The Perks of Pedaling and Exploring the Minnesota River Trail

The “River Bottoms” have become a rugged, ever-changing destination for mountain bikers and nature lovers year-round
Experiencing the rugged beauty of the Minnesota River Trail, affectionately known as the “River Bottoms”

Chris Chavie

Back when mountain bikes were built in garages instead of laboratories, riders often cut and maintained “bandit trails” through uncharted territory. That pioneering spirit still thrives along the Minnesota River Trail, affectionately known to locals as the River Bottoms. Dennis Porter, a trail steward for the River Bottoms, remembers those days, before Minnesota’s mountain biking boom.

“The area used to be floodplain farmland with some remote roads. The farms are now long gone, and the area is a wildlife refuge,” says Porter, who works through the Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists (MORC) nonprofit for trail maintenance and nature preservation. “When mountain bike popularity started in the mid-1980s it was one of the few places you could ride. Its popularity has never stopped growing.”

Along the Minnesota River

Situated along the Minnesota River floodplain, the River Bottoms are a network of mostly informal trails. They stretch from U.S. 169 on the western edge all the way to where MN 62 crosses Fort Snelling State Park. The constant washout from the Minnesota River creates a diverse and shifting ecosystem that’s naturally conducive to riding, hiking, and exploring once the ground dries.

“The existing natural trail coexists with the many flood events in the Minnesota River Valley,” Porter says. “After the flood events, the area dries, and mountain bikes move in to ride the trail back to a natural dirt path.”

Porter and MORC’s collaborations with volunteers and land-management organizations help to keep the trails free of debris and have led to some iconic homespun features. Most notably, there’s a rope-actuated raft ferry installed so riders can cross Nine Mile Creek. For bikers like Natalia Mendez, that scrappy, DIY character enhances the rugged River Bottoms’ charm.

Plan a Visit

“It’s one of the few places that I love to ride year-around, because it’s different every season,” says Mendez, who is an inside sales coordinator for Dero Bike Racks and an amateur racer. “Springtime, it’s a little mushier, you’ll get wet. Summertime, if it hasn’t been too flooded, can be really fast and fun. Fall is the most beautiful. That’s when you see a lot of animals, and you get to absorb the color-changing and the leaves. And in the winter, it’s super serene.”

Mendez fell in love with the River Bottoms after moving to Minneapolis 10 years ago. She credits the area with inspiring her to get into dirt riding. In contrast to many of the sanctioned trails around the metro, River Bottoms’ main selling point is its natural splendor rather than its technical difficulty. So, no $6,000 full-suspension bike required.

“It’s a very ‘run what you brung’ area,” Mendez says, using a street-racing term for competing with whatever you rode in on. “It is confidence-inspiring, with so many parts that you can just breeze through.”

Folks like Porter and Mendez value the trail’s rustic qualities and point to ecological benefits therein. That means the City of Bloomington and the Minnesota DNR’s current project running a paved trail through the River Bottoms has sparked outcry and debate. For all the arguments around the “Save the River Bottoms” issue, it’s practically impossible to dispute the volunteer corps’ role—years of mowing, clearing, and maintaining—in the River Bottoms’ growing popularity.

“It’s a total labor of love,” Mendez says, of the River Bottoms trail. “Shout out to the anonymous people maintaining this even though they don’t have to, because it brings so much joy to the cycling community. This is what made me fall in love with bikes in Minneapolis.”

Learn more at the Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists page on the River Bottoms.

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