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Sakatah: Trails to sing about

It seemed as if the whole town of Elysian turned out in 1995 for the ribbon cutting ceremony dedicating the newly paved Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail, and Pat Nusbaum couldn’t have been happier. As the Elysian City Administrator, Chamber of Commerce secretary, Elysian Tourism Center volunteer, and member of the Sakatah Hills Trail Improvement Association she was delighted to see years of effort paying off with the freshly paved trail stretching almost 40 miles from Faribault to Mankato. “It took a lot of time and a lot of work. I don’t think any of us knew what we were getting into. But we all put our heads together and kept at it.” Board members from Elysian, Waterville, Madison Lake and Morristown banded together to upgrade the rail bed and keep it as a no-fee trail.

In 1971 the Minnesota legislature authorized use of the abandoned Chicago and Northwestern rail line for a hiking, biking and snowmobile trail. By 1980 the DNR had the crushed rock bed prepared for recreational use. This was fine for snowmobiling and walking, but business leaders in towns along the trail saw the value of a paved surface. They knew it would increase trail use and boost the economy of each town. For example, even though Elysian has only 600 people it supports five restaurants and an ice cream shop, due largely to the paved trail.

Nusbaum remembers when the only paved road in Elysian was Main Street. “We biked all over town. We loved Main because it was paved.” She and her siblings would purposefully forget things from the grocery store just so they’d have to make a return ride on Main. They also enjoyed combining biking with swimming, long before triathlons were popular, using their bikes to get to the beach.

She remembers when the old rail line was still used for trains hauling lumber. There had been a passenger train in the early 1900s. Nusbaum believes the Kahlers of the Rochester hotel family spent their summers at Lake Francis and used the train to get there. However, it was no longer a passenger train in her childhood. “We called it ‘The Great Weedy.’ It would go so slow high school kids would jump on in town, and off on the other side of town.” Elysian residents could set their clocks by the sound of the whistle, every day at noon and six. She isn’t sure where The Great Weedy was going, but added, “It couldn’t have gone far because it didn’t go fast.”

As transportation by car and truck became more affordable in the 1960s train use dwindled, leaving cleared, nearly flat trails on abandoned tracks. The DNR and Minnesota Legislature needed to be convinced that updating the Sakata Singing Hills State Trail with blacktop was worthwhile. Nusbaum recalls the board’s trip to the Minnesota Capitol, “We took maps along to show [the route and] all the lakes. We couldn’t even get the legislators’ attention because they were so enamored with the maps. They had no idea there were so many lakes down here. Everybody thinks of going up north to lakes, but there are lots of lakes here.”

The Southern Lakes Region is laced with lakes, farmland, woodland, and the slow flowing Cannon River. Sakatah Lake State Park and Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail make the perfect place to jump into the landscape and enjoy its natural beauty and wildlife. Hiking, birding, boating, fishing, winter sports, horseback riding and camping are all ways to delve into this territory. According to the DNR, the 820-acre state park received 86,762 visitors and 11,248 overnight guests last year.

The real gem of the park is its connection to the Sakata Singing Hills State Trail that smoothly passes over terrain where hardwood forest, prairie and river meet, and borders old Dakota, and early settler water trade routes.

Eight lakes and several public parks abut the trail. The former rail bed provides a path for hikers, in-line skaters and bicyclers free of charge. Wheelchair users will enjoy the trail too, but may encounter gravel at some road crossings. Cross country skiing, snowmobiling and horseback riding are also allowed with a DNR pass or permit. Sakatah Lake State Park is a good base for trail excursions, with 62 semi-modern campsites, 14 electrical sites, a camper cabin, bicycle touring and group camps, along with showers, trailer sanitation station, park office and even horseshoes to rent.

Many privately owned campgrounds and resorts are near, or on Singing Hills Trail. One of them, Camp Maiden Rock, has been operated by the Millard and Fern Meyer family since 1972. Sons Randy and John, and families, run the campgrounds now.

Randy Meyer explains how he got into the campground business, “We ran a farm and that didn’t make it.” Forty years ago his parents developed the campground on their farmland, which has the Cannon River running through it. Meyer is a fan of the bike trail, especially the re-surfacing, widening and new bridge construction completed on part of the trail last year. He adds, “The trail’s unbelievably better. Our campground fills up every weekend in the summer because of the trail. People love it.”

The DNR is currently resurfacing between Mankato and Waterville. There are some rough trail conditions in spots and “short stretches of gravel between Mankato and Eagle Lake,” the DNR website states, but adds that the entire trail is still open.

According to Nusbaum, the Elysian Tourism Center, located directly on the trail, gets visitors from all over the world, such as people from Australia, Italy and England. She sees lots of families riding, “with little kids and their little bikes. It’s such fun to see dads going slow so the kids can keep up. This is just a quick jaunt from the Twin Cities. It’s a nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon.” She also sees senior citizens and avid bikers using the trail. Each year groups come through, hosting trial rides as fundraising events. The Elysian Chamber of Commerce offers treats in the tourism center to support these groups.

If it’s a quiet ride on a long trail you’re after, the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail is an ideal place. Gliding along on a bike, it’s easy to imagine the satisfaction farmers feel when their crops come up in spring, and fields are baled in the fall. You might also imagine echoes of trains from the past chugging down the rail line, or early settlers trading along the water routes, or a Wahpekute Indian village with children playing and laughing in the hills. After all, the word “Sakatah” means “sights and sounds of children playing in the hills,” or “singing hills.” Because of the work of the Singing Hills Trail Improvement Association, those sights and sounds are still there today.

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