Exploring the Three Rivers (with my trusty steed, Poppy)

Several months ago, while driving between Champlin and Delano, making note of the parks and trails I passed along the way, I conceived an idea. There were all these lovely trails, so what if someone biked them, from park to park? And what if that someone was me?

I have a short but meaningful relationship with the Three Rivers Park District. I trained for my first marathon at Elm Creek and on the Rush Creek Regional Trail, and I ran my first 50K at Murphy-Hanrehan. The park reserves in particular hold a special significance for me; a conservationist at heart, I have a love for spaces that exist for the purpose of preservation, with our own entertainment coming secondary.

So that’s where this ride began: as a tribute to the outdoor spaces that I love so dearly, the park reserves that exist for their own sake. A 140-mile journey, over three days, connecting all seven of them. I would do this with my bike fully loaded with everything I would need for those three days – food, tent, clothes, everything – and after the day’s riding, I would set up camp, cook, and look after myself.

The ride turned out to be so much more. A liberation of body and spirit tucked inside a daunting task. As the day approached, all my voices of doubt subsided, leaving in their wake only a quiet resolve. I would do this, on my terms, in my own time.

And that’s exactly how it went.

The order of events would be Elm Creek Park Reserve in Champlin, Hyland in Bloomington, and Murphy-Hanrehan in Savage for Day One. With Murphy-Hanrehan currently closed to camping, my destination for the first night would be just a few more miles on, at Cleary Lake Regional Park in Prior Lake. Day two would see Carver in Victoria and Baker in Maple Plain, where I would camp for the second night out. Day three would bring me out to Lake Rebecca in Rockford, Crow-Hassan in Hanover, and back to Elm Creek for my triumphant finish.

For those curious about the crunchy technical bits, my packing list and route are at the end. 

DAY ONE

Beginning was less worrisome – and less exciting – than I thought it would be. My husband drove me up to Elm Creek, we unloaded my bike from the rack, packed all my things where they belonged, and I was off. (Always give yourself a window of time. Shoot for the start. Be happy when you barely squeak in at the end.) My husband shadowed me for a short time, taking some photos before I left the park. As soon as we snapped an obligatory photo by the Elm Creek Park Reserve sign, I was on my own.

Here we go!

It was a chilly morning, in the mid-40s when I set out, as it would be each morning of my trip. Sparkling blue skies and a bright sun reflected off the kaleidoscope of fall colors around me. The sound of the wind was my constant companion, mingling with the inner monologue that would keep me company for three days.

Day one was going to be the biggest day, mapped at 52 miles. I needed to get from Champlin to Prior Lake, and as I played with maps in the weeks and months before, there were many ways for me to create a shorter route. But I wanted this trip to be beautiful. I wanted to see as many trails and paths and trees and wetlands as I could. So my route took me meandering in arcs around lakes instead of straight lines down streets, through parks instead of neighborhoods. 

Leaving Elm Creek, I took the trail southward, embarking on the Medicine Lake Regional Trail. Up and over the enormous pedestrian bridge over 610, where a helpful sign advises cyclists that we might feel some static electricity as we pass under the power lines. (I did, and I giggled wildly at the sensation.)

Electrifying!

Working my way southward, I crossed marshes and boardwalks, crossing a few streets before dipping into what felt like deep woods. I found myself surrounded by enormous maple trees, tunnels of glowing gold. If I didn’t already know exactly where I was, I never would have believed there were homes and neighborhoods just on the other side of the rise to my right. 

Medicine Lake Regional Trail

Ten miles into my day, I passed into Fish Lake Regional Park, and at 15 miles, I found myself crossing briskly through Clifton E. French Regional Park. Well, not too briskly. The road into French is an uphill stiff enough to push me into low gear, before rewarding me with a graceful downhill – just in time for me to turn back out of the park and up a long, slow incline.

South of Medicine Lake, I hopped briefly onto the Luce Line Regional Trail before departing to city streets. I spent four full miles on Hopkins Crossroad – which, thankfully, had a bike path almost the entire way.

In Hopkins, I spent a few blocks on the Lake Minnetonka LRT Regional Trail, and here I had a chance to meet my husband for a desperately needed lunch. Having spent the last two hours sweating slightly, sitting on a patio in the shade caused me to layer up, pulling out my warmest hat and covering most of my face with a buff. Once sufficiently fed (and rested after eating), we parted ways with plans to meet again in Bloomington.

Here, I ended up on streets for only a short time before my next trail presented itself. The Nine Mile Creek Regional Trail picked me up just south of downtown Hopkins, and I hopscotched my way on and off trail all the way to Edina. This trail had some of the most beautiful boardwalks and marshy vistas I’ve ever seen within a city. I spent only a few miles here before my route took me back to city streets, weaving down Gleason Road through quiet neighborhoods on my way to Bloomington and Hyland.

Nine Mile Creek Regional Trail

South of 494 I hit what would be my biggest challenge of the trip: Highwood Drive. I needed to get from West Bush Lake Road to East Bush Lake Road, and the hill of Highwood Drive didn’t look so bad from the passenger seat of a car. But it was bad. It was SO bad. Shifted down into my lowest gear, I pedaled and pedaled, nausea rising as I willed myself up the hill. After the longest three minutes of my life, I finally crested the hill.

Crossing into Hyland Lake Park Reserve was an immense relief, my first destination on my first day. It took 34 long miles to get there, and I wasn’t going to linger long. I tracked down a park sign and excitedly took a selfie, then biked on until I found a quiet place on the path to record a quick video.  Then, it was onward again. Less than 20 miles to camp.

Trails and bike paths took me down to the Bloomington Ferry Trail Bridge, where my husband joined me for a mile or so. Riding along the Minnesota River, buoyed by the brief ride with my husband, surrounded by nature, the contentment vibrated through me. “This is the best day of my life,” I whispered to myself.

I mean, there are some caveats. My wedding day was pretty great, and all the neat places my husband and I have experienced together. But at this moment, riding under my own power on a project of my own devising, carrying all my things, on my own terms, on such a beautifully perfect day – I was coasting on a wave of what I can only call tranquility.

On the road to Savage, after hours of nothing but my own thoughts for company, I found the notes of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” drifting through my mind. Cruising down the shoulder of an industrial road, I found myself singing out the piano solo at the top of my lungs, head thrown back, face to the sky.

The rolling topography of Savage was a challenge toward the end of what would be my biggest day ever. I sang “Bye, Bye, Bye” as my route took me through neighborhoods and alongside busy streets, finally reaching my second destination of the day, Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve. Another photo here with the sign, another video recorded, and my campsite finally felt within reach. Time to hit Cleary Lake!

Fatigue sat heavy in my body as I set up camp. Now that I was here, my body wanted nothing so much as to simply shut down. I wearily ate some chocolate chip cookies and washed them down with a bottle of Mountain Dew from a convenience store in Savage. I wasn’t terribly hungry, but I knew I needed more calories after so many miles and hours; dinner was Beef Stroganoff, and I managed to eat half the package before I gave up. I crawled into my tent early, wanting nothing so much as to just hold still for a while.

I knew it would be cold again overnight, and after the effort of the day, my body struggled to regulate its own temperature. It was still in the mid-50s as the sun went down and I found myself fully-dressed in my camp clothes, hat included, tucked into my 20-degree sleeping bag. I was hot-and-cold, tired-and-alert. The book I brought to keep me company at camp would go unread; every time I tried to reach outside the sleeping bag, I immediately changed my mind. So instead of reading, I cued up my favorite podcast. Huddled in the dark, listening to LeVar Burton read me a science fiction tale, with the trees (and squirrels) rustling around me, it didn’t feel real. I felt so far away. It all seemed so impossible.

And I slept, fitfully, eventually.

Day one total: 52 miles, three reserves, seven other TRPD properties

DAY TWO

Sunrise over Cleary Lake

Forecasts called for winds up to 20mph, and by the time I broke camp under another cloudless sky, I had resigned myself to a very long slog. The route from Prior Lake to Victoria – then on to Maple Plain – called for lots of wide-open country roads. The wind could prove troublesome.

Out of Cleary Lake, I found myself on the Scott West Regional Trail, leading me through Prior Lake and dropping me on the first country roads of the day. The winds were out of the southeast, and the elation I felt when I turned onto my first northward road – with an enormous downhill! – was something I’ll never forget. I worked my way into Shakopee, riding through the city on my way to the Minnesota River.

The trail along the Minnesota River was something to behold. Being from the north suburbs, I’d never seen the Minnesota Valley State Trail. It was green and vibrant, weaving through the Minnesota River floodplain on its way southward to Belle Plaine. At one point, I startled a red-tailed hawk, and he swooped down low just ahead of me, fanning his tail and banking sharply as he rose again above the canopy. He paralleled me for a few moments, then disappeared. I would only spend a few miles on this gorgeous trail before beginning the agonizing climb out of the valley in Chaska, but they were miles well spent.

Chaska is bigger than you think. Or bigger than I thought, anyway. I fought and cursed my way up hills away from the river, and as I saw signs pointing the way to Downtown Victoria, I sang gleefully as I left Chaska behind. I was “Makin’ my way downtown, bikin’ fast” when I saw the Chaska water tower looming in the distance before me. It didn’t seem possible – or fair. 

It wasn’t fair, but it also wasn’t something I could change. So I yelled at it once or twice as it seemed to remain solidly in the distance, finally – victoriously – skirting around it. Another long slog on tiny-shouldered country roads and I rolled into Victoria. I was about 25 miles in by this time, exhausted from the winds with more ahead of me, and I crept through town, looking for an open patio where I could find some lunch. I packed away a cheeseburger and Mello Yello, knowing full well that to do so and then remount a bike for a hard ride was to tempt fate in ways that weren’t strictly necessary. But I was committed. (Spoiler: Disaster was averted.)

Lake Minnetonka LRT

I could see Carver Park Reserve from my lunch spot; it was right across the road, taunting me. The trail entrance was still a mile away, looping in the wrong direction so that I could enter and traverse the park trails up to the sign. Much sighing occurred, but there was nothing to do but ride, and so I rode. Through the park to a place where I made a video about how tired I was (and how happy), to the sign, and onward toward St. Bonifacius, where I would pick up my next trail.

But this brief account doesn’t do justice to the park, so I’ll try again. Carver was deeply dappled with autumn colors, and in my favorite spot on the trail, with a sweeping view of prairie with a brilliantly-colored forest backdrop, I marveled at the deep purple of the aster against the golds and yellows of the tall grasses. In my depleted state, I nearly cried. But if I stopped to cry everywhere I felt overwhelmed by nature, I’d never have gotten anywhere. So I moved on. Back to the country roads.

Once in St. Bonifacius, I boarded the Dakota Rail Regional Trail, which was a relief after another stretch of country roads. The exhaustion of the wind and cumulative miles was especially noticeable here, as I labored to maintain a reasonable pace on a flat trail with no traffic. This trail took me past Gale Woods Farm and all the way to Mound, where I left the trail and headed northward toward Baker Park Reserve – my campground for the night.

The roads between Mound and Maple Plain were unremarkable: gracefully hilly and curving things that tapped into every last drop of energy that remained. Despite the physical and mental fatigue, though, I was surprised to discover upon arrival at Baker that my body felt wonderful. Baker offered full facilities, and I gladly took a hot shower (and changed immediately back into only-slightly-dirty clothes). It was fairly warm, but again, I bundled up and tucked myself away into my tent to eat dinner. On the menu: Chicken and Dumplings, accompanied by the mashed remnants of what had been four chocolate chip cookies.

Another story from LeVar Burton and I was asleep.

Day two total: 46 miles, two park reserves, two other TRPD properties (and a fond look at one more)

DAY THREE

Packing up at Baker

Deeply mixed feelings upon waking on my last day. I was up and moving quicker than on Day two, packing up as my breakfast rehydrated itself. Anxious to get moving, yet not ready to be done with all this.

From Baker, it would have been a quick and easy ride straight up the Lake Independence Regional Trail to Crow-Hassan. Would have been, except I needed to detour some five miles west to Lake Rebecca, first. Fortunately, the country roads I conquered this day were the finest of the trip. Wide enough shoulders that I didn’t feel nervous about traffic, gradual inclines with long, swooping downhills where I could tuck myself like a beetle and fly. I sang out “Take Me Home, Country Roads” as the road unfurled before me.

Lake Rebecca was perhaps the brightest, most golden of the parks, with long, quiet corridors. It was perfect for gliding. A trip over to the entrance for a photo with the sign, a short video with a bright yellow backdrop, and I was on my way.

I’ve always heard that, when cycling multi-day efforts, there comes a point where the body sort of gives up. Nothing is really sore anymore – or, maybe, everything is just a little sore – and the mild fatigue doesn’t matter anymore. It’s simply the state of things. On day three, I was riding harder and pushing faster, and I felt better than ever.

Back on the Lake Independence Regional Trail, I made a quick stop for an orange sherbet push-up (which I also did two days prior in Savage; it was absolute bliss). At this point in the ride, all I wanted was orange sherbet. Like, an entire vat of it. If I’d been taking another day on the trail, I might have hung out a little longer and eaten more. Alas, only two stops to go.

Crow-Hassan was just a blink away, at the end of the Lake Independence Regional Trail (and around the bend a bit). Unlike the other park reserves, Crow-Hassan doesn’t allow biking, instead providing double-wide hiking and horseback riding trails. Without trails to ride, my time here was brief – just enough to take my sign-selfie and record a video. It’s a lovely, simple park that doesn’t get nearly enough credit.

And with that, I was on my way home.

Elm Creek was about 15 miles away by my route, and it was going to be some of the most mentally challenging. Many of the roads connecting Crow-Hassan and Elm Creek have narrow shoulders – if at all – and most of them are high-speed. It was with this in mind that I planned to do my trip during the week, expecting that a Tuesday afternoon would improve matters. Even with reduced traffic, there were a few harrowing moments.

The closer I got to my destination, the more my complaining took a back seat to the thrill of being Nearly Done. The excitement and anticipation of being Nearly Done is worlds better than being Actually Done, and when I pulled up in front of an Elm Creek sign, snapping my selfie with a big grin, I paused. My smile faltered and I whispered to myself, “Now what?” I stood there for a moment, looking down at my bike. Only three days and I somehow couldn’t understand what it would be like to wake up the next morning and not need to get on and ride. 

Time marches onward, and all adventures must end eventually. My husband was waiting a few miles away, at the Chalet where he’d dropped me off three days earlier. I stopped along the way, at a favorite overlook, to make one last video. More sighing and pausing, and I stopped a few more times to take photos that I knew would be throw-aways. 

Procrastination.

Elm Creek Park Reserve

And then I was done.

There was no fanfare, no finish line. I didn’t get a medal. I got a big hug from my husband, and on the way home, I got a hotdog from Dairy Queen. And then I got a nap, which was perhaps the best reward of all.

Day three total: 40 miles, two park reserves, one other TRPD property

In the days since, I’ve had time to reflect on the trip. There’s something meditative about the practice of long distance biking – or running, or skiing, or anything where there’s nothing to do but that one thing. Where your immediate life narrows to the necessity of doing this, and then you hit that glorious moment when everything clicks and the ground flies beneath you while your mind wanders and you take in the entirety of the world around you. My words can’t do it justice, and it’s a feeling I’m already longing to have again.

Time to plan another trip.

THE DETAILS

My constant companion on this trip was a 2020 Salsa Journeyman Sora 650b named Poppy, outfitted with WTB Byway tires. All items were packed into dry bags and secured onto my bike using: 2 Salsa Anything Cages (on either side of my front tire), a small Cedaero Tank Top pack (just behind my handlebars, perfect for snacks), and a set of Banjo Brothers panniers on a rack behind my seat.

Here’s what I packed for my three-day adventure:

Big Agnes Blacktail 2 tent 
Marmot Trestles Elite Eco 20-degree sleeping bag
REI Flash sleeping pad
Half of a Thermarest Z-pad (** This was my FAVORITE “I don’t really need it” item. I sat on it when I made meals at the picnic table, and it kept my caboose from getting chilly. Totally worth it!)
Cocoon inflatable pillow
MPOWERD Luci inflatable solar light (** Favorite thing #2! This light gave a gentle glow inside the tent, which was lovely before bedtime.)
MSR PocketRocket stove and fuel
Lighter
Spork
6 dehydrated camp meals (I only needed 4, but I brought extra.)
Headlamp
Toiletries
Camp soap
First Aid kit
Toilet paper (Never count on portapotties to have your best interests in mind!)
Rope and carabiners (In case I needed to wash clothing)
CO2 cartridges (In case of a flat)
Bike lock
Helmet
1 set of biking clothes (Long sleeves and short, with pants for over my cycling shorts as needed)
1 set of camp clothes (Which doubled as pajamas)
Sunglasses
Battery pack
Charging cables (For my watch and phone)
Kindle
Swiss Army knife

I strapped my sleeping bag and a bag containing clothes and sundries to my Anything Cages on the front fork. My tent and Z-pad were strapped down to the top of the rack, and everything else went into my panniers. I had plenty of room for snacks and drinks from convenience stores.

The route was roughly sketched out on Google Maps, but that version was ultimately extremely unreliable. My husband – even more of a detail-oriented person than I am – methodically entered each and every turn into GaiaGPS, which has an absolutely brilliant mobile app that works with or without data availability. If you spend any time hiking, especially in the backcountry, you need this app.

The route

Once the route had been laid, we drove much of it, getting an approximate idea of what the riding would be like. This went a long way toward my peace of mind; especially on the country roads, I wanted to know how wide the shoulders would be. It was a long, tedious drive, but it was worth it.

With the route entered into GaiaGPS, I was able to download it to my phone, and with my phone mounted to my handlebars, staying on track was easy.

FINAL TALLY

Three days, 140 miles, 18 TRPD properties, all seven park reserves, two LeVar Burton stories. One redoubled appreciation for where I have the good fortune to live.

I went into this trip with a few years of cycling under my belt, but I’m not a serious rider by any means. Prior to this trip, I’d completed one single 50-mile ride. I’m not very fast and I’m terrible on hills, always the last one up. I had rarely ridden back-to-back days. Slow and steady – with a healthy dose of optimism and love for this amazing world – truly do win the race.

The best darn push-up I’ve ever had

2 thoughts on “Exploring the Three Rivers (with my trusty steed, Poppy)

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