Depending on who one talks to, the Park Rapids, Minnesota, area is either the state’s best-kept snowmobiling secret or the capital of snowmobiling. Perhaps it’s both.
What it does offer is 600 miles of groomed trails, acres of old-growth forest, reliable snow and in proximity of two major snowmobile arteries: the Paul Bunyan Trail and the Heartland Trail.
Despite the large number of lakes in the region — there are more than 1,000 lakes within a 25-mile radius — there’s not a lot of lake running, nor is there much ditch riding or windy open fields. Yes, these trails do exist, but the majority run through heavily wooded areas that feature an interesting blend of tall, stoic Norway Pines and stout hardwoods. The terrain, particularly north of Park Rapids, rolls gently and towns are few. The area’s crown jewel is Itasca State Park, a definite must-see for snowmobilers.
“A lot of first-timers up here want to go to Itasca,” said Andy Nagel, president of the Forest Riders Snowmobile Club. Itasca State Park, 20 miles north of Park Rapids by road, has 31 miles of snowmobile trails — including a trail that passes within walking distance of the Mississippi River headwaters.
A look on the trail map shows a lot of squiggly lines, particularly in the area fanning north of Park Rapids — that’s due to the four state forests, equaling up to 3.5 million acres of land — within easy snowmobile range. Nagel’s club grooms up to 230 miles of those trails, which includes Itasca State Park and Two Inlets State Forest.
Paul Bunyan State Forest offers a large maze of groomed trails, and an equal number of unmarked forest roads. That’s Karl Dierkhising’s favorite place to ride. As president of the Nevis TrailBlazers, he helps groom the trails within the state forest. A person could make a day just in Paul Bunyan, he said. He likes the variety of trails, the tall trees that seem untouched and the varying terrain. “It’s just a little more picturesque there,” he says. He talks about the wildlife he’s seen: mostly deer, but also fox, a variety of winter birds and the occasional timberwolf.
The forest got a big improvement last fall when the club re-signed the entire state forest system. Last fall, the Nevis TrailBlazers placed new signs at every groomed-trail intersection with town, mileage and directional information. Prior to that, visiting snowmobilers had a hard time distinguishing between groomed trails and unmarked, but heavily traveled, forest roads, he says.
The sport of snowmobiling came early to Park Rapids. The Nevis TrailBlazers was founded in 1967 and trails have been in development for at least as long. Dierkhising’s father was one of the early trail-makers. Park Rapids has another claim to trail fame: the Heartland State Trail, established in the 1970s, was one of the nation’s first rail-to-trail initiatives. The trail is 49 miles long. It’s closed to studded tracks, as it’s paved, but snowmobilers may ride on the horse trail, which parallels the Heartland State Trail. The trail is lined with pines and passes several lakes, but it is often heavily traveled.
Park Rapids is a tourist town in any season. Summers are for fishing and lumberjack festivals; fall is for color-watching and winter is for snowmobiling and ice fishing. The main street is within a short walk from the snowmobile trail, with the quaint and cutesy shopping associated with small-tourist-town USA. Dining and lodging options run the gamut from fast-food and low-end hotels to fine dining.
“All the businesses that are open in winter know how to cater to snowmobiling,” says Steve Franks, president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s a real northwoods atmosphere.” Along with that atmosphere comes snowmobile-related events such as poker runs, radar runs and the annual Forest Riders winter party — any profit goes to its grooming program.
There’s one thing that’s missing from the Park Rapids trail map: an abundance of towns. While there are the requisite trailside pit stops, there’s not much in the way of population centers — it’s riding that takes a person far away mentally and physically. And, if you ask Nagel and Dierkhising, that’s the area’s true appeal.
*THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MINNESOTA SNOWMOBILING MAGAZINE SEPTEMBER, 2008.