Exploring the new Brown’s Creek Trail

Let it be known that I did not go out on the new Brown’s Creek Trail before it was officially open even though I really, really wanted to. As soon as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced a “soft opening” at the end of October, however, I was literally ready to roll. A short section of the trail within downtown Stillwater is still under construction, but the rest of the 5.9 mile route is paved and ready to explore from the old Stillwater Depot to where it intersects with the Gateway Trail in Grant. During the winter, the DNR plans to groom the trail from the Brown’s Creek Nature Preserve to the Gateway Trail for cross-country skiing.

A view of the old stone arch bridge from the new Brown’s Creek Trail

I made an inaugural bike ride along the trail just before the weather turned cold and towed my son along in a Burley trailer, which meant that I spent half of the ride calling out interpretive features at the top of my lungs as we pedaled by. From downtown, the trail heads north alongside Hwy 95 until just south of Hwy 96, at which point it crosses the road and runs parallel to Brown’s Creek. The segment between Hwy 95 and Stonebridge Trail is absolutely beautiful. The trail hugs the side of a steep, wooded gorge, with the namesake Brown’s Creek babbling down below. Just after passing under Stonebridge Trail, there is a small pull-off where one can get a view of the historic stone arch bridge that once carried travelers over the creek before the modern road was built. Immediately to the west of the bridge, trail users might also notice a gently sloped area between the trail and the creek that is currently covered in tannish-colored landscape fabric. This is one of two major stream improvement projects completed by the Brown’s Creek Watershed District in conjunction with the creation of the trail.

When the original rail line was built in 1870, it was quite a challenge to lay the track rising out of the St. Croix Valley along a steep and winding path. According to the Minnesota Transportation Museum, “It climbed 299 feet on its way out of the St. Croix River Valley. The first four miles had an average 1% grade, with short stretches exceeding 2%. Half the six miles were on curves, some as sharp as 7.5 degrees.” Over time, the reach of Brown’s Creek alongside the tracks dug deeper into the earth, becoming separated from its natural floodplain, and as a result, unstable. During stream inventories, the Watershed District concluded that this section was one of the most degraded segments of the creek. Converting the rail bed into a walking and biking trail created an opportunity to correct some of the historic damage by pulling the trail away from the edge of the creek to provide space for the water to overflow during the spring and early summer. This change will improve trout habitat and reduce erosion along the steam banks, as well as slow the water down so that it causes less damage to the historic stone arch bridge. Until interpretive signs are added next year, however, the only sign of this work is the erosion control fabric and newly planted vegetation between the trail and the creek.

Continuing westward, the trail stays close to Brown’s Creek as it passes through the Oak Glen Golf Course and Brown’s Creek Park and Nature Preserve. Between McKusick Rd. and Neal Ave., another major stream improvement project is visible alongside the trail behind Countryside Auto. Here, the Watershed District installed an underground water quality unit capable of trapping 80% of the sediment and 37% of the total phosphorus from rain runoff before it enters Brown’s Creek. The project was partially funded by a grant through the Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment Fund. Once again, the only visible sign currently is a patch of erosion control fabric on the ground beside the trail.

After Brown’s Creek Park, the trail and creek diverge, with the trail continuing west, roughly parallel to McKusick Rd., and the stream’s course leading northwest to its headwaters up in Withrow. A few miles past Manning Ave., the new trail finally meets up with the Gateway Trail in the woods, just south of Hwy 96.

Arriving at the intersection of the Brown’s Creek and Gateway Trails a few weeks ago, I had the strange sensation of entering an alternate universe where people travel by bike and skis instead of car, surrounded by woods, like members of a nomadic forest tribe. Glancing back, I noticed that my son was fast asleep, lulled by the gentle rocking of his trailer, not unlike the gentle rocking of the trains that once rolled through these same woods. The early November air was still mild and I decided to keep on riding, just a little bit further.