JACKSON — An off-road cycling experience is underway in Jackson County, which when complete will be the first of its kind in southwest Minnesota.
Crafted among the abundant trees at Belmont Park, the planned six-mile, single-track course will be the closest off-roading opportunity until Mankato.
Headed by the Friends of the Jackson County Trails Committee, the course will include beginner, intermediate and advanced trail sections, some of which will abut the east bank of the Des Moines River.
“It’s tranquil and primitive,” said Luke Ewald, a Des Moines Valley Health and Human Services preventative health educator and trails committee member, of the 80-acre county park north of Jackson.
The course is being designed to National Interscholastic Cycling Association standards so that the track will be able to host Minnesota High School Cycling League competitions. Once complete, the Belmont Park off-road trail will be the only MHSCL course in the southwest region of the state.
According to trails committee member and biking enthusiast Sam Espey, the state cycling league has already communicated its interest in hosting races at the course during the fall competitive season.
Considering its approximate eight-mile distance from Jackson, 12 miles from Lakefield and 15 from Windom, Espey and Ewald are hopeful that the course can help fill a void. With a course at which to practice and compete, they’d like to see youths around the region enjoy the club sport, which they say is growing in popularity — especially in the metro area.
“You get the kids not in stick and ball sports,” Espey said about the sport. “They look for camaraderie, and everyone plays.”
While the intended purpose is for mountain biking, Ewald also envisions the trail being used by the public for other recreational activities, such as hiking, snow biking and snowshoeing.
Espey doesn’t anticipate the course will be finalized to host a race until at least fall 2021, as construction is now in the beginning phase. An initial approximately half-mile loop was recently completed thanks to volunteer efforts on a low budget. The remaining pre-designed course will require financial assistance, which has proven to be an arduous process for the group.
The cost to complete five miles of the course is estimated at $150,000. A group of volunteers plan to construct the rest.
The trails committee has received some grant funding from Apex Clean Energy and Sanford Jackson Medical Center's Tri for Health, with about a half-dozen more grant applications filled out.
A $100,000 funding request to the state legislature wasn’t passed last year. Ewald said people can still contact their state legislators in support of Senate File 2108 and House File 1966 for the next session.
The path of the course is currently flagged with orange tape tied around surrounding trees. The committee is hoping to be able to soon install signage along the path.
The initiative to bring an off-road course to Jackson County began roughly four years ago, when Espey and his family relocated to Jackson. The owner of Ezekiel’s Wheel in Jackson had actually stumbled upon the park years before, when he returned to the area from California.
“I became a biker in San Diego,” said Espey, who grew up in the area and graduated from Sibley-Ocheyedan High School in Sibley, Iowa. “I went exploring just out of the Navy looking for a spot to ride.”
The trails committee, which has helped fund and construct 14 miles of biking trails in Jackson and last year received bronze-level bicycling-friendly community distinction by the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, quickly jumped on board.
The group had its course designed by Trail Source, which Espey said has been very enthusiastic about the possibilities the location affords.
A bobsled-shaped section that will be the longest in the state and the park’s slope are attributes of the park that has project representatives particularly excited.
The group has received letters of support from the Minnesota High School Cycling League, Community Wellness Partners, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, Jackson Economic Development Authority, City of Windom EDA and Sanford Jackson Medical Center.
In their letter of support, county commissioners see the trail resulting in better utilization of the park and supporting economic development.