Brown's Creek State Trail: Former Minnesota rail line soon will be scenic spot to hike and bike

By next fall, Brown’s Creek State Trail in Minnesota will be bustling with hikers and bikers, smiling and waving as they take in the beauty of their surroundings, pausing to catch their breath at interpretive displays about the history of the trail and maybe glimpsing bald eagles in the air or deer in the woods.

The 5.9-mile trail corridor, acquired by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in February 2012, will connect two of Minnesota’s most historic and scenic cities. When connected to the Gateway State Trail, the Brown’s Creek State Trail will carry users from the “Birthplace of Minnesota” in Stillwater to the state capital in St. Paul, traveling along former railways connecting the two communities. Construction is underway. The trail is slated to be open to the public by fall 2014.

“When completed, the Brown’s Creek State Trail will serve tens of thousands of hikers and bikers,” said Courtland Nelson, director of the DNR’s Parks and Trails Division. “In addition to providing a top-notch recreational amenity with health benefits galore, it will contribute to the region’s economic vitality. Bike-friendly shops and restaurants near the trail will benefit from an influx of trail users.”

Janna Murray, owner of Janna’s Hides and Rides in Stillwater, rents bikes now but expects to quadruple her fleet when Brown’s Creek State Trail opens.

“People are already calling and asking where they can ride,” she said. “People from out of town want to keep up their fitness when they’re on vacation, and the locals are excited to have rental bikes available so they can ride with their out-of-town guests.”

Rails and their supporting ties have been removed and structural improvements to two bridges -one over St. Croix Trail/state Highway 95 and one over the creek in Oak Glen Golf Course – are near completion. The next phase of construction involves building a new bridge over Manning Avenue, which should be complete by late June, with paving of the entire trail to follow in late spring or early summer. The trail will be accessible to users of all abilities, with an average grade of 1.1 percent, and no grades exceeding 2.2 percent.

“Not everyone is in physical condition to ride up Myrtle Street,” Murray noted. “It’s too steep. Brown’s Creek State Trail is the perfect solution, because it’s relatively flat, making it easier for many more people to bike in Stillwater.”

Linda Radimecky, an area naturalist for the Parks and Trails Division, is busy planning signs and programs to highlight the natural, cultural and historic features along the trail. She sees great potential for new, Legacy-funded programs involving hiking and biking along Brown’s Creek, a designated trout stream.

“The trail is rich with interpretive possibilities,” Radimecky said. “We’re looking into innovative ways to use technology and other means to bring the trail’s history to life for families, school kids and others. There are lots of fascinating stories to share about the role American Indians, logging, settlement and railroads played in the area.”

The state trail and the trout stream are named after Joseph R. Brown, an early explorer and settler in the area – and later, a state legislator – who built the “Tamarack House” and other early buildings north of Stillwater near the mouth of the creek. The trail follows a portion of the Northern Pacific railroad between Stillwater and Duluth Junction. Duluth Junction in the city of Grant was where the Northern Pacific crossed the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie or Soo Line. The Soo Line is now the Gateway State Trail.

The DNR acquired the land from David Paradeau, who operated the Minnesota Zephyr dinner train along the route until 2008.The acquisition was made possible with support from key partners. Washington County committed $1 million from its 2006 open space referendum funds toward the $4.25 million purchase early in the negotiations. DNR funding included $2.15 million from the Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund, administered by the Legislative-Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources, and $1.1 million from the DNR’s Parks and Trails Fund, which receives 14.25 percent of the Legacy Amendment sales tax revenue and may only be spent to support parks and trails of regional or statewide significance. The nonprofit Gateway Trail Association (now renamed the Gateway-Brown’s Creek Trail Association), a strong advocate for the new trail, also contributed $1,000.

Given its proximity to the Twin Cities, with a population of 3.5 million people, the trail’s impact could be considerable. In 2008, recreational trail users contributed $2.4 billion in total spending and $206 million in state and local taxes, accounting for 31,000 jobs in Minnesota.

Minnesota’s statewide trail system includes more than 600 paved miles, and expands by about 10 new paved miles each year. Minnesota was named the “Best Trails State” in the country by American Trails in 2010, and it consistently ranks among the top five most bike-friendly states.

See a map and photos of the route to be developed for the Brown’s Creek State Trail, and read the trail’s management plan.

For more information on the Legacy Amendment,