The Gateway – St. Paul’s State Trail

The Gateway State Trail is a lovely 18-mile rails-to-trails conversion crossing the Twin Cities’ east metro. There’s no way to cover all of it in one article, so I’ll start with the St. Paul portion of the trail, beginning on the city’s northwestern border and working my way in toward the State Capitol building.

Mile marker 2 is right near the underpass at Larpenteur Avenue, the boundary between St. Paul and Maplewood. This is a rather nondescript piece of infrastructure, and feels like a missed opportunity. Some murals would deter the occasional graffiti, and lighter paint might make the underpass more enjoyable (or at least less dark). Maybe a light fixture too? Interpretive signs (describing the history of the former railroad, native plants / animals, etc.) would be a valuable addition along the trail as well.

Underpass at Larpenteur.

Heading southwest along the trail brings us to the trail bridge over Wheelock Parkway. Wheelock has great bike and pedestrian infrastructure, with an asphalt path leading between the street and the trail. While it is not the start of the Gateway in St. Paul, surveys done by the trail association suggest this is the most common trail access point for bike riders coming from the west, whether that be Lake Como, Highland Park, Minneapolis, or points beyond. 

Trail bridge over Wheelock

Continuing toward downtown St. Paul, the next interesting piece of the Gateway is at Arlington Avenue by I-35E. There’s a lot to talk about here! There’s a small parking lot blocked off by concrete barriers, along with a community garden. Perhaps the only community garden on DNR land in the state, it was sponsored by the local neighborhood council for a number of years. Some informal gardening still occurs on the site, even without that sponsorship.  A local urban agriculture nonprofit, Urban Roots, has signed an agreement to take over the garden. The hope is to allow those still (informally) using the space to remain, and then identify open garden space for other nearby residents to use. Ideally, with that, the parking lot can be reopened.  

“No loitering.”

What is striking about this space is what is missing: no bike rack, no picnic tables, no traditional DNR trailhead sign, no lighting, no interpretative or historical signage and, aside from a water fountain, no other facilities for a biker or runner needing a break.  This is the only parking for the Gateway in St. Paul (or would be, if it were open); there’s no doubt this location is screaming for improvement and TLC.  

The Gateway used to go behind the garden and over I-35E along an old railroad bridge.  That bridge was lost during the I-35E construction project a decade ago.  With a brown trail sign on the bridge itself, visible by thousands of urban commuters daily, the DNR lost arguably its best advertising in the state.  

In place of that railroad bridge, the trail crosses I-35E on Arlington, then runs south a bit down L’Orient.  To the east, one can see the old asphalt where the trail used to be routed when the railroad bridge was still standing.  

Old trails don’t die, they simply fade away.

Across L’Orient, the Gateway briefly resumes a route consistent with the old railroad right of way. This stretch of trail has old (nonfunctioning) city street lights. How did that come about? It is telling that, even in a light industrial area, this is a patch of trail that feels quiet and natural. There is a suggestion to re-route this stretch of trail along L’Orient. That would be another sad loss, and (if it happens) one hopes that the DNR works with other government actors to maintain this as a trail, perhaps as part of the nearby Trout Brook trail and preserve.  

Imagine these lit up at night again!

South of Maryland, the trail parallels I-35E, but with some space so the car noise is not that bad. The DNR has done a good job with trees and landscaping, and there is a view of downtown St. Paul as one continues south.  I’m curious who owns the big fence parallel to the trail here?  Why not murals?  Why not a big “Gateway State Trail” painted on it?

Trail between Maryland and Cayuga. Less congestion than I-35E.

South of there, the trail approaches its current start at Cayuga.  To get the trail over railroad tracks, the trail shares a bridge with the I-35E exit ramp at Cayuga.  Sometime in the last year or two, the brown trailhead sign was installed.  A trail map here would be nice, as would other amenities.

Make your own joke here.

Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed my use of words like “current” and “for now.”   This is the current start of the Gateway Trail.  The Gateway is actually authorized to start at the State Capitol.  For those who know government, “authorization” and “funding” are two different things, but a directional sign at Cayuga acknowledges that the Gateway State Trail in St. Paul is not finished.  The right-pointing arrow acknowledges the trail from Cayuga heading north.  The left-pointing arrow (i.e. Gateway State Trail South) points to a hopeful continuation to the south.

Gateway State Trail: if you build it (south of Cayuga, to the Capitol), they will come.

Imagine a Gateway trailhead sign at (or very near) the lawn of the Capitol building.  Imagine the interpretative signs for school groups, imagine the infrastructure for bike and hiking groups meeting there on weekends to start their adventures.  This would be the best advertising for the DNR in the MSP metro area by far.

Of course, I’m biased.  I’m on the trail association board, and I live in St. Paul.  But the facts remain:  the Gateway in St. Paul is not done.  The trail celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2023 (cake, anyone?).  This would be a great time to improve and expand the trail on the city side.  

Jon Slock lives in the Payne Phalen neighborhood of St. Paul. He can be reached at jon.slock@gmail.com.  He’d love to join you on a walk or (slow) bike ride on the Gateway anytime! 

 

About Jon Slock

Jon lives in the Payne Phalen neighborhood of St. Paul. Locally, he enjoys volunteering, biking/hiking, the odd sporting event, and many of the local brewery patios.

9 thoughts on “The Gateway – St. Paul’s State Trail

  1. Jenny WernessJenny WernessModerator  

    I’m so glad you wrote this, Jon! It was nice to meet you on the trail. Thanks for your work with the Gateway trail board.

    Reply
  2. Monte Castleman

    Great article; I always like phototour types of articles. A few comments:

    1) I agree it’s regrettable that the bridge over I-35E wasn’t replaced.

    2) It might be more productive to bring the streetlight outage to the attention of St. Paul Public works instead of complaining about them on a blog. Ever time I’ve done so, they’ve either promptly fixed the outage, usually within a couple of days, or given a real explanation why they can’t (in one case a conduit was broken inside a bridge, so fixing it before the bridge needs to be reconstructed is a practical impossibility.)

    3) Even before the current crime wave that’s rocking the metro, there was apparently crime problem at that particular parking lot. I remember that sign still being there 15-20 years ago. It gets to the point where nothing short having a full time in-person police or private security presence will stop it, so they just close it off instead. This also happened to the Old Route 66 Chain of Rocks bridge down in St. Louis a few years ago. Back in the day I’d park there and as the sign said, I “took my valuables with me”, but now the criminals will steal your catalytic converter so I’d never park there now..

    4) Do you know if the trail reroute proposal due to real, perceived, or feared crime issues to bring it up into a more visible location rather than down in the valley behind buildings, or for some other reason?

    Reply
    1. Jon Slock Post author

      #1) Amen.

      #2) Valid point. I’ve had great history with Public Works responding quickly; I’ll submit this too. My comment (i.e. “how did this come about”) was more intrigue about how the city put up streetlights on a state trail to begin with. And, staying with this stretch of trail (i.e. your #4), I’ve heard nothing about a re-route being due to safety.

      #3) The hope (stated by DNR) is the reactivated garden brings traffic (by foot, bike, and car) to make it suitable to re-open the parking lot. If that’s not in the cards, then (my off-the-cuff alternative): tear out the asphalt, add picnic benches and bike racks, and make it Minnesota’s smallest state park. It needs to be an asset in some form or another, and you have nearby residents (and a trail association) as allies to help make it happen.

      Reply
    2. Richard Passmore

      St Paul continues to have problems with copper wire being stolen from the historic style street lights along trails. They do respond and repair but it doesn’t last. Maybe more theft resistant access panels are needed.

      Reply
  3. debra gisch

    Love The Gateway. FYI, there are some bike trails near downtown St. Paul that lead to the Gateway.
    Swede Hollow (from downtown St. Paul) to Phalen Blvd, take Phalen Blvd for a bit, left on Johnson Parkway, cross Maryland Ave, continue north on the Vento Trail a short distance (which is off to your right shortly after you cross Maryland), until you come to a bike trail intersection. If you take a right, that is the Gateway, continue straight, goes out to approximately 694, and if you go left, you go back towards 35E/Maryland.

    Reply
      1. Roger Goerke

        Jon, I agree completely with you about the Vento Trail. I sincerely hope that it will be spared the impending devastation planned for it by the Met Council as they push through an un-wanted and un-needed BRT line.
        I also am fond of the Gateway trail but the St. Paul portion of it does suffer from the deficiencies pointed out in the original article.
        The ongoing problem of copper wire thefts from the antique looking street lights seems like it could be easily thwarted by putting locks on the access panels, like the traffic signal junction boxes already employ.

        Reply
        1. Monte Castleman

          They’ve tried locking bolts, but the result is that the criminals will just attack the cover plate with a crowbar, or even knock over a light pole with their vehicle. For now St. Paul is leaving some lights energized during the day, trying to educate the public to report suspicious people “working on” their streetlights, and high tech systems that will send an alarm if a wire is tampered with. The locks on the traffic signal cabinets are to keep the honest people honest- so I don’t go in and program more green time on a route I use frequently. or a toddler doesn’t stick their fingers in a live terminal block; there’s not really anything in there of interest to determined criminals; the wires to the traffic signal heads are a lot shorter and thinner- typically 12 gauge instead of 4 gauge as used in street lighting.

          Some other agencies are switching to aluminum wire or, as I recall, using certain products that lock the wire into the conduit. And when Detroit replaced their lighting, they mostly switched to overhead lines. Ugly but a lot harder to steal.

          MnDOT doesn’t have a problem because they’ve always used direct buried cable, which while you have to dig a trench to replace it, at least you can’t pull it out to steal it. MnDOT has the funding to completely replace lighting systems on a 30 year cycle, so this might not be feasible for more cash-pinched agencies like St. Paul.

          Reply
      2. Zack

        Roger, planning for the proposed Rush/Purple Line was initiated by Ramsey County, not the Met Council. The county decided the route and then transfer the project to the Council for final planning/implementation.

        Reply

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