The Northstar Commuter Rail Line offers recreation and commuting options for bicyclists. Riding is easy. Just buy a ticket, wheel your bike on and you are on your way to a big city adventure, out of the city for a relaxing ride in the countryside, a ride on the Mississippi River Trail or a ride in the dirt on Elk River's mountain bike trails.
A hundred years ago people took the train from the big city to the countyside for a break and in from small towns for a big city adventure. It is time to revive that tradition on the Northstar line.
The Northstar Line begins and ends in Minneapolis on 5th Street near Target Field and on the east side of Big Lake along County Road 43. It makes stops in Fridley, Coon Rapids, Anoka, Elk River and Big Lake, about 50 minutes from Minneapolis. The Minneapolis station platform is right next to the Cedar Lake Trail but you must exit or enter through the station on 5th Street to make your way to the trail, on street bike routes or the train.
To make things even easier for bicyclists Metro Transit has Bicycle Connections to Northstar maps for the areas around all the stations on their web site at http://www.metrotransit.org/bicycle-connections-to-northstar.aspx . These come in handy for finding the way to and from the stations, to the bike friendly roads and trails along the river and the Minneapolis on-street bike route system. These are especially handy for bike-train commuters.
The Northstar Line is a great way to experience a portion of the Mississippi River Trail (MRT) state bikeway. The MRT is a combination of on and off-road routes from Itasca State Park near Bemidji to the Iowa border. Other states are working on developing and signing it all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
In Minnesota, the route is in the process of being signed by MnDOT in partnership with the cities, counties and townships along the way. In the mean time you can download maps from the map book on the MnDOT MRT web site at http://www.dot.state.mn.us/bike/mrt/ . Using these and the Metro Transit Bike Connections to Northstar maps makes navigating the 42 miles between Big Lake and Minneapolis easy.
The approximately 34 miles from the Elk River station back to Minneapolis are the most bicycle friendly routes. The connections to the Northstar map show how to ride the couple miles to downtown. The Saturday schedule drops you in town just in time to stop for lunch.
When finished you need to ride south across the Parrish Avenue Bridge to pick up the MRT. The MRT route is on the southwest side of the river on roads with shoulders all the way to the Champlin/Brooklyn Park border. From there it is an off-road trail with short portions of on-road bike route all the way back to the Northstar station in Minneapolis. If you plan to take the train to Big Lake and ride back you should be an experienced road cyclist. The 10 miles of county roads from the Big Lake station to Elk River are ride-able, but some have narrow shoulders with rumble strips and are not bike friendly for less sure bikers.
Want dirt? Grab your mountain bike, helmet and go. The Elk River Northstar station is less than two miles from Hillside City Park (http://www.ci.elk-river.mn.us/index.asp?Type=B_BASIC&SEC=%7B869EE341-D688-41BA-8E01-7DF512818BAD%7D) The park is also shown on the Bike Connections to Northstar map for Elk River. It offers a six-mile single track loop that is described on the Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists web site as “fun, plain and simple”. There is a $4 per person daily fee. Ride from there the 1-2 miles into downtown Elk River for several great spots to rehydrate and refuel.