In a few weeks, the Robert Piram Regional Trail will officially open between Saint Paul and South Saint Paul. Here’s why it just might be the Twin Cities cycling community’s new favorite trail.
One of the differences between the Twin Cities is Saint Paul’s working riverfront. Barges, trains, trucks, and even airplanes have held sway along both sides of the Mississippi in Saint Paul for a century and a half. Grain terminals, switch yards, landfills, junkyards, and the Pigs Eye sewage treatment plant are the dominate land uses downstream of downtown.
And yet, the riverfront has retained an undeniable beauty framed by bluffs, white cliffs, Saint Paul’s largest (and largely unknown) park, and even an island wildlife sanctuary. With so much industrial development, the difficult part has always been to access these unique areas.
On the west side, however, the problem of access will be greatly improved with the completion of the Robert Piram Regional trail. This nearly four-mile-long trail will connect Harriet Island with South Saint Paul’s beautiful Kaposia Landing Park. Named for the longtime leader of the Saint Paul parks department, the trail will soon make it possible to ride a bike from North Minneapolis to Hastings entirely on separated trails.
Harriet Island, of course, already offers uninterrupted trail connections westward and northward with trails through Lilydale, Mendota, Fort Snelling, Minnehaha Falls, and the East and West river roads.
Up until now, however, the only way to follow the west bank of the river south from downtown Saint Paul was along Cesar Chavez / Concord Street, a busy arterial with heavy truck traffic and a chaotic intersection at Highway 52. Although it has a sidewalk and bike lane in Saint Paul, both disappear after crossing into South Saint Paul. Concord has never been a safe or pleasant route for pedestrians or cyclists.
In order to complete this missing link, the Piram trail follows Plato Boulevard from Harriet Island and turns south between Highway 52 and the Saint Paul Airport. It then weaves past several junkyards, a swamp or two, the “Gulf of Minneapolis“, the Saint Paul impound lot, a patch of woods, and over the Union Pacific tracks. Truly, the process to create a right of way here must have been epic. Indeed, Saint Paul and Dakota County staff had to work out easements with 18 different land owners on 30 different parcels.
To accommodate all of these obstacles, the trail has required significant engineering. Let’s follow it and see where it goes!
Leaving Harriet Island along the north side of Plato Boulevard, the trail is a welcome respite from the overbuilt four-lane stroad. Ranging from just 3,200 cars per day at its west end to 15,000 on the west where it connects to Highway 52, Plato Boulevard should only be a two-lane road. As it is, the width and emptiness of Plato encourages speeding and aggressive driving. The trail here will be a helpful antidote, but a preferred solution here would have been a road diet, building the trail in place of a car lane like along Ayd Mill Road.
Further east, crews built a retaining wall to create space for the trail under the Highway 52 bridge. Again, although this design accommodates cyclists just fine, a more beneficial solution here would have been to take a traffic lane. Unfortunately, building trails and implementing road diets seem to be two very different processes.
The Piram trail then turns south along East Lafayette between Highway 52 and the Saint Paul airport. It crosses the levy into the airport with a chicane gate across some train tracks. Although the light rail system and some local pedestrian bridges use chicane gates to protect cyclists and pedestrians, this particular design is unique and may seem confusing or annoying at first. However, its purpose is to slow cyclists so that they can more easily see the approaching auto-piloted trains that may be hidden by the airport levy wall.
Through the airport, sights include a beacon tower, the airport control tower, several hangars, and the occasional jet parked on the tarmac. The scene changes quickly as the trail crosses a wooden bridge over a swampy pond that looks like it may have once been part of a barge canal. Piles of metal awaiting recycling loom of the other side of the pond. The bridge is conveniently lit by solar lights at both ends.
The trail then passes through what was previously a wooded no man’s land behind several of the junkyards that abut Barge Channel Road. Saint Paul has many such hidden interstitial places. Several small vestigial brick and concrete structures of unknown purpose can be seen to the east of the trail, overcome by thickets and cattails.
From there, the trail cuts between junkyards and runs for a couple blocks along Barge Channel Road, where it seems out of place among rambling semis and train tracks. Industry here is served by the Southport barge terminal, one of four river terminals operated by the Saint Paul Port Authority, which is one of the northernmost ports on the Mississippi.
The trail skirts off along the side of the Saint Paul impound lot, a place one hopes not to make acquaintance. A narrow waterway full of tires can be seen on the right, hopefully the subject of a cleanup effort in the near future. Piram then rolls into another liminal woods that feels as if it’s unaccustomed to the presence of humans. Indeed, on a recent visit, a herd of deer lingered near a downed branch on the trail, showing little inclination to move on.
This part of the Piram trail feels very much like the Fish Hatchery trail on the other side of the river, hidden out of sight of trains and industry. But the trail soon rises to a bridge over the Union Pacific tracks and rolls down into the huge expanse of Kaposia Landing Park.
Kaposia Landing, the official end of the Piram Trail, is a hidden gem of Twin Cities parks. Rich with history, views, and amenities, Kaposia Landing opened in 2008 on land reclaimed from a former Port Crosby landfill. It includes ball fields, a dog park, over two miles of trails, and great views of the river, barge traffic, and one of Saint Paul’s two swing bridges.
Kaposia Landing was the historic site of Kaposia Village from 1837 to 1851. A village of 300 Mdewakanton Sioux, the Kaposia band were led by Chief Little Crow V, or Taoyateduta. Forced to move out of the Mississippi river valley in 1851 by the treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota, the Kaposia band moved westward to the Minnesota River with the promise of annual payments from the federal government. The government’s failure to make these payments precipitated the Dakota War of 1862. Interpretive signs along the river at the north end of the park help document this history.
Crossing Concord Street on a wide pedestrian bridge leads to Simon’s Ravine, where a steep yet beautiful trail climbs the bluffs to West Saint Paul. Eventually, this hilly route will be part of Dakota County’s River to River trail, connecting Kaposia Landing and the Piram Trail with the Big Rivers Regional Trail along the Minnesota River.
Kaposia Landing also connects with the Mississippi River Greenway, which rolls along the top of the levy through South Saint Paul and will soon extend all the way to Hastings. In my opinion, it’s the most picturesque trail in all of the Twin Cities. Points of interest along the way include the remains of the Rock Island Swing Bridge in Inver Grove Heights and the Pine Bend Bluffs Natural Area. There’s also a trail crossing over the I-494 Wakota bridge connecting to the east bank Mississippi River Trail that loops back to Saint Paul along Point Douglas Road.
Currently, the Piram trail is not yet open between the Saint Paul border and Kaposia Landing while crews finish installing fences. Saint Paul Public Works indicates the trail should be fully open by mid-November and should be kept clear of snow through the winter by Saint Paul and Dakota County crews. A ribbon cutting ceremony is planned for next spring.