by CHRIS ROGERS
On Monday, the Winona City Council will consider approving a plan to overhaul Winona’s bluffside trails and seek a mix of state and local funding to make $3.2 million in improvements to the trail system. The proposal would add new trails connecting Sugar Loaf to Garvin Heights to Holzinger trails, reconstruct and reroute the Holzinger Trails’ network, and build new trailheads with ample parking and signage.
“It’s something that’s been talked about in Winona for years,” Winona Outdoor Recreation Coordinator Ross Greedy stated. That is true. In 2015, then president of Winona Area Mountain Bikers Scott Sherman talked to the Post about dreams of trails connecting Sugar Loaf to Holzinger trails to the Richard J. Dorer State Forest Bronk Unit (also known as Cherry Hill). “That would make [Winona] a serious regional destination, if not a national destination,” Sherman said.
The bluffs are a huge part of Winona’s identity and people have been enjoying them for generations, but the current trails are badly eroded in places, poorly signed, and cross private property without clear permission, Greedy stated. “Let’s work on formalizing this so we can manage the use more efficiently and make it more accessible to the broader community, rather than just people who know, from a friend of a friend, where the trailhead might be,” he said.
Recommendations for bluffside mountain biking and hiking trails were a prominent feature of the Comprehensive Parks, Open Space, and Recreation System Plan approved by the City Council last month. That plan set goals for the entire park system for the next 15 years and made bluffside trail upgrades priority number one. Now, the City Council will be voting on a more specific plan for those trail upgrades: dubbed the Bluffs Traverse Conservation and Recreation Area Master Plan.
A ridgetop through trail
Under the Bluffs Traverse plan, new trail connections would be built so that people could hike, bike, or run all the way from Sugar Loaf to Garvin Heights to Holzinger Lodge and the edge of Saint Mary’s University’s trail system. The through trail would begin at the new Sugar Loaf Trail and continue west along the ridgeline, across city land to the cliff face above East Lake Boulevard where the city recently located its ice climbing park. From there, the trail would make a bee line for East Garvin Heights Road and follow the road past the Garvin Heights lookout. The trail would continue following Garvin Heights Road south, before turning into the Wincrest neighborhood. The section tracing city streets through the neighborhood would simply invite hikers and bikers to use the existing roadway, but in the future, the sections along Garvin Heights Road and East Garvin Heights Road might include a separate, paved path, Greedy explained. The through trail would split and end at a pair of trailheads at the cul de sacs at either end of Wincrest Drive.
Unofficial trails already exist across much of this stretch, but some of them cross private property without permission or are hard to find. The Bluffs Traverse plan calls for the city to secure permission from property owners, clearly mark the trails, and blaze new connections where needed.
Overhauled trail network at Holzinger
The Holzinger Trails would get a major overhaul under the proposed Bluffs Traverse plan, with whole trails and sections of trail being closed and new ones being blazed. The proposal would increase the total trail mileage, expand the trail system to new areas further west, and build what Greedy described as a “world-class” mountain biking trail network, with a mix of easy, intermediate, and advanced trails. To help guide the conceptual design, the city hired Michigan-based Rock Solid Trail Contracting, a firm that built parts of acclaimed mountain biking trail systems in Copper Harbor, Mich.; Duluth, Minn.; and Minnesota’s Cuyuna trails.
The plan calls for decommissioning trails with excessive erosion — including the Salad Bar trail, much of the Wild Wood trail, the Stone Circle loop, and the Devil’s Cave loop, among others — and constructing new, more sustainable trails with less steep grades and better designs to avoid erosion. “There are some areas or corridors that we can build on, and then there are some spots where maybe an old logging road was used that doesn’t make sense,” Greedy stated.
The exact layout of the future trail system is subject to change. The next steps for finalizing the layout would include conducting archeological and environmental surveys, Greedy stated. “We have to strike this balance of creating trails that minimize that impact and maximize the ability of people to enjoy the space,” he said.
Parts of the proposed new trail system run across land owned by Woodlawn Cemetery, Saint Mary’s University, and private citizens. The city would need to secure easements or purchase land from the property owners to make those segments possible. The Bluffs Traverse plan also includes a backup plan for a trail system entirely located on city-owned land.
While the plan does not spell out what sort of on-trail signage the city would provide, Greedy said that part of the city’s goal is to erect clear signs at trail junctures to help ensure visitors do not get lost. Having clear signs from the road to the trailhead to the trail, Greedy stated, “That’s one more way to reduce roadblocks for people who haven’t been historically out hiking and mountain biking.”
The plan itself describes the new trails as either “mountain bike” trails, “hiking” trails, or “shared use” paths. However, Greedy said that the trails would largely be multi-use trails, open to hikers, bikers, and runners. He added that, out of safety concerns, the city would specify a few sections of trail as downhill mountain biking only — with separate routes for bikers ascending and hikers traveling in either direction. “By and large, different users can co-exist really well,” Greedy stated.
The plan also recommends that the city consider charging a fee for use of the trails and rock climbing areas.
Trailheads and parking
Improving trailheads is a big part of the Bluffs Traverse plan. In fact, the plan calls for the city to spend more on trailhead infrastructure ($1.5 million) than on building new trails and decommissioning eroded ones ($1.4 million).
Additional parking makes up a big chunk of the cost estimate for trailheads. The plan includes proposals for expanding parking at Holzinger Lodge, Wincrest Drive, Garvin Heights, and at the base of Sugar Loaf, creating upward of 60 new parking spaces. The proposals would add at least 33 new spaces at Holzinger Lodge; 17 and 11 spaces at the two ends of Wincrest Drive, respectively; and it would relocate the Garvin Heights parking lot further south.
Does the trail system need that much parking? It will, Greedy responded. Greedy said that the city’s expert consultants recommended that amount of parking based on demand at similar trail systems in other cities. He believes the city’s experience with relocating the Sugar Loaf Trail to the north side of the bluff in 2017 confirms the experts’ advice. The new Sugar Loaf Trail still has relatively little signage and no advertising, but there was a notable uptick in the number of people who hiked the bluff, Greedy reported. On any given day, 10 cars are parked along East Lake Boulevard from people going to hike or rock climb, he stated. If Winona upgrades its trails and makes them easy to find, people will want to use them and they will need somewhere to park, Greedy said.
In addition to parking stalls, many of the trailheads would include restrooms, water fountains, bicycle fixing stations, and trail information kiosks.
Funding and implementation
City staff believe that the Bluffs Traverse plan will make a great candidate for state grants, including major Legacy Amendment grants that could fund a majority of the project. “Other communities in Minnesota are capitalizing on this,” Greedy stated, pointing to Duluth, Crosby, and Red Wing. Red Wing won a $1.1-million grant from the state for trail upgrades at He Mn Can - Barn Bluff Regional Park last year. “With our community resources, the spirit of [John] Latsch, and our strong park system, there is no reason why Winona shouldn’t be at the top of that list,” Greedy added.
Greedy and his colleagues plan to apply for those grants starting this spring, but it is not a sure thing. “We could get awarded in that first cycle or [the grantors] might have some really good feedback that we’d need to apply and then we’d be a really good candidate next year,” Greedy stated. Additionally, granting agencies might award the city partial funding one year and more the next. The plan includes options for phasing in the improvements over time.
The best grant applications come from communities where local funders and volunteers have already shown that they are committed and invested by tackling smaller projects, Greedy continued. It could take a few years of momentum building and re-applying before the city wins big, he stated. “The next two-to-five years are really critical,” Greedy said.
Even if the city wins a seven-digit grant, it will need to provide at least some local matching funds. The Bluffs Traverse plan recommends that the City Council consider all funding options, including grants, a local sales tax, regular property tax dollars, park dedication fees charged to new developments, and fees charged to trail users.
Those funding options would be subject to future City Council approval. The council budgeted $20,000 for trail improvements in 2019.
The full Bluff Traverse plan is available on the city’s website, www.cityofwinona.com, under the “Park & Rec” tab.
The council will vote on whether to approve the proposed Bluff Traverse plan on Monday at 6:30 p.m. in the council chambers on the third floor of city hall. This meeting is open to the public.