“The Faraway Nearby,” a bike overnight to the Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area

From Chaska, MN, on local bike trails and county roads up the Minnesota River Valley to the Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area.

When: October 2015.

Bicycle Adventurers: Don Scheese and delicious solitude

Accommodations: Camping at Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area

Distance: 36 miles roundtrip in 2 days

Bonus tip for this adventure:

  • Travel through units of the nation’s largest urban national wildlife refuge, the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
  • Ride past restored prairie and oak savannas and into a river valley with 19th century remains of historic settlements.

Day One:

After loading up the panniers on my Bianchi Vigorelli on a lovely fall afternoon, I set off on paved and unpaved local bike trails for the first six miles. The route follows the Minnesota River upstream through a floodplain forest, past the baseball stadium where the local team plays, and along the edge of the Chaska unit of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

In the historic river town of Carver, the bike trail ends, so I rode a decent shoulder of County Road 40 before having to make a tricky left across rush-hour traffic onto County Road 11.

Once out of the river valley, I rode past the Carver Rapids unit of the Refuge where the tawny tallgrass prairie is interspersed with burr oaks, serenaded by dickcissels and meadowlarks. Then I plunged into the Minnesota River Valley where I crossed from Carver to Scott County and made a steep quarter-mile ascent back onto the bluffs, gearing down to my lowest gear, 34x32.

While traffic stayed steady in the late afternoon, there’s a decent shoulder to ride and seemingly in no time the turnoff for County 57 appeared — my favorite stretch of the entire route. Suburban tracts faded from view, replaced by sprawling pastures grazed by longhorns and dotted with cedars, then replaced with thick forest and the occasional prairie opening as I entered the Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area.

Amidst the natural landscape are a few well-preserved 19th-century homes constructed out of beautiful local Kasota limestone, remnants of a short-lived settlement. Not a single vehicle passes me the last 5 miles of the trip and when I pull into the campground at Minnesota Valley State Park I was delighted to learn I would be the only camper as the sun set on this beauteous autumnal day. 

At dusk, I gathered firewood for a fire both ceremonial and functional; it’s supposed to drop into the 40s tonight signaling a dramatic change from summer to fall. On this moonless evening, Cassiopeia forms a big “W” in the northeastern sky. In the eastern distance, I could hear the steady hum of traffic on Highway 169, but no matter; natural sounds are still detectable.

Incredibly, I heard a raucous chorus of bugling and honking — sandhill cranes gathering for evening vespers in some close-by meadow. Later, four or five barred owls hooted periodically at each other through the thick floodplain forest. Although relatively close to home, this outpost felt as remote as a far-off wilderness. As Thoreau so famously wrote in Walking, “In Wildness is the preservation of the World….from the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind.”

Day Two:

In my snug down bag and one-person tent, I enjoyed a long deep sleep. Arising with the sun the next morning, I fired up the stove to make coffee and sat at the picnic table, enjoying the elemental pleasures of morning in the outdoors. Puffy low clouds materialized out of thin air, squirrels chattered and chastised me from nearby trees, jays squawked and cajoled, nuthatches sounded their tiny tin horns. Not a single mosquito on this cold, clear, damp morning in October bothered me — a sheer pleasure of fall camping in Minnesota. I spent the morning putzing around camp, immersed in delicious solitude and quiet. 

Alas, morning faded into early afternoon and with promises to keep, I slowly, methodically, regretfully repacked all my gear and broke camp. As I began the ride home I again noticed a slight headwind, this time out of the northwest. No matter — it was absolutely blissful riding the first five miles on this traffic-less county road, transformed into a luxuriously wide and safe bike trail. My freshly lubed drivetrain hummed, sliding frictionlessly as I turned the cranks.

Whether the journey is long or short, there are always new experiences to be had, lessons to be learned, and wisdom to be gained. So if you can’t travel far, no matter — travel a little, and enjoy the ride.

Your favorite local bike shop? Erik’s bike shop, Eden Prairie, MN

Bike overnight tips and tricks? 

  • Ortlieb rear panniers on a titanium rack and a handlebar bag.
  • Lightweight binoculars for birdwatching.
  • All comfortably carried on a Bianchi Vigorelli.

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HOW ABOUT YOU? Inspire others by submitting your bike overnight adventure!

2 responses so far ↓

Al Hutchings - Feb 22, 2016 at 3:53 PM

Great read .... the route will go on my list as not too far away here in Winnipeg , Manitoba .
Now if our dollar would only recover a bit , right now it costs us close to $ 1.40 Canadian to convert to $ 1 US .

biker dude - Feb 22, 2016 at 9:18 PM

I enjoyed your story here. I have thought many times about bikepacking to this area, but have been hesitant because the MN DNR lists this campground as being closed? Is this true, or is it just rustic and unmaintained?

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