Construction of a trail that eventually will link Aitkin to Baxter is scheduled to begin this summer.
The Cuyuna Lakes Trail has been five years in planning, and if federal money arrives as expected, the first 8-mile leg could be completed by next winter, said Denny Palmer, project manager for the Cuyuna Lakes Trail Association.
The "trail" is really two trails, one paved and one unpaved, to fulfill a mandate by the state Legislature that the trail be multi-purpose, multi-season and multi-alignment. The paved portion will be similar to the Paul Bunyan Trail. Snowmobilers and horseback riders will use the unpaved portion. In places the two trails will be near one another, in other places a half mile or more apart. The paved trail will meet American Disability Act requirements, making it handicap accessible.
The trails will be open to hikers, bikers, snowmobilers, horseback riders, inline skaters and cross country skiers. They will begin at Croft Mine Historical Park in Crosby and run west on old railroad beds through the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area. It's hoped the paved trail will reach Township Road 204 (Iverson Road) by winter.
The Crow Wing County Highway Department will supervise design and construction. Bids from private contractors will be accepted this summer.
Through a grant from the Federal Highway Administration, about $330,000 was provided for the project. The 2002 state Legislature kicked in a 20 percent match along with design money for a total of $125,000 through the DNR's capital bonding bill, and the remaining $45,000 came from various other sources, including private citizens, townships and cities. Money also was raised by area residents Kathy Bussard, Jack Houle and Ed Dallas, who rode bicycles from Lake Itasca to New Orleans on the Mississippi River trail.
The trail will benefit from the existence of about 60 miles of paths, old railroad beds and mining roads in the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area. Wherever possible the paved trail will follow old railroad tracks while the unpaved trail will follow existing unpaved trails. Most easements from private landowners who will host the trail have been secured, Palmer said.
Next year the funding and easement process begins again.
"As many as 100 different property interests affected planning for this year's project," Palmer said. "It was complicated by the mining interests. We hope to get funds (from this year's Legislature) so we can make the plans and get the right-of-way to begin paving again (in 2005)."
Though the trail's current outlook is promising, potential snags loom, Palmer said.
"What scares me a little is that oil prices are going nuts. By the time we bid this we might not get as much bituminous as we would like."
A target completion date has not been set and would be unrealistic, Palmer added.
"It's been many, many years getting the Paul Bunyan Trail to where it is. Ultimately we would like to see an interconnected trail system throughout Crow Wing County. Eventually there could be a trail from Aitkin to Grand Rapids. But everybody has great ideas for trails. It takes years to get them done because of the need to secure money."
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