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Friday, August 24, 2012

It's kind of like Payson up here.

Paul Bunyan Conservation Area, Brainerd, MN
Jack pine savanna

I hate being away from Arizona.  Hate it.  That's because  I miss my limitless hiking options.  In Arizona, we can hike 365 days a year in myriad climes and terrain such as deserts, alpine meadows, pine forests, creek side riparian zones, above tree line, in world-class deep canyons, cedar-studded scrublands, high elevation mountains and striking savannas.  There's so much variety here, I've become a bit of a hiking snob and have yet to find a place with as much trail diversity as the Grand Canyon State.  Still, I occasionally must go out of town, and that means having to hike outside my comfort zone.
While on a business trip this week to beautiful Brainerd Minnesota, a lucky juxtaposition of the printing plant I was visiting and a conservation area provided an opportunity to hit the trail.   Brainerd is a small-ish, but strangely congested town on the Mississippi River.   Downtown is a grid of narrow, oak-lined streets populated with quilt shops and antique emporiums that give way to dusty railroad tracks and frontage roads bolstered by big box retailers and chain restaurants.  While idling in my rental car waiting for a coal-laden train to pass, I saw the sign:  "Paul Bunyan Trail", and my curiosity was stoked.  Happily, my work assignment completed in time for me to spend a couple of hours exploring, that's when I discovered that the Paul Bunyan Trail is a long bike trail that begins just outside the arboretum.  The arboretum includes property leased from The Nature Conservancy, so, given my limited time, I decided to check out the Jack Pine Savanna Habitat Restoration Project--a joint effort of TNC and other organizations.  Excellent trailside maps and well-signed junctions make getting around the arboretum a breeze.  I quickly planned out a 4-mile loopy route heading first through some colorful flower gardens and an experimental study area loaded with what appeared to be mutant squash.  Soon, the wide trail turned to soft white sand and opened up into a sunny scrubland stabbed with rail thin, frail conifers that looked as if they could be the wayward arrows of extraterrestrial archers---the Jack Pines.  I thought Scotty (of Star Trek) had  transported me to Payson. The Big Ben and Little Ben trails twist around the stark habitat that smacks more of Arizona's high desert than a forest less than a mile from the mighty Mississippi.  Next, I strolled through a deeply wooded area of Paper Birch, oaks, Blue Spruce, White Pines and Red maple trees.  Although it was only late August some maple leaves already bore the crimson tinge of autumn.   Finally, I walked the short trail around “Minnesota Monet”--a secluded lily pond wrapped in Weeping Willows—which reminded me of Dow Springs on the Sycamore Rim Loop trail and made me glad I was headed home.

Minnesota Monet

LENGTH:  12 miles of connected trails
ELEVATION: 1230' -1260’
RATING:  easy
Located in Brainerd, MN--about 2 hours north of Minneapolis/St. Paul

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