Bumpy, abuzz and beautiful -- off-road biking, hiking trail established in Bella Park
BIGELOW — Amid the sounds of crickets chirping, cicadas buzzing and the distant splash of waterfowl landing on the lake, bicycling enthusiast Mike Woll is all smiles when he talks about a newly groomed trail in Lake Bella Park open for public recreation.
The trail was cut through tall grass, between rows of pine trees and brush on rolling hills that stretch for a mile from the Iowa state line to 330th Street, about a mile east of U.S. 59.
Beautiful, serene, peaceful — those words define what this gem on the prairie is like for people who visit.
Woll said traversing the trail with his knobby, fat-tire bike makes him feel like a 12-year-old kid again. Ruts, tree roots and the natural topography provide for an experience quite unlike the paved bicycle paths around Worthington.
They also require a different kind of bike.
“You need a mountain bike — one with thick tires because of the dips and ruts,” he said. “Fat tire bikes are ideal.”
For the small group of mountain- and fat-tire bikers who have maneuvered the roughly 10-foot-wide path since it was first cut in mid-June, the new trail is a “unique little treasure,” Woll added. He’s been advocating for more off-road trails in the county, and perhaps this trail is the start.
It’s a long time in coming, though, for the bicyclists. It was six years ago — when Jay Milbrandt, another avid bicyclist, was appointed a manager on the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District Board — that MIlbrandt discovered the potential in Bella Park. Even though he grew up in the area, the park was unknown to him.
“I feel it’s underutilized — underappreciated,” Milbrandt said.
The 228-acre parcel is owned and managed by the watershed district. It’s been public land for decades, but recreation has mostly consisted of hunting, fishing or the occasional picnic in one of the park’s two shelters.
Hunting and activities such as hiking and biking aren’t a great mix, which is why the watershed district shied away from establishing a trail when Milbrandt first suggested the idea half a dozen years ago. OOWD Administrator Dan Livdahl said there were also concerns at that time about garbage, trespassing on neighboring private land, injury and added costs for trail maintenance.
The trail idea resurfaced in May, when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources sought and received the district’s approval to sign Lake Bella Park as a participant in the state’s Walk-In Access program.
A month later, district manager Rolf Mahlberg used his brush mower to clear a path — one that zigzags through the trees, taking hikers and bikers on a trail that maneuvers between the lakeshore and the western fenceline.
“We couldn’t get in there to get at thistles because the (rows of) trees had filled in with volunteer trees,” Livdahl said. “We decided to mow a path back there to do maintenance.
“As we were cutting the trail for maintenance, we said there was no reason why it couldn’t be used for recreation, as long as you’re not on a motorized vehicle,” he added.
Woll said the trail offers a fun challenge — and beautiful views as well. He’s seen pelicans, stirred up pheasants and deer and discovered other wildlife.
“It’s just beautiful,” he said.
Both Woll and Milbrandt are hopeful more people will go out and enjoy the trail.
“We just don’t have that many places that anyone can go and enjoy these open spaces with someplace to walk or bike,” Milbrandt said. “There are just some incredible views.”
Milbrandt and the watershed district are now discussing opportunities for biking at the former Prairie View Golf Links, which is closer to the city limits and could be a draw for travelers on I-90.
“There’s some trails out there for cross-country,” Milbrandt said. “If we end up doing something there, we may decide to shift resources if we’re going to maintain trails.”
Still, Milbrandt said there’s a vision to establish more public trails in the area.
Woll would like to see more interest in mountain or fat-tire biking, but without a local bike shop that sells and services mountain bikes and fat-tire bikes, it’s hard to promote the activity. The nearest bike shops are located in Jackson and Spirit Lake, Iowa.
If planning a visit the trail to Lake Bella Park, be aware of the surroundings, as there is hunting going on at this time.
“We posted the site years ago restricting firearms use between March 1 and Sept. 1 because we didn’t want people out there shooting guns outside of the hunting season,” Livdahl said. “If people are using the (park) during hunting season, use common sense. Put on orange so people know you’re there.”