Chasing the train is a north to south route from Saint Paul to Winona, Minnesota. The route leads riders out of the metro area and its suburban sprawl and into the river towns of Cannon Falls and Redwing. It then climbs back out of the river valley and traverses the top of the bluffs before descending back down into Winona. Upon arriving in Winona you board the Amtrak and ride the rails back to Saint Paul.
Route & Photos by Scott Haraldson
Chasing the train is a route for those wishing to escape the city, to ever so slowly remove yourself from the noise & visual pollution that you encounter at every intersection. This is a chance to ride directly out of a metropolitan downtown, past the strip malls of suburbia and into the countryside, breathing fresh country air the further you go.
Instead of looping back to the start the route travels 190 miles south where you’ll need to arrive in the river town of Winona in time to catch the Amtrak Empire Builder train for your trip back to the start.
The route is roughly 60% unpaved and also includes a large section of the heavily wooded paved Cannon Valley River trail. For those with a sense of extra adventure there is a small section of singletrack as you pop out onto the bluffs overlooking Winona and Mississippi river. Designed as a three day route it could be adjusted to accommodate an extra night and shorter days in the saddle.
If You Go, Here's What You Need to Know
The River Bottoms
The Minnesota River Trail located within the floodplain of the Minnesota River is one of the more natural and picturesque trails in the Twin Cities. Commonly called the "River Bottoms” it takes but minutes for one to forget how close to the city they are as you immerse yourself in the natural surroundings. The trail meanders alongside the river, ever-changing depending on the flooding, before going under the 494 bridge, complete with its own ever changing graffiti.
30 miles outside the cities you'll catch a glimpse of something that doesn't look like anything else for hundreds of miles around. The Watt Munisotaram is the largest Cambodian temple in North America. The temple was constructed in 2007, but their presence on the site dates to 1988 when the Minnesota Cambodian Buddhist Society bought the 40-acre plot of land and built a modest shrine and dormitory to house its handful of monks. Monks and priests now live year-round at the temple.
The city of Cannon Falls was named for the falls located along the Cannon River. The city is the westernmost trailhead of the Cannon Valley Trail. Lake Byllesby, which sits on the west side of town, was created when the river was dammed in 1910 by the Henry Byllesby Company. Constructed using mostly hand labor, a crew of 500 individuals completed the work in nine months.
Rails Turned Trails
Leaving Cannon Falls you hop onto the Cannon Valley Trail. The trail occupies the route of a former Chicago Great Western railroad line that connected Red Wing and Mankato in 1882. Over 100 years later, in 1983, when the railroad announced its intention to abandon the railway, citizens realized the recreational potential of the line. The rail to trail was dedicated in 1986, and the asphalt pavement was completed in 1992. A $5 one day wheel pass can be purchased online, at self pay box or from an attendant if riding on the weekend.
The route places you directly on top of the bluffs overlooking the city. This section of the route has singletrack that can be accomplished on a gravel bike but some hike-a-bike may be necessary depending on your skill set. Be mindful of your abilities as you will be riding close to the edge of the bluff.
When to Ride
May - early October. Go early or late if you want to avoid mosquitoes. Fall colors are in late Sept-Oct. Zumbro Bottoms hosts a motorcycle club in September and will have a lot of traffic on the gravel roads.
Cannon Valley Trail
requires a $5 one day wheel pass which can be purchased online, at a self pay box or from an attendant on the trail if riding on the weekend.
Beware of Hunting Season
The Zumbro Bottoms Unit is used heavily for deer and grouse hunting in the fall and for turkey hunting in the spring. Wear bright colors and camp spots may be filled.
The route can be easily accomplished in three days if you are comfortable pushing 60-70 miles per day. If you are looking more for a party-pace look to add an additional camp spot. Just remember that you’ll need to chase the train and make it to Winona in time to depart on your reservation date.
Lake Byllesby Campground
Nestled along the shores of Lake Byllesby Reservoir, Lake Byllesby Campground offers many lakeside campsites but caters towards RV users.
Zumbro Bottoms offers a handful of camping options, all considered primitive, with the basics, fire ring, table, vault toilet, and a hand-pumped well. All sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Food & Water Resupply
Water & Convenience Stores
Options dot the early portions of the route but be ready for a lengthy section between Red Wing and Zumbro Bottoms where there won’t be any food options and not many spots to fill water bottles.
Mill Street Tavern
Brick walls line this classic narrow, old-school restaurant. You’ll find burgers, steaks, seafood & beer. Pop over next door to Tillion Brewing for a post meal drink.
Red Wing has everything you’ll need including groceries, restaurants, full service bike shop and brewery.
Elba has a number of restaurants and a convenience store. The historic Elba House, now called the Whisky Hill Grill is great for a burger and a cold beer.
Grab yourself a sandwich at Erberts and Gerberts and a crowler of beer from Island City brewing to take with you on the train ride back.
Riding Back on Amtrak
AMTRAK’S EMPIRE BUILDER runs daily between St. Paul (Union Depot) and Winona. At the time of this writing a train runs North to South in the morning and South to North in the evening (Depart 7:30 arrival 10:30 PM).
RESERVATIONS ARE REQUIRED at an additional cost of $20. Look for the option to add a bike when booking your one way ticket online.
CARRY-ON BIKE SERVICE is just like carry-on luggage in that you carry your bike on and off the train yourself. No boxes are needed. Don’t expect to have anyone staffing the Winona station, it may very well be empty. Upon arriving at the station train staff knew to expect us and were quick to assist us getting our trains onboard. The Winona stop is a longer stop so you’ll have time to get situated.
BIKE REQUIREMENTS Amtrak states their bike racks accept a maximum tire width of 2 inches and they don’t accept tandems or other non-standard bikes. It is also advised to remove any excessive bags from your bike and bring them to your seat. We wanted to be prepared for departure so we removed our fork, seat and handlebar bags but it was not necessary as we were instructed to lay our bikes down inside a baggage car and there was ample room. I rode with 29x2.2 inch tires and it was not an issue. If you are using a fat tire bike you may want to inquire ahead of time with Amtrak.
TRAVELING AT NIGHT while not as scenic as a day trip along the Mississippi River riding the train at night can be its own fun. Grab a snack at the dining car, sit up in the upper level and watch the city lights of towns zip by as the train car jostles you off to a nap.
PICKUP/DROPOFF we started our route at Saint Paul Brewing. We coordinated with a family member to both drop us off and then later pick us up at the station. There are numerous parking lots near Union Depot if you wish to leave a vehicle.
Disclaimer: If you choose to ride this route, you do so at your own risk. You are 100% responsible for being prepared for all conditions and making sure that biking these routes is legal. Before riding, check local weather, road conditions, closures, and property ownership. Obey all traffic laws and follow land use restrictions. Do not ride these routes without proper safety equipment and navigational tools. The accuracy of these routes cannot be guaranteed neither can we guarantee that these routes are on public property. TheNxrth.com and its contributors are in no way liable for the personal injury or damage to property that may result from cycling this route or any other routes on this website.