by CHRIS ROGERS
A trio of projects are in the works to make Winona trails easier to get to and to add a sport to the list of outdoor recreation opportunities in the island city.
Connector trail planned at Vila
If they receive the necessary permits, Dahl Automotive and the Winona Area Mountain Bikers (WAMB) plan to construct a new bicycle and pedestrian trail that would connect the city of Winona’s Holzinger trail system (also known as Bluffside Park) to the core city at Vila Street.
As the crow flies, Winona’s miles of bluff-side trails at Holzinger Lodge, its Garvin Heights lookout trail, and Winona State University’s Kruger Woods trail system are right next to Lake Park, the popular lakeside path, and to residential neighborhoods home to thousands of people. There is just one thing that divides them: a four-lane highway.
Since its construction years ago, the four-lane Highway 61 has improved the flow of trucks and cars up and down the river valley, but it also created an obstacle for walkers and bicyclists trying to cross the highway to reach the Winona Middle School, Saint Mary’s University, or the city’s bluff trails.
“I think anybody who has been in town long enough realizes that Highway 61 is a barrier,” WAMB President Scott Sherman stated. “The ability to reach our natural resources is severely hampered by Highway 61,” he added.
Right now, Huff Street is the best place to cross Highway 61 to reach Holzinger trails. However, that crossing is not ideal, trail users and city staff say, because the Huff Street stoplight only stays green for a short window of time, forcing walkers and cyclists to rush across, and because there is no crosswalk or bike lane.
The Huff Street crossing is also somewhat out-of-the-way for trail users coming from western Winona, including the Winona Senior High School’s mountain bike team. The school is directly across the highway from the Holzinger Trails the team rides, but the student-athletes have to bike down to Huff Street to get there.
The lack of a convenient route to the trails leads some Winonans to make less-safe highway crossings at locations without a stoplight, such as Highway 61 and Clarks Lane, which is not meant to be a crossing. Others cross at Vila Street, where there is a stoplight, but no way to get from the highway to the trails without trespassing on private property.
After working with WAMB this fall, Dahl Automotive leaders agreed to host a public pedestrian and bike trail on the dealership’s property, so people can cross safely at Vila Street and reach the trails without trespassing. The plan is subject to change, but as currently envisioned, the proposed trail would run along the edge of the Dahl property from Vila Street to the far east side of the dealership campus, before wrapping around the rear of the property and connecting with West Lake Boulevard near Holzinger trails’ Stone Circle trailhead.
“One of our core values is giving back to the communities we serve,” said Dahl Automotive President Andrew Dahl. This trail would give bikers, hikers, and runners better, safer access to the trails, and it would help neighboring residential properties by reducing the number of trail users trying to cut through their property, Dahl explained. He added that this project also furthers another company goal: to help make Winona a destination. “Access to the trails is what makes living where we are great,” Dahl said. “When we have such awesome trails at Holzinger as we do, making that as accessible as possible is a win-win for everybody.”
The proposed trail would require several city zoning approvals and public hearings. The site is within the city’s bluff protection area, and its construction would require a land disturbance activity permit and a public hearing in front of the city Planning Commission. Many years ago — well before a 2014 rezoning that accommodated the Dahl dealership’s relocation after being displaced by the interstate bridge project — the dealership property was rezoned with a stipulation that it would never be used to allow access between the highway and West Lake Boulevard, according to city planner Carlos Espinosa. Espinosa said that for the trail project to be approved, the City Council would also need to approve an amendment to that rezoning ordinance, specifying that non-motorized access is permissible. That would also require public hearings before the Planning Commission and City Council.
Dahl and Sherman said they hope to move forward on the project in 2017.
Winona Park and Recreation Community Services Director Chad Ubl and Sherman said that improving the crossing at Huff Street is a priority, too. The city laid plans to improve the Huff Street pedestrian crossing this year, but they have been postponed due to a change in the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s project schedule.
“We’d like that to be a safe crossing,” Ubl stated. “We want to make these locations and amenities as accessible as possible,” he said of the bluff-side parks and trails.
New Sugar Loaf trail to be proposed
City staff and consultants developed draft plans this fall for a new trail that would lead from East Lake Boulevard, switchback up the north side of the bluff, reach a saddle (or a low point in the ridge) just west of Sugar Loaf, then deliver hikers to the base of Winona’s iconic rock outcrop.
Currently, there is a trail on the south side of the bluff — or rather a tangle of trails — that leads up from West Burns Valley Road to the base of Sugar Loaf. Ubl said it is an unofficial trail not recognized by the city. It is unmarked, and starts in a private driveway before wrapping around behind a nondescript utility building that serves a city water reservoir halfway up the hill. In several sections, the trails have eroded into deep gullies. There is little parking on the side of a mostly shoulder-less road. Ubl said hikers sometimes cut through neighboring private property.
By creating an official trailhead on East Lake Boulevard, Ubl said the city hopes to avoid these negative impacts on West Burns Valley Road residents, cut down on erosion, and fulfill the demand for Sugar Loaf access with a clearly marked, official trail.
Ubl also advocated for signage that would encourage people not to free climb Sugar Loaf without ropes. Numerous people have been seriously injured doing that, but many still try it. Winona State University’s outdoor recreation program leads roped rock climbing at Sugar Loaf with the city’s blessing. “We would advocate for the proper use of Sugar Loaf,” Ubl said. “I think Sugar Loaf is an iconic part of Winona. We know for a fact that hundreds, if not thousands of people go up to the base of Sugar Loaf and hundreds may actually climb it inappropriately every year.” The goal of this project, Ubl said, is to tell hikers: “this is the appropriate way to get to the base of Sugar Loaf, and this is the appropriate way to climb.”
Right now, the city’s draft plans call for a trailhead to start near Edina Realty at 825 East Lake Boulevard. Would such a trailhead create the same problems with parking and hikers cutting through private property? Ubl said it is possible, and those will be important issues for the city to consider. He said city staff will reach out to seek nearby property owners’ input before moving forward with any plans.
“There is a lot of work to be done before anything becomes official,” Ubl stated.
Ubl and the consultants are still developing the plans for the trail. He said a formal proposal would likely come before the City Council in the spring.
Ice climbing proposed at Sugar Loaf
Last month, the Winona City Council approved initial steps in the Minnesota Climbers Association’s (MCA) plan to create an ice climbing park on a cliff near Sugar Loaf. City staff and MCA organizers are still working out the final details, but they hope to open the park this winter.
Winonan Eric Barnard is an MCA Board member who helped put the proposal together. Ice park organizers would like to pump water from a fire hydrant on East Garvin Heights Road, across a participating neighbor’s property, and to the cliff, where they plan to create sheets of ice on the cliffside that climbers can scale using crampons and ice picks, all while protected from falling with ropes.
Ubl said the ice climbing park is close to coming to fruition, but that it cannot move forward until the city resolves a disagreement over property ownership. City officials and a neighbor disagree about whether the city or the neighbor own a section of land needed for the ice climbing park’s water supply.
Nevertheless, after the plan received the blessing of the city’s insurance trust, the council unanimously approved an agreement related to the water supply and accepted a donation of ice climbing equipment from MCA. Ubl first talked to the City Council about the concept back in 2014, when he told the council an ice climbing park could serve as a unique attraction and generate revenue for the city.
Keep reading the Winona Post for more information on these projects.