The city of Baxter is exploring the unusual step of authorizing volunteers to groom and supervise a stretch of trails for the purpose of fat tire biking — though, it remains to be seen if this can be a permanent arrangement, pending a feasibility study next year.
During its workshop Tuesday, Feb. 2, the Baxter City Council considered a request for private snow grooming of trails in its southwest. In addition to fat tire bikes, the trails could be used for other winter outdoor recreation like snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and hiking on the compacted snow trail.
Council members expressed tentative support for the initiative during the workshop and Community Development Director Josh Doty said the city is drafting legal stipulations, most prominent liability issues, with the expectation a temporary one-year agreement will be submitted for the council to ratify during its March 2 meeting.
As fat tire biking requires specific winter conditions, Doty acknowledged the time available for the pastime could be very short depending on how long snow is on the ground, but enthusiasts encouraged the city to start now and forge ahead. For now, usage of the trails has been limited to the eastern side of the area in question.
“We haven’t had requests like this before,” Doty said. “There's not a lot of time left this winter, but this maybe is a way where we could just let them in for the rest of this winter to see how it goes.”
The proposed southwest trail system would begin at the trail entrance off Oakdale Road and through city property, stretching west by Island Lake. The proposed fat tire bike trail would go along the Mississippi River and follow existing trails in that 200-mile area and in the west part of the open space in the city. There is some passive winter use in the Mississippi Overlook Park area and the open land.
It has been described, both by staffers and proponents, as a relatively wide open area with untapped potential, which suits fat tire biking perfectly.
“We now have a large piece of open space in the city that may be more appealing to a group like fat tire bicyclists where previously maybe we didn’t have enough acreage to interest them to create trails,” Doty said. “To have a large wooded area by the Mississippi where there’s a network of trails to potentially use and get on a trail and go. That kind of scenario is certainly something that I think is probably more appealing today.”
This sentiment was shared by Josh Pennington, a fat tire biking enthusiast and a member of the group that approached the city for a special agreement to create, groom and supervise trails in this stretch of southwest Baxter. Baxter’s growth as a rapidly expanding community typified by expansive, suburbesque, ranch-style properties and intricate trail networks has always made it an attractive option for trail usage of varying kinds.
“The property is beautiful. There are rolling hills right along the Mississippi River and oftentimes you have views of the river. There’s also Pike Creek that feeds into the river. There’s Island Lake. There’s a lot of just rolling topography,” Pennington said. “When you combine that topography with those views of our river and stream systems, and you’re surrounded with forest — it’s giving you that opportunity to immerse yourself in nature and get a lot farther out there than you would normally get if you were just walking or snowshoeing.”
The best snow trails for fat tire biking are most similar to cross-country skiing trails, Pennington said. On the other hand, he added, the actual experience of riding a fat tire bike is more in line with mountain biking — aside from being a tad slower and different handling, on consideration of packed snow trails. Essentially, it’s a matter of taking a popular pastime that’s limited to warmer months and enabling people to enjoy it through the depths of winter. Pennington said the activity is relatively new to the lakes area, with its popularity only coming around the last decade or so, directly tied to the outdoor sports culture of the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area trail system and its own emergence by Crosby-Ironton.
This popularity, he noted, has grown significantly in recent years. The interest is certainly there. A typical mountain bike has tires that max out at roughly 2.5-2.7 inches, while the tire of a fat tire bike needs to be at roughly 3.8 inches wide to effectively navigate packed snow. They can be picked up at any local outfitter, like Muddy Bikes or Easy Rider in the lakes area. Both of these shops reported sales of fat tire bikes and accessories that skyrocketed in 2020 and 2021, much as many outdoor recreation products are experiencing a boom during COVID-19.
That’s not only enthusiasts from the lakes area, but the Twin Cities and out of state as well. Anyone can purchase a fat tire bike, grab a helmet, dress for the weather, and — obviously, much like riding a bike — it’s a skill set that most people should be familiar with.
Safety is a consideration that limits where fat tire bike trails can be implemented. Pennington said people aren’t allowed to ride fat tire bikes on groomed ski trails, particularly ski trails groomed with state funding. As fat tire bikes can move at a pretty fast clip, they also make encounters with snowmobiles sudden and dangerous, so snowmobile trails are out of the question as well.
During the workshop, council members and city staffers were supportive of the idea, but had reservations. The city doesn’t have a history with fat tire biking to reference in their decision, Doty noted, especially with a grooming agreement involving volunteers instead of city staff and a relatively unanalyzed area of city property.
Without a feasibility study planned for next year, he noted, the city doesn’t have a concrete idea about how neighbors will receive fat tire biking, what safety measures are needed for the trails, the volume of traffic anticipated to use the trails, nor what parameters need to be set for volunteer grooming or how it will be supervised by the city employees to ensure quality control.
As such, the shortened season this year and results from the study next year will be telling, Doty said, in how or if Baxter will accommodate the burgeoning pastime. In that vein, Pennington — who’s a member of the Baxter Parks and Trails Commission — said residents shouldn’t fear this trail system will be jammed through, shoehorned, or rushed in any way. The city is taking the steps to ensure it’s a thoroughly studied issue, he said, and the results could be a boon for Baxter residents and the local economy.