The Isla de Muerta of Saint Paul Biking

Bicycling in Saint Paul can feel like a meeting of a secret society, filled with special handshakes and meaningful nods. While other cities have well-signed routes and infrastructure clearly marked on the road, many things that make biking in Saint Paul easier feel like big secrets. For example, did you know that Saint Paul has a trail that spans the West Seventh neighborhood from West 7th Street and Albion Avenue to Grand Avenue along I-35E? Of course not. Hardly anyone does. Similar to the Isla de Muerta in the Pirates of the Caribbean it can only be found by those who know where it is.

Although the official name is the 35E Trail and the section from Saint Clair Avenue to Grand Avenue was recently renamed Little Bohemia Trail, my seven-year old son rightfully calls it “The Sneaky Trail.” He gave it this moniker because parts of it run on the berm next to the I-35E sound wall, allowing users to look down into backyards and alleys that usually go unnoticed. Hence, he feels sneaky when we use it. It is sneaky for other reasons as well. There are very few signs. Portions south of Saint Clair Avenue use alleys, streets, and off-street trails. The start is barely marked. One has to be sneaky to know that it is there.

The Little Bohemia section

The Little Bohemia section

The original trail arose out of a court settlement between the community group opposed to putting 35E through the neighborhood, Residents in Protest 35E (RIP 35E), and the then Minnesota Highway Department and the U.S. Department of Transportation. Construction of 35E between Shepard Road and Pleasant Avenue was halted in 1969 pending an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). While the EIS was completed in 1975, the settlement was not reached until 1984. That led to the creation of the odd freeway we know today – that still controversial 45 mile per hour stretch from West Seventh Street through downtown Saint Paul. Aside from the lowered speed limit and a large truck ban, RIP 35E also won the Sneaky Trail.

Little Bohemia Trail

The trail starts (or ends?)

The signed bike route starts at Thompson Avenue and Butternut Street on a service road behind United Hospital. The trail itself starts at Grand Avenue by the I-35E exit ramp. Looking at this intersection there would be no way to know the trail exists (sneaky!). In other posts I have discussed the challenges of navigating this intersection on a bicycle. The trail entrance is a leap of faith. Facing two turn arrows and on-coming traffic, a bicyclist just has to trust that the entrance is there.  

Where do I go from here?

Where do I go from here? Thompson and Grand.

This year the Little Bohemia Neighborhood Associate (LBNA) applied for and received Capital Improvement Budget (CIB) funding to improve the trail from Saint Clair Avenue to Grand Avenue. The planning improvements are modest, but needed. Their request includes resurfacing the path, installing crosswalks at Saint Clair Avenue and Grand Avenue, adding lighting, and landscaping improvements off Harrison Avenue near Journeys Secondary School. On June 24 and 25, the LBNA and its partner, Minnesota Nature’s Community Roadside Partnership, planted bee-friendly perennials near Harrison and Western Avenues. Crosswalks and resurfacing should be completed in 2017. The new plantings look great and I will look forward to the resurfacing. Unfortunately, street lights block the path around this stretch and pedestrian ramps are rarely cleared of snow.

A new interpretive sign

A new interpretive sign

Hrm.....this would be easier if this pole was somewhere else.

Hrm…..this would be easier if this pole was somewhere else.

The trail earned its Sneaky Trail moniker because the Little Bohemia section takes users above the backyards and alleys, providing a view on people’s “private” spaces. I like the bird houses on the support beams.

A sneaky peak into a backyard

A sneaky peak into a backyard

South of Little Bohemia

The Little Bohemia Trail section ends at Saint Clair Avenue. I previously had written about the challenges of this intersection. Trail users coming from the north must cross diagonally to go south on Osceola Avenue. It would be a great spot for a roundabout, but I was told by City staff that cannot be because of federal rules regarding interstate ramps. [Editors note: This last bit isn’t actually true, as it turns out. Thanks Saint Paul city staff! A roundabout might actually be possible.] Currently, there is no easy way to cross to the southbound lane on Osceola Avenue, complicated by the freeway ramp and traffic coming fast down the hill on Saint Clair Avenue.

How do I cross?

How do I cross?

After crossing Saint Clair Avenue things get very interesting. The trail is a mix off-road path, quiet residential streets, and alleys. Way-finding signs point the user down Osceola Avenue to Grace Street.

The red lines are where the trail is on the street. The green lines are off road path.

The red lines are where the trail is on the street. The green lines are off road path.

After turning onto Grace Street, the trail goes off-road again to follow the interstate sound wall between Arbor Street and Bay Street, rejoins the street for a bit, and goes off-road between Vance Street and View Street. These sections are not plowed in the winter.

The trail continues near Vance Street

The trail continues near Vance Street

After crossing Jefferson Avenue, there are way-finding signs along Palace Avenue until it meets up with I-35E again. At James and Palace Avenues, the route turns south and becomes a trail once more.

The crossing at Randolph Avenue is tricky.  That median is not wide enough to accommodate a bicycle. Work is being done on the Randolph Avenue bridge over the freeway and at the intersection of Randolph Avenue and Lexington Parkway. Will those changes increase traffic through this area, making this an even more dangerous crossing? There are no plans to improve the trail crossing during this project.

Sad median at the Randolph Avenue crossing

Sad median at the Randolph Avenue crossing

Blurred lines between streets and alleys

Blurred lines between streets and alleys

After crossing, the trail again mixes alleys and path. These bits are interesting because it is difficult to tell where alleys end and streets begin (question for the ages). The bit near the fire hydrant is only as wide as a path, but each side is rutted from car tires so clearly neighbors use that part of the trail for driving cars.

There are no way-finding signs along this bit and it took me a while to figure out where it was. Google maps does not show this as a bike route, although the Twin Cities Bike Map does.

Bike Everywhere TC Bike Map

Bike Everywhere TC Bike Map

 

Between Armstrong Avenue and Bayard Avenue the trail is on Pleasant Avenue. At Bayard and Pleasant Avenue there is a pedestrian/bicycle bridge over I-35E. The trail continues for several blocks along the sound barrier wall on the west side of I-35E and then ends at Race Street and Vista Avenue where it ends. This section is not cleared in the winter and currently has overgrowth blocking the trail. The end (beginning?) is close to Montreal Avenue and Lexington Parkway, both of which have bike lanes.

A bright beginning (or end?)

A bright beginning (or end?)

A Neglected Asset

The Sneaky Trail (or Little Bohemia Trail or I-35E Trail) is a great, but neglected, asset. It connects West Seventh Street and Montreal Avenue to downtown Saint Paul, passing schools, libraries, parks, and shopping districts along the way. It is seamlessly built into the neighborhoods. However, the asphalt is crumbling with tree roots creating crevasses and bumps, there is almost no lighting, and crossings at major intersections are dangerous.

The improvements in the Little Bohemia section make for a much better experience and, hopefully, will lead to more people using it. The southern section, south of Saint Clair Avenue, was not included in the CIB request and there are no plans or funds set aside for similar improvements. We have the underlying skeleton in place but need to repave the southern portion, add lighting, clear tree and brush overgrowth, and increase way-finding. Intersections with Randolph, Saint Clair, and Grand Avenues desperately need improvements to make crossing safe.

So, like Captain Barbossa with Jack Sparrow’s coordinates, you now can find Saint Paul’s Isla de Muerta and the treasures it hides.

 


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11 Responses to The Isla de Muerta of Saint Paul Biking

  1. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller July 29, 2016 at 1:24 pm #

    I had no idea this trail was there, and it seems Google Maps doesn’t either.

  2. Stuart Knappmiller July 29, 2016 at 2:35 pm #

    Sounds like a slow roll would be useful here!

  3. Bill Siegel July 30, 2016 at 1:16 pm #

    Thanks, I used to live near St. Clair and 35E and I always wondered what was up with that path.This sorta reminds me of all the secret roads and tricks to driving around St. Paul. Every time I show a new co-worker Ayd Mill or Pierce Butler it blows their mind!

    • Scott August 1, 2016 at 8:09 am #

      PBR me ASAP has a very different meaning in Saint Paul. If you really want to ride fast, I think it’s the best bike path in the metro. 7 miles out and back with no stop signs or lights. The western half is smooth as glass, the eastern half is passable if you ride in the right wheel track. Traffic on weekends is pretty light, and with the 4 to 3 diet there is plenty of room for motor vehicles to pass.

      If they would resurface the eastern half, or just grind off the humps at the expansion joints, the road would be an awesome high speed training track for bicyclists.

      The only challenge is remembering to look out for branches and sticks on the road on the approaches to the compost heap.

  4. Darryn Kozak July 31, 2016 at 9:28 am #

    The trail has some fun and interesting sights, but it needs a little publicity. Maybe an annual bike parade, or a race, or both?

  5. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller August 1, 2016 at 9:34 am #

    Rode it yesterday, and, indeed, it’s a superior route to downtown St. Paul from my house, although I may need to find a better way to get to its start than going up and over the hill on Montreal from St. Paul Ave. to W. 7th.

  6. Adam Froehlig
    Adam Froehlig August 2, 2016 at 2:22 pm #

    Did you have a long exposure for that photo at Thompson and Grand, or does the signal actually do that (green arrows in both directions plus red ball)?

    • Mike Sonn
      Mike Sonn August 2, 2016 at 3:15 pm #

      It does that since you can’t go straight (it is the off-ramp for 35E and Grand Ave’s connection from down the hill).

      It sucks as cyclist bcs drivers coming at you (w/ a red) often roll that right-on-red and are only looking to their left. If they do happen to see you, they don’t know you’re headed to the ped ramp and roll out into the intersection and block it. I often have to aggressively point at the ped ramp to signal my intentions.

      • Mike Sonn
        Mike Sonn August 11, 2016 at 8:32 am #

        I had a perfect example why this intersection is no good last night. I was coming from Thompson and we had the green arrows. The driver on Grand (off-ramp) had a red light but was looking left so that they could take a rolling right-on-red. I was pointing and yelling but the driver still rolled out and blocked the curb cut before finally seeing/hearing me and stopping. I wasn’t hit because I am use to drivers ignoring the law and rolling red lights here – and especially use to them only looking left when turning right.

    • Dana DeMaster
      DanaD August 3, 2016 at 3:36 pm #

      Yes. Two arrows and a red ball. No indication that anyone would be going forward to the trail. I usually get eye contact with people exiting the freeway turning east on Grand and then point to the sidewalk.

      • Monte Castleman
        Monte Castleman August 3, 2016 at 7:16 pm #

        This isn’t by far a unique situation where you can turn but aren’t allowed to go straight. Somehow other cities get it done without using a configuration that is not authorized by the MUTCD.