U.S. Bicycle Route 45: Mississippi River Trail - Minnesota

A 10-State Bicycle Route. The Mississippi River Trail (MRT) is a world-class bicycle route that originates at the Mississippi Headwaters within northern Minnesota’s Itasca State Park and continues through ten states to the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana.

Minnesota's RouteMinnesota's MRT begins at Itasca State Park and ends approximately 620 miles downriver at the Iowa border. Located largely on the shoulders of paved roads and on low-traffic roads, the route also includes relatively long segments of scenic state and regional trails.

Minnesota provides opportunities tailored for bicyclists of all types and ages to follow America’s great river. The entire route has special appeal to adventurous bicyclists who are comfortable with and knowledgeable about sharing the road with vehicles. Many off-road segments have been incorporated within the route, which are very popular with families and less experienced bicyclists (but none the less adventurous).  Approximately 27% of Minnesota's route is off-road.

You can dip your wheel into the river’s origin; ride through Paul Bunyan country; explore six nationally recognized bicycle-friendly communities (with more actively working toward bike-friendly status); sample local delicacies; rent a canoe; stay in comfortable north country accommodations or pitch a tent in a rustic setting; linger in bicycle-renowned Minneapolis-St. Paul and the Mississippi National River Recreation Area; and appreciate the grandeur of the river bluffs that frame your journey as you follow river boats to the Iowa border. 

Minnesota’s MRT is designated as a Minnesota state bicycle route and as U. S. Bicycle Route 45 (USBR 45). The U. S. Bicycle Route System is a fast-growing network of cross-country bicycle routes that connect people to places. Minnesota is the first of the 10 MRT states with the U.S. Bicycle Route designation. 

Detailed interactive map of Mississippi River Trail

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The Regional Segments. Minnesota's MRT is divided into six distinct regional segments "anchored" on either end by cities that offer a variety of lodging, dining, entertainment, and transportation options.  There’s an additional multi-regional segment in northern Minnesota (between Cass Lake and Brainerd) that includes family-friendly bicycling along the Heartland and Paul Bunyan State Trails. The six regional segments are:

1.  Mississippi Headwaters: Itasca to Bemidji. Tiptoe across the mighty river's humble source in Itasca State Park where the river is narrow and stream-like. Hear the call of the loon and watch bald eagles soar above the park's majestic virgin pines along Wilderness Drive. Visit Bemidji, first city on the Mississippi, and capture a photo memory with legendary lumberjack, Paul Bunyan, and his faithful pal, Babe the Blue Ox.

2.  Mississippi Northwoods: Bemidji to Grand Rapids. Experience nature in the whisper of the pines and the crisp north woods air.  At Cass Lake choose one of two route alternatives to Brainerd.

  • The "Explorers” on-road route is predominately located on road shoulders and low-volume roads that closely follow the river. Plan for approximately 8 miles of hard-packed gravel roads between Palisade and Aitkin.
  • The "family-friendly state trail route" is located on the Heartland and Paul Bunyan State Trails, and provides lots of hospitality, picturesque lakes, and many tourism attractions.

3.  Mississippi Crossings: Grand Rapids to Little Falls.  This area hosts thousands of vacationers each year who bicycle, paddle, golf, fish, bird-watch, or simply seek relaxation. The cities of Grand Rapids, Aitkin, the mining towns of the Cuyuna Range, Brainerd, and Little Falls will be your host. Interested in mountain biking?  Enjoy over 25 miles of nationally recognized singletrack trails in Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area.

4.  Scenic Mississippi: Little Falls to Elk River. "Wild and Scenic River" is the designation given to this pristine section of Minnesota's Mississippi. The river here is ideal for canoeing, picnicking, and fishing. Remarkable main street architecture, historic museums, the boyhood home of aviator Charles Lindbergh, lovely parks, magnificent gardens, and scenic rural farmscapes provide a backdrop for a relaxing river experience.

5.  Metro Mississippi: Ramsey to Hastings. Abundant parkland and trails invite you to the riverfront renaissance taking place in both Minneapolis and St. Paul and throughout the Metro region. Enjoy theater, major sports venues, museums, concerts, fine dining, and shopping. Experience thoughtfully preserved riverfront parks, historic sites, the falls of St. Anthony and the first of the Upper Mississippi's working lock and dams.  The MRT is located within the 72-mile long Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA), an urban national park.  Throughout the park, the MRT is routed on both sides of the river - you can pick a side or ride both. Much of the route is off-road on family-friendly regional trails suitable for a wide variety of bicyclists. 

6.  Mississippi Bluffs: Hastings to the Iowa border. Bring binoculars to bluff country because the river vistas are remarkable and the wildlife viewing–especially birding–is fantastic (don’t miss the National Eagle Center in Wabasha!). Follow the river through more than a dozen charming river towns complete with historic main streets, riverboats, museums, and warm hospitality. You can bicycle on roads below the Mississippi River Bluffs or climb the bluffs to ride the Apple Blossom Scenic Byway. The byway allows bicyclists a view of the Mississippi uplands and spectacular views of the river and adjoining bottom lands. It also offers access to Great River Bluffs State Park.

Come for adventure. When traveling the Mississippi River at the pace and intimacy of a bicycle, you’ll see what many tourists never will. You will be immersed in the river’s way of life and share with your family and friends a route filled with history, enchantment, and remarkable adventure. There’s something for everyone - bicycle any or all of it.  Come experience and enjoy the river via two wheels. As Mark Twain so aptly noted, “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it if you live”.

 

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Latitude: 47.468436 Longitude: -94.87886 Elevation: 1343 ft
the best travel advice comes from the people who live here
Liz Walton

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Route Directions

The Mississippi River Trail (MRT) originates at the Mississippi Headwaters within Minnesota’s Itasca State Park and continues through ten states to the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana. Minnesota's route begins at the Headwaters and ends at the Iowa border.

Maps.  Minnesota MRT maps are available to download onto your computer for printing or onto a GPS or mobile device.  Maps are available from the Minnesota Department of Transportation at: http://www.dot.state.mn.us/bike/mrt/maps.html

Route options:

As the river flows, the distance between the Headwaters in Itasca State Park and the Minnesota-Iowa border is approximately 575 miles however, with the optional miles of roads and trails Minnesota has added, bicyclists can pedal a total of over 800 miles—the longest distance in any of the ten river-states.  

Options: bicyclists can choose two route alternatives in these locations: between Cass Lake and Brainerd in northern Minnesota; in St. Cloud in central Minnesota; in the Twin Cities Metro area; and in the Bluffs region of Southeast Minnesota. Bicycling on both sides of the river in the Twin Cities offers the chance for an approximately 170-mile Metro MRT loop.

  • The “Explorers” route = approximately 620 miles.  Bicycle downriver from the river’s source in Itasca State Park; follow the rustic on-road route that closely winds along the river between Cass Lake and Brainerd; follow the river on either side through the Twin Cities (mostly off-road paths/trails); climb nearly 600 feet to reach the bluffs of the Apple Blossom Scenic Byway in Southeastern Minnesota; drop roughly the same distance into La Crescent, the apple capital of Minnesota; and end your adventure at the Iowa border.
  • The more “family-friendly” route = approximately 450 miles.  This option offers the most off-road mileage. Bicycle downriver from the river’s source in Itasca State Park to Cass Lake; follow the off-road Heartland and Paul Bunyan State Trails to Brainerd; travel on either side of the river through the Twin Cities (mostly off-road paths/trails); continue close to the river's edge below the bluffs in SE Minnesota; and end your adventure at the Iowa border.

Route Length

Minnesota’s MRT winds roughly 620 miles downriver from its source within Itasca State Park to the Iowa border. With the miles of roads, trails, and options for loops Minnesota has added, its route totals over 800 miles.

Route Difficulty

Easy with Some Moderately Strenous Sections

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