MMM’s seventh in a series of Rides and Routes
by Sev Pearman
Load up your bike and head toward Otter Tail County and the Otter Trail. This month’s Reader’s Ride traces one of Minnesota’s designated Scenic Byways. These routes feature winding secondary roads, beautiful scenery and history. The Otter Trail is a loop route which means you can start and finish anywhere along the route, or run it either direction. We chose the town of Urbank as our start/stop point for convenience.
Heading north out of Urbank on County Road (CR) 59, you’ll float over the hills that cover Otter Tail County. As glaciers retreated, they scraped and gouged the terrain, leaving moraines, lakes and rivers. This terrain forced road builders to build curvy, winding roads with non-stop elevation changes, perfectly suited to cruisers and touring riders.
Be sure to stop and ponder the sculpture garden and other pieces in Vining. I always smile at the giant foot with over-sized big toe. They remind me that I’ll do over 500 miles today and I sure do appreciate my boots. Gas is available in Vining.
Continue west on MN 210 to MN 78, then turn north and enter the town of Battle Lake, named after a series of battles between native Nations. Food and fuel are readily available. We like the motorcycle-friendly Mobil station at the top of the hill. Be sure to wave back at the giant Chief Wenonga statue as you leave town.
Continue north on MN 78 toward Perham. These roads are perfect for a weekend getaway. They invite pokey two-up riding with plenty of opportunities to stop and explore. You’ll pass Glendalough State Park which features prairie, forest and undeveloped lakeshore.
Continue on MN 78 to Perham. Follow the “Smiling Otter” signs through Perham and pick up CR 8/CR 80. There are many restaurants and fuel options in Perham. The bakery can strain the zipper on your jacket.
Leave town on CR 34. This is less traveled than MN 78 and offers the opportunity to lean the bike in its tighter sweepers. Take CR 35 into Dent. Dent is a railroad town and once featured a pickle factory. Gherkins, other food and gas are available in Dent.
Get your head in gear because the next leg, MN 108, is my favorite part of the ride, 20 miles of stomach-flipping whoop-de-doos, tighter corners and little traffic. If you are just cruising you and your partner will enjoy the rolling fields and billboard-free vistas. Maplewood State Park is a worthy side trip.
MN 108 brings you into Pelican Rapids, pop. 2,500. If you haven’t yet fueled, you may want to top up here, as there is no reliable fuel on the Otter Trail for the next 45-odd miles. If you are splitting your ride into two days, there are several hotel and motel options in Pelican Rapids.
Leave town on US 59. Two miles south, head east on CR 3. The next 25 miles features a mix of hills and curves that follow the lakes and creeks. The scenery changes between forest, neatly tilled farm fields and glistening glacial lakes. The sumac was changing on my ride, painting the hillsides a dark, smoky red.
Follow the signs to Phelps, then turn right and stop at the Phelps Mill. Built in 1889 and in used until 1939, it still stands and is open to the public. You can see the single 40 hp water turbine and how it powered the machinery via pulleys and belts to grind 60 – 75 barrels of flour a day. I like to imagine a modest motorcycle engine performing the same task, all off the mill’s single master pulley.
Rejoin CR 45 south, then head west on CR 1 to Fergus Falls. Watch the signs, as the Otter Trail runs right through old Fergus. There are many lodging options here, along with restaurants and fuel. The Fergus Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau offers a handy map of the Otter Trail.
Follow the Trail to MN 210 east and pick up CR 29 south. You will likely have the road to yourself and have at it. The terrain changes again and features more hills. The elevation changes are connected with smooth constant-radius sweepers, cruiser Valhalla. Canyon carvers may need to check their speed.
Ten miles later, turn east on CR 12 in Dalton. Dalton features an excellent steam Threshing Show every fall and is highly recommended. Fuel is available.
Continue to follow the Otter Trial to Inspiration Peak. At 1,750 ft, it is the 2nd highest point in the state. The 1/4-mile paved foot trail climbs 400 ft and can be a grind in riding boots, but the 20–mile view more than makes up for the exertion. No, you cannot ride up to the top. Take the ‘hidden’ second path down to the parking lot. Retrace your steps to CR 38 and continue east on the last five miles into Urbank.
Urbank is appx. 2 1/2 hours from the Twin Cities. If you are pressed for time, you can easily travel to Urbank and back and ride the Otter Trail in a long day. Weekenders can split the ride into two days. In addition to accommodations in Fergus Falls and Pelican Rapids there are numerous bed-and-breakfasts, inns and resorts along the Otter Trail.