By Guy Still

Just over a month ago the MN DNR reversed course and announced it would work with local municipalities to ensure that the popular Gateway Trail would be plowed over the winter, much to the delight of pedestrians and cyclists alike.

That announcement got me thinking about trail maintenance in the winter months. Are cities and counties plowing their trails, or are cyclists being pushed onto the roads? Trails are often more important in suburban and exurban areas, where bikers may have to choose between high-speed, high-traffic thoroughfares or safer off-street paths. However, those same areas often have smaller budgets and a lower volume of cyclists, so they are less likely to be maintained.

Below is a list of some metro-area agencies and their plans for clearing snow off of paved trails:

(credit: Guy Still/CBS)

(credit: Guy Still/CBS)

Minneapolis Parks: With dozens of miles of trails in the city’s expansive park system, a fleet of maintenance vehicles is deployed after every snow event in the city. The goal is to clear all snow within 24 hours, although a significant snowfall can impact that timeframe. Snow is first cleared from parking lots and perimeter sidewalks before tackling interior trails.

City of St. Paul: Similarly to Minneapolis, St. Paul maintains its trail system year-round. Popular spots such as Lake Como, Lake Phalen, Mississippi River Blvd. and the Sam Morgan and Bruce Vento trails are often cleared around the same time, with crews starting as early as 4am. Maintenance workers aim to clear paths within 24 hours of a snowfall, and areas that receive the greatest use are tended to first. Some interior paths in smaller parks, which receive little winter use, are not maintained in winter months.

Three Rivers Parks: With 160 miles of trails, the Three Rivers Park District simply doesn’t have the capacity to maintain the sprawling ribbons of blacktop during the winter. Through a study several years back, park officials learned that most people who use trails in the winters do so for localized use. But with the increasing popularity of winter cycling, both for commuting and as recreation, Three Rivers is currently conducting winter usage counts to determine whether some routes are utilized enough to justify winter maintenance in the future.

(credit: Derek J. Dickinson/Three Rivers Park District)

(credit: Derek J. Dickinson/Three Rivers Park District)

Three of the district’s most popular cycling trails are maintained in the winter, thanks to partnerships with local municipalities and Tree Trust. The Cedar Lake Trail, North Cedar Lake Trail and Luce Line Trail (beginning in Plymouth) are main transportation arteries for cycling commuters heading into Minneapolis. As part of a pilot project, Three Rivers pays for those pathways to be cleared.

Ramsey County: Once the snow has fallen, county workers descend upon the parks, first plowing parking lots and walkways which permit access to arenas, parks and other amenities utilized in winter. Next popular regional trails, such as Bruce Vento and Battle Creek, are cleared. During more severe winter weather events these trails may not be cleared on the first day. Lesser used trails are maintained last.

Anoka County: During the winter months county employees maintain 14 miles of trails at 11 different sites, including well-used spots like Bunker Hills Regional Park, the Mississippi Regional Trail and Rum River Regional Park. Maintenance is triggered by a snowfall of at least ½” and the county hopes to clear all roads, lots and trails within 24 hours.

Washington County: Hard surface trails in popular parks, such as Lake Elmo, are cleared by county workers following a snow event. The county does not maintain trails along county roads, but some of the municipalities, including Woodbury, chose to do so. The Gateway and Brown’s Creek Trails are maintained by the DNR, and will be plowed this winter following some protests by users. The Hardwood Trail, in Forest Lake, is not maintained due to use of a parallel trail for snowmobilers.