Mar-Mac area offers plentiful trail opportunities throughout the year

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The area in and around Marquette and McGregor offers a growing number of trail options for non-motorized use, and resident Dan Keyes has tried them all. One of his favorite past-times is fat tire biking, particularly at Pikes Peak State Park. (Submitted photos)

Many local trails are accessible throughout the year and, between them all, offer opportunities for not just hiking, but also biking, cross country skiing and snow shoeing.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

For local outdoor enthusiasts, as well as visitors, the area in and around Marquette and McGregor offers a growing number of trail options for non-motorized use. Most are accessible throughout the year and, between them all, offer opportunities for not just hiking, but also biking, cross country skiing and snow shoeing. 

McGregor resident Dan Keyes has tried them all and is among a group of volunteers working to further connect trails in the area. He sees not just the economic and tourism benefits but the quality of life they can bring to current and prospective residents.

“Trails draw people to the area. We want people to come to Marquette and McGregor, we want young people to move here,” he said. “Some people move to neighborhoods because there are trails there. They want to get out and do something.”

Keyes said the communities need only look at the success of other systems, like southeast Minnesota’s 60-mile Root River Trail.

“Little towns have been revived,” he noted.

Area parks are some of Keyes’ favorite places to visit, including Yellow River State Forest, located 15 miles north of Marquette. The Paint Creek Unit alone offers over 25 miles of marked and maintained trails, including some for horseback riding. Keyes enjoys the Luster Heights Unit too.

“The new Friends of Yellow River State Forest group has done a remarkable job with the views,” he said. “There are beautiful trails,” which he’s used for hiking, mountain biking and cross country skiing.

Then there’s Effigy Mounds National Monument, just a few miles north of Marquette. Recently named the “best hike” in Iowa by Outside magazine, the park has 14 miles of trails of varying lengths.

“All the trails that run along the bluffs are stunning—postcard pictures,” Keyes said. “And their visitor center is great.”

For even more stunning views, Keyes heads to Pikes Peak State Park, south of McGregor. 

“Pikes Peak is a wonderful, beautiful park with beautiful trails,” Keyes said. 

He’s hiked, mountain biked and cross country skied there, utilizing much of the 11.5 miles of trails the park offers. This winter, he said there will be groomed trails, making it even more of a prime spot for skiing and snow shoeing.

Another sometimes lesser-known trail in the area is Bloody Run County Park’s Well’s Hollow Trail, outside Marquette. This mile-long trail is primitive and, at points, challenging. It begins by the campground area at the park’s entrance and takes hikers up a hill, to an overlook. Keyes said the view is worth the effort.

Just up the road, at Marquette’s Driftless Area Wetlands Centre, there’s a nature play trail for both adults and children. It offers several activity stations and natural features, including stepping stones, logs and willow huts, that encourage outdoor play.

The newest trails in the area were spearheaded by Marquette and McGregor and are located on city property. One is a mile-long graveled route that connects Marquette and McGregor and also serves as Marquette’s bench evacuation route. It stretches from the end of Walnut Street, in the Marquette bench neighborhood, to Eagle Drive in McGregor’s Ridgewood West Subdivision, and can be used for hiking and biking throughout the year. No motorized vehicles are allowed.

“It’s quite scenic, and people have been using it,” Keyes said. “People have been trying to connect the dots [between the two communities] over the years. Marquette did a great job.”

The second trail is located in the forest between Center Street and Cemetery Road, in McGregor. The hiking route is roughly a mile long, with some twists and turns. It is dirt-surfaced and was built with hand tools to minimize impact on the natural area.

A unique aspect about the trail is that it ties into one of the earliest roads in the area. Originally called Coulee de Sioux Trail prior to extensive European settlement, the road later became known as the McGregor Trail. Many settlers crossed it on their way westward, where it eventually connected with the Oregon Trail.

Keyes hopes other trail segments can be created throughout the community, connecting this one to the McGregor Heights, Turner Park, downtown McGregor and Pikes Peak itself. 

“You grow with what you have,” he stated. “People come for the beauty of the area and the bluffs, and they’re always asking where to hike.”

Having multiple options makes for more of a destination.

“It gets people coming back three or four times a year,” said Keyes, “not just for one trail but different trails.”

Keyes has increasingly enjoyed fat tire biking on local trails. As the name indicates, the tires are wider than normal bike tires, making them more suitable for softer surfaces. 

“The wide tires are kind to trails, and there’s low impact on the environment,” he explained. 

As a result, fat tire biking can be done more often throughout the year.

“It expands the season—spring, fall, winter,” said Keyes. 

Having more trails available for the activity could attract avid bikers to the area—a niche that’s not currently being tapped into.

“Usage will grow,” he added. “There’s also the possibility of organized rides. That would draw people.”

Keyes said he’s happy to encourage trail usage in the area and volunteer his time to grow the network of trails.

“I’m proud to help out,” he quipped. “It’s just polishing the rough edges of the jewel that’s here.”

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