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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. He’d love to join you on a walk or (slow) bike ride on the Gateway anytime!