two hammocks, a tent, and a bike leaning against a tree.

Bikepacking Is Great

I went bikepacking again! That makes Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend, the perfect bookends to summer for bikepacking. Our destination this time was a hike-in site at beautiful Afton State Park.

robert st station to the gateway trail to stillwater to afton, along the st croix river.

The approximate route.

We weighed the pros and cons of taking such a roundabout route, and decided that this route was better than the one 10 miles shorter.

  1. We wanted to try out the Gateway Trail
  2. I hadn’t been to Stillwater yet
  3. The shorter route has no grade-separated paths.

Leaving at the crack of noon, we decided to take the easy way out, and hopped on the green line instead of navigating through St Paul’s east-west unprotected lanes fully loaded with our gear. Besides, we had plenty of legwork ahead.

me with our two bikes in the fold-up seats ADA section of the train.

Yet another instance where ADA and cycling needs work well together!

Getting to the Gateway Trail should have been easy from the new (and great!) Jackson St leg of the Capital City Bikeway, but we followed exactly one wayfinding sign, and then had to rely on smartphone GPS to get us there. There was also an unmarked detour because of some sewer construction, so we had to strike our own path through a Kmart parking lot and ride on sidewalks. My companion was once again on navigation duty and got us flawlessly through the dreck. It will be really nice to not have to rely on a charged phone with data and location access to navigate, though! I hope that last bit of the project fills in soon.

a 2-way bike path lined thickly by trees. you can smell the green looking at it!

The Gateway Trail itself is absolutely lovely. (What it’s a Gateway to, I didn’t read the signs…) It passes my “can I easily ride this without my hands on the handlebars?” rubric with flying colors. It’s so verdant. Thinking about water, like I do, this trail really shows off how lucky we are. Trees and ferns and ponds and lushness surround you on this beautiful smooth path. There’s cute bridges over suburban highways, and only a handful of egregious stop signs for glorified driveways.

a 40 foot tall statue of a snowman in north saint paul

And there’s magnificent works of public art.

At the junction, we turned and went to Stillwater. My companion informed me that this leg had only been completed in the past year or two, and the fresh paint on the asphalt agreed. The ride from the junction to Stillwater was just fabulous. It didn’t appear to connect to anything along the way, but on the other hand there’s probably not a huge network of bike trails and retail nodes out there.

We ate a light late lunch and gawked at the out-of-commission lift bridge in comparison to the modern engineering marvel replacing it. Seems like a lot of bridge to get to the forest of Wisconsin. But our route took us south along the river, not across it.

The only actually unpleasant part of the whole trip was from Bayport (neither a bay, nor a port: discuss) to Lakeland, where you’re on a 50 mph highway with an intermittent shoulder. That part was Very Dangerous, and though the traffic mostly gave us a generous berth it would only take one inattentive driver for a handful of seconds… This one short leg near 94 puts the whole trip in “would not recommend for those sensitive to fast-moving traffic”, which is too bad.  

Back on separated trails in Lakeland, we encountered some delightful traffic in the form of parents teaching their kids how to handle hills, a 10 foot dip in the trail that the kids were navigating with glee. I wish the whole route was safe enough to do that! We stopped at an old-fashioned ice cream place for the burst of energy we would need to climb the 500 feet to the park, and the high school students staffing it were loathing both how long today’s shift was and how soon school was starting.

The climb up to Afton was challenging but rewarding. Plenty of spandexed cyclists were also on the route, climbing up and zooming down the hills like it was a ski run! The car drivers here were accustomed to sharing with cyclists, and gave us plenty of breathing room as we chugged up the hills. Checking in at Afton, I was prepared to make the case for road bikes like I did at Lake Maria, but this ranger station had a whole bike fix-it stand out front, and they only asked us to not ride on the dirt in one particular area. They even had paved and hardpack trails they welcomed bikes on! What a nice change.

After a few more miles through the park with a couple of unforecasted tough climbs made more difficult by the age of the pavement, we made it to our spot just in time to set up camp while the sun still shone.

two hammocks, a tent, and a bike leaning against a tree.

We spent most of the next day relaxing.