Ride 2010-82: It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

As mentioned in Friday’s post about my short afternoon ride, I was trying to take it easy anticipating that Saturday morning would offer a more significant adventure.

That’s just what happened.

Fall mornings are often some of the most beautiful of the season – where the dust in the air produces wonderful tricks with the sunrise. The riverfront in St. Paul was still flowing heavily, as the remnants of recent rains have swollen all the local rivers beyond their normal capacity.

My brother, Tim, and I arranged for a morning ride that would take us from his house in St. Paul to the Gateway Trail and into Stillwater. After the return trip, all online mapping programs indicated that it would be about 50 miles. It would probably be the last major ride of the season for both of us.

I wanted to get going fairly early and planned to arrive at his house at about 7:30am. The sunrise was set for 7:22am that morning, so there was little reason to start earlier in the day. With a couple of minor breaks and a planned stop in Stillwater, we were sure to be gone for around four hours, so it was good to get on the road early.

Our planned route included portions of the Gateway Trail – which is an old railway bed converted for recreational use by the Minnesota DNR. It’s a great cycling trail for people living in St. Paul and allows for easy, unobstructed riding for any level of cyclist.

My brother’s house is high up in the river bluffs in the Highland Park area of St. Paul, which means that the first leg was a nice, gentle coast down to the river where we connected up with the bike trail along Shepard Parkway. It was a beautiful morning to be on the bike, as the temperatures were in the 60s and there was no noticeable breeze to fight.

Near the river, the water was still showing signs of being above normal for this time of year. Typically, everything is very low in the fall when the steady weeks of limited rain causes the rivers to recede. But, August and September have produced a large amount of rain, causing the local big rivers to crest in the past few weeks. Along St. Paul’s riverfront, several of the lower areas were still closed due to high water and we had to make a few, small detours around part of the bike path that were blocked from passage.

Leaving the river, we snaked our way up into downtown St. Paul and ended up in the old “Swede Hollow” area just to the north east of town. Our goal was to join up with the DNR’s Gateway Trail, so we needed to work our way north through some typical St. Paul side streets to locate it. What we thought would be a few extra miles out of the way ended up to be some extra, unplanned riding. We finally found the trail at about 45 minutes into the ride.

The lower third of Minnesota is at its fall peak in terms of color. As you moved further east and north from St. Paul, the trees included many red oak and white birch – offering great contrasts of burgundy and golden colors everywhere you looked. It was a beautiful ride and perfect for this time of year.

Once on the trail – it was smooth sailing. This trail (as are most in Minnesota) is an old railway bed that has been converted into a freshly-paved bike and walking trail. Since it was originally meant for locomotives and boxcars, there are no real hills to climb. Everything is a gentle slope, allowing miles to tick away without a true sense of distance.

We were originally planning to veer off the trail toward Stillwater on the County Road 12. But both of us lost our sense of distance and realized that we missed our planned exit and were sitting several miles north on the trail, near the town of Grant. With the help of my brother’s iPhone, we re-plotted a path that took some different back roads and into the norther part of Stillwater. This was a very nice path, as the roads were vacant (if not a little rough) and we found ourselves coasting along the upper banks of the St. Croix River, overlooking downtown Stillwater.

If you’ve ever been to Stillwater, you realize that it is located down in a beautiful valley. The streets are built up into the hills and the whole town looks over the banks of the river. It is famous for its still-operating lift bridge and hosts several unique shops. Our goals were simple – find some tea and relax for a few moments before climbing our way out of the valley and back toward St. Paul.

Once we found our way to Stillwater, it was a great descent right into downtown – with the bluffs showing off their fall colors. As a side note – I do not recommend trying to mess around taking pictures from a bike that wants to speed up to over 30 miles per hour.

Upon exploring, we discovered that Stillwater was hosting its fall “Harvest Festival” – featuring a series of events including the regional “Giant Pumpkin Weigh-off“. When we got there, things were just being setup. The major spectacle for the event were the massive pumpkins – at least 30 of them – that were hauled in on pallets and put on display for admiring. This must be the “big event” for local mammoth pumpkin growers and you could see family dressed in matching t-shirts and a lot of comparing between the pumpkin entries.

To call these pumpkins “massive” is an understatement. This picture gives you a true sense of size – as the guy standing next to this one was a fairly large man.

The pumpkins on display were bigger than anything I would have imagined. They were huge. Although a few of them didn’t quite have the lovely orange color of a typical pumpkin, I was still surprised as to how many of them really looked like large pumpkins – although a little flattened from their own mass. It was neat to see and demonstrated a sub-culture within gardening circles that I had never witnessed before. Not unlike the various cycling sub-cultures. To each their own.

Along with pumpkins, there were several other mutant vegetables on display – including these zucchini which were easily seven feet long apiece. It was like we had shrunk and were living in a fairytale world.

Although some of the pumpkins were a little pale, a few had a deep orange color that looked like a typical pumpkin – accept they weighed over 500 lbs each.

After too long of a rest (the body starts to shut down), we were back on the bikes and climbing the STEEP hills to get out of downtown Stillwater. It’s the type of climb that you just need to put your head down and suffer. Going slow or even taking a break only means that it takes longer to get to the top, so both of us just rode it hard and we were soon leaving town.

For the route back, we re-joined the Gateway Trail and decided to take it all the way into downtown St. Paul, where it terminates just north of the Minnesota Capital building. From there, it’s a short jaunt over to my brother’s house, after a quick trip along the cycling-friend Summit Avenue.

If you are looking for a gentle, easy trail to ride in the Twin Cities, I would highly recommend riding on the Gateway Trail. It is well designed and caters to any easy ride with true isolation. Even when close to the city, you feel like riding out in the woods and can enjoy the isolation it brings.

In the end, we covered right around 50 miles. My mileage on the Garmin site shows a little shorter, but I had forgotten to turn it back on as we were leaving Stillwater. That’s too bad, because I would have liked to see the elevation profile of the climb out of town. But, I’m sure I’ll remember next time – since this is a ride that I would like to repeat next season.

Our final few miles included the small climb up to the hill where the St. Paul Cathedral sits. It offers a great view of downtown and was a welcoming symbol for “home” with nearly 3.5 hours of riding in our legs.