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North Country Trail expands, Hearltand connecting towns

The North Country Trail, a man-made trail for hiking, has reached into Becker County and will continue into Otter Tail County and eventually to North Dakota. Photo by Brian Basham

Soon, all paths will lead to Detroit Lakes.

The North Country Trail has made its way into Becker County, and the Heartland Trail will hopefully soon be connecting Detroit Lakes and Frazee.

North Country Trail

Hiking may be one of the most underrated and overlooked contributors to the tourism industry in Minnesota.

There aren’t large trailers with snowmobiles, ATVS, boats, bicycles or other evidence that those carloads of people are in town with a purpose. But, hikers account for the largest piece of the recreation pie in Minnesota.

According to a study done at the University of Minnesota Tourism Center in 2009, “Minnesota is home to about five million people of whom 54.4 percent participate in walking-hiking, 29 percent participate in biking, 14.2 percent participate in running, 10.3 percent participate in ATV riding, 10 percent participate in snowmobiling, 6.3 percent participate in cross-country skiing, and 4.5 percent participate in horseback riding.

“Overall, recreation participation in Minnesota is expected to decrease or plateau by 2014. However … running and walking-hiking are expected to increase.”

Helping contribute to those tourism statistics and trails is the North Country National Scenic Trail.

When completed, the trail will run 4,600 miles from New York to North Dakota.

“In a nutshell, the best way to describe the North Country Trail is a primitive footpath,” said Matt Davis, regional trail coordinator for Minnesota and North Dakota.

It will be the longest continuous hiking trail in the United States, linking natural, historical and scenic areas across seven states — New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota.

There are pieces here and there already created and designated along the North Country Trail, but those working on the trail have a lot of work ahead of them yet.

“The whole Red River Valley is one big gap right now,” Davis said of where the trail will go. It’s the biggest gap in the 4,600 miles of trail right now.

In 1982, a plan was published as to where the trail should run through the states. While there is that basic idea of where the trail would likely go, it’s a 10-mile-wide corridor, so there is nothing specific about the trail route in areas where it has not yet been established

“It was a guide,” Davis explained. “It was more for planning purposes.

According to the website, the local Laurentian Lakes Chapter “trail section runs from the intersection of the Nicollet and Eagle Scout Trails in the middle of Itasca State Park through Clearwater County to the Becker–Ottertail county border south of the City of Frazee.”

Congress designated the North Country National Scenic Trail in 1980. It is one of 11 national trails in the United States. The Appalachian Trail, which runs from Georgia to Maine, is one of the more well-known national trails.

Once Congress designates the trail and it is built — mainly by volunteers and workers through the Minnesota Conservation Corps via grant funding — the trail is turned over to the National Park Service.

As the trail is constructed, primitive campsites are created at various points along the way. There is space for two tents, a wilderness toilet and a fire ring. Everything else brought in must be taken back out with the hiker.

“Everything we put up in meant to blend in,” Davis said.

Money to fund the construction of the trail comes from the National Park Service and donations, but one large benefit to the Minnesota portion of the trail is funding from Legacy Funds.

When the trail is created, workers mow a four-foot strip and then create an 18-24-inch trail tread (of dirt) down the middle. They try to avoid putting in bridges, boardwalks, and other structures because of the added cost of materials and maintenance.

The group doesn’t take out any sizable trees either.

The trail is strictly for foot traffic, which means walking and hiking in the warm months and snowshoeing or cross-country skiing in the snowy months.

Though there may be years worth of work left on the entire trail, Davis said the finished product will be a benefit for years to come, just like the Appalachian Trail is now, 75 years after it was completed.

“We’re building a legacy for future generations to get out and enjoy,” he said.

Heartland Trail

Most people in this area have biked, walked, snowmobiled or at least heard of the Heartland Trail.

There are health and recreational benefits far and wide, but a group from Frazee and Detroit Lakes are trying to get across to state senators and representatives that it’s so much more than that.

“Look at Dorset,” Bruce Imholte said. “What would be there if there wasn’t a trail?”

The Heartland Trail stretches 49 miles from Cass Lake to Park Rapids. Several entities — including the cities of Frazee and Detroit Lakes, Becker County, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Department of Natural Resources — have been working hard the last couple of years to get a new segment built from Frazee to Detroit Lakes.

It would eventually connect to the Park Rapids end of the trail and on to Moorhead.

For the last two years, Frazee and Detroit Lakes have invested money in hiring Flaherty and Hood to lobby for the Heartland Trail between the two cities. Elizabeth Wefel has been helping keep a presence at the state capitol and helping the group with testifying before the bonding committees.

The cities are asking the state for $3 million in the bonding bill to be dedicated to constructing the Heartland Trail. That would also include a trailhead on Acorn Lake.

The state has already allocated $2.5 million for the project, which has paid for design of the trail on the north side of Highway 10 and a tunnel under Highway 10 just east of Detroit Lakes to connect the trail to Detroit Lake and the city’s existing trail system.

Detroit Lakes and Frazee have also invested money in land acquisition and the piece of land on Acorn Lake that will be used as a trailhead. After the cities purchased the land from a private landowner, they sold it to the Department of Natural Resources for the appraised value.

The project is “shovel ready,” meaning all of the land is in place and the design is ready as well.

“If they’re committing money to the tunnel, why wouldn’t you finish it,” Imholte questioned of the state. 

While the recreational benefits of a multi-use trail may seem fairly clear, it’s the economic benefits that have Frazee and Detroit Lakes pushing even harder for the connection.

“First, this trail will bring jobs and long-term economic development benefits to the local communities and the region, which helps the state economy,” Detroit Lakes Mayor Matt Brenk said.

“In Detroit Lakes, we get a lot of tourists from North Dakota who use our lakes and other amenities,” Tourism Director Cleone Stewart said. “They visit Frazee for kayaking and hiking. There’s an untapped market for bike trail users. If you build us this trail, we can bring in more tourist dollars from North Dakota.”

Another benefit of the trail is the ability to bring workers to the area and retain them. Stewart spoke about how employees want to move to areas with amenities like multi-use trails.

The two cities are working hard to find support both within the community and within the legislature and should know more when the legislative session ends this spring.

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.