals to experience along this stretch of the route as you travel through Minneapolis-St.Paul, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.
  • Southern Segment: From Hastings to the Iowa border, this portion of the ride is mostly roads and multi-use paths that follow the river. You’ll ride along steep bluffs, hardwood forests and pass through over a dozen river towns.

Where is the Mississippi River Trail Located on a Map?

The Mississippi River Trail begins at the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Itasca State Park and runs along the river for 700 miles through the state, sometimes hugging the river, and at others going along the Mississippi Rivers Great River Road.

Planning for a Tour of Minnesota’s Longest Biking Trail

The most important thing to bring on a major biking tour like this one is an open mind. A sense of adventure with some adaptability will get you far on a journey as long as this one, that’s bound to have some unexpected aspects. However, proper planning is vital to enjoying the experience and staying safe.

Be sure to research the route ahead of time to know where you’re headed and what to expect along the way. While you don’t have to plan for each day and night it’s a good idea to take a look at your options for lodging and food along the route so that you know what to expect.

Navigating The Route

The Mississippi River Trail is marked along the way from Itasca State Park to its finish line at the Iowa border, but there are a few areas to be aware of where signage is absent. The route’s signage is helpful when navigating the route, but be sure to use a map as well. It is recommended that riders bring a physical copy of the map along for the ride in addition to downloading digital copies.

Route maps can be downloaded from the Minnesota Department of Transportation website. Safety information and planning resources can be accessed there as well. Setting off on the longest biking trail in Minnesota is no small endeavor, so it’s important to be prepared with all the knowledge and proper supplies necessary to have a smooth riverside journey.

The Mississippi River Trail Difficulty

longest biking trail in Minnesota

The Mississippi River Trail is a challenge due to its length, but it’s not steep or rugged.

©iStock.com/7Michael

This route is flat relative to cycling the Appalachian, Rocky or Smoky Mountains routes. The Paul Bunyan and Heartland State Trails between Cass Lake and Brainerd, as well as other trails within the Twin Cities Metro Area are especially breezy with a maximum sustained grade of 3 percent. The steepest section is a climb along the Apple Blossom Scenic Byway that’s 578 feet.

This is not a steep or rugged trail, so it’s great for those who want a long, sustained challenge. The sheer length of the trail makes riding the Mississippi River Trail a real feat. Cyclists should be physically prepared for the challenge and be familiar with road cycling, as much of the trail will be shared roads including shouldered highway. It might be a good idea to tackle some smaller sections or other options around the state that are shorter routes if you haven’t done a lot of riding.

Wildlife on the Longest Biking Trail in Minnesota

When pedaling through the forested portions of the trail, or the regions that run alongside bodies of water it’s likely that you’ll spot some wildlife. Waterfowl like ducks and geese as well as pelicans and herons might be spotted. Look out for osprey and eagle nests high above the cycling path and take a moment to watch the turkey vultures or hawks in flight if you happen to spot any. Songbirds like warblers, sparrows, starlings and bluebirds are likely to grace your presence while you pedal.

White-tailed deer are plentiful in the state and larger mammals like moose and elk could be spotted at the right time of year. Predators to look out for include black bear, gray and timber wolves, coyote, and bobcats. In the unlikely event that you encounter one of these animals, be sure to give them plenty of space and if a close encounter is imminent, do not flee but rather make yourself large and yell loudly and firmly. 

Bicycle touring puts you into a state of harmony with the natural world as you travel at a rate that is more in line with your surroundings. So have fun exploring, just be sure to respect the territories you traverse along your way.


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About the Author

Gabrielle is a freelance writer with a focus on animals, nature and travel. A Pacific Northwest native, she now resides in the high desert beneath towering ponderosa pines with her beloved dog by her side. She often writes with a coyote call or owl hoot backdrop and is visited by the local deer, squirrels, robins and crows. A committee of turkey vultures convenes nightly in the trees where she resides. Here, the flock and their ancestors have roosted for over 100 years. Her devotion to the natural world has led her to the lifelong study of plants, fungi, wildlife and the interactions between them all.

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