The Root River Trail is a tourist destination for recreationalists in southeast Minnesota. A six-mile trail expansion will extend the trail from Harmony to the Iowa border. (Photo by Renee Bergstrom)
Trail extension south of Harmony to be constructed in 2024
HARMONY TOWNSHIP, FILLMORE COUNTY — The first substantial state trail expansion in Fillmore County in 25 years is about to happen.
State lawmakers in 2023 authorized $4 million to build a 6-mile extension of the Harmony-Preston State Trail from downtown Harmony to Niagara Cave and the Iowa border. Officials expect the trail segment to open in 2024.
“It is kind of exciting,” said Kent Skaar, senior project manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Division of Parks and Trails who is overseeing the project.
The Harmony-to-Iowa trail money is part of $6 million in state trail investment for Fillmore County included in a capital bill passed in May by the Minnesota Legislature.
“I think it will get people outdoors more,” said Aaron Bishop, manager of Niagara Cave, a popular visitor destination south of Harmony with an underground waterfall.
Bishop, who bikes to work, said the trail to Niagara Cave will be safer than county roads and will give cyclists across the region an opportunity for longer rides.
“The more trails there are, the more people you get,” he said. “Since Covid there have been a lot more people outdoors, and hopefully we can continue that trajectory.”
Also in the bill is $2 million to design and engineer an extension of the Root River State Trail from Preston to Carimona, near Forestville-Mystery Cave State Park. Building that segment is years away, and will require additional funding.
Although the region’s 60 miles of paved trails are mainly used for cycling, they are open to other non-motorized uses like hiking and cross-country skiing.
Dying railroads gave life to cycling in southeast Minnesota.
The 42-mile Root River Trail was completed through Fountain, Lanesboro, Whalan, Peterson and Rushford in the late 1980s, and extended to Houston in 1999. The 18-mile Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail was completed in 1996.
Those early trails are mostly on abandoned rail lines, including the defunct Milwaukee Road along the Root River. At some river crossings, cyclists pedal across repurposed train bridges.
But the extensions beyond Harmony and Preston don’t follow rail lines. Instead, communities have acquired land from property owners, a slow, sometimes contentious process.
The new paved trail out of Harmony will go south on First Ave NW, then run adjacent to other roads and along fence lines, zig-zagging through undulating farmland with no major waterways to cross. The trail forks just short of the border, with a 0.7-mile leg to Niagara Cave. It ends on State Line Road.
Skaar, the DNR project manager, said bids for the Harmony-to-Iowa extension will be sought by the end of this year, with construction in 2024.
Iowa is not ready
The outlook for extending the trail in Iowa is uncertain.
Iowa’s five northeast counties, including Winneshiek and Howard, south of Harmony, have 76 miles of paved regional trails. In 2021, officials there studied linking the Prairie Farmer Recreational Trail at Cresco, Iowa, with a Harmony extension. The estimated cost was $13 million to $16 million. The distance is about 12 miles.
But it’s only a concept: no route has been chosen, no land acquired and no money raised to design and build the connecting trail in Iowa.
“We are going to have to get something going,” said Jeff Korsmo, director of the Howard County Conservation Board, which has developed bike trails around Cresco, Iowa.
Korsmo said county funding is not adequate for such a large project. Iowa state funding for trails is not as robust as Minnesota’s, so it could take years to happen.
If Iowa eventually pulls it off, the interstate trail would link scenic towns like Decorah, Iowa, and Lanesboro, Minn. — and boost the Driftless area’s reputation as a cycling destination.
Preston trail extension
Cyclists also won’t be pedaling anytime soon on a new trail southwest of Preston. The separate $2 million awarded to the Preston-to-Carimona extension is intended to develop final construction plans and specifications for the trail and bridges. It will give state and local officials a formal estimate of what the extension will cost to build, and form the basis for future funding requests.
A 2003 state trail master plan envisioned a 10-mile paved trail from Preston to Forestville-Mystery Cave State Park along the South Branch of the Root River. By 2004, officials had acquired land for the trail as far as Fillmore County Road 12 in Carimona Township.
That’s about halfway to the state park. Two property owners beyond that point opposed the trail, went to court and successfully blocked land condemnation by the City of Preston.
A short length of the extension, including a bridge, was completed in 2010. It abruptly ends 0.7 miles outside of Preston.
Now, the plan is to extend the trail only as far as Carimona, with the exact termination point determined in the design process, Skaar said. If that segment eventually is built, future cyclists would need to turn around at Carimona — or pedal about 4 miles to the park on what now are gravel roads.
David Shaffer is a retired Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter who lives in Lanesboro and serves on the board of the Win-Cres Chapter of Trout Unlimited.