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Summary of Summer Trail Use and User Surveys on nine Minnesota rail trails

Download the complete Minnesota State Trail Use study (pdf 320 kb) and the Appendix and Trail Maps (pdf 980 kb).

From Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Trails and Waterways Division & Office of Management and Budget ServicesMap of Minnesota

To gain a better understanding of summer state trail use, nine state trail surveys were conducted between 1996 and 1998 during the main summer period from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The surveys had two broad goals. One goal was to measure overall trail use and the main activities that comprise the use. The second goal was to gain a better understanding of trail users, including the demographic characteristics of the users, where users come from, and what users like and dislike about the trails.

The first goal was accomplished by individuals counting trail users at times and places specified in a statistical sampling schedule. To accomplish the second goal, trail users were asked to complete a mail-back questionnaire or in-person interview (interviews were only used on the first survey done, which was the Paul Bunyan Trail in 1996).


The state trails serve distinct types of geographic markets during the summer. Three of the trails (Douglas, Gateway and Luce Line) draw primarily from a local market, whereas three other trails (Heartland, Paul Bunyan and Root River) serve mostly a long-distance (or tourist) market, and three others (Glacial Lakes, five-mile segment of the Paul Bunyan near Lake Bemidji State Park, and Sakatah Singing Hills) serve a mix of locals and tourists. For the local-market trails, the median travel distance—wherein half of the trail use originates—is only 4 or 5 miles. In contrast, the median travel distances for the tourist-market trails exceed 90 miles. Tourist origins are mostly the Twin Cities metro area and the surrounding states of Iowa, North Dakota and Wisconsin.

Summer use varies considerably from trail to trail, both in terms of total user hours and use inten-sity (user hours divided by length of trail). In terms of summer-use intensity, each mile of the Gateway is clearly the highest; no other trail is within a factor of two of the Gateway. One reason the Gateway is used so intensively is the large number of people who live near this Twin City trail. After the Gateway Trail, the next most intensively used trails are the Heartland and Root River, followed by the Douglas and the Paul Bunyan. One segment of the Root River Trail (the segment from Isinours to Whalan, which goes through Lanesboro) has an intensity of use comparable to that of the Gateway. The least intensively used trail is Glacial Lakes.

Summer trail use is about evenly split between weekends/holidays and weekdays, which is a common outdoor recreation use pattern. Since weekdays are more numerous than weekends and holidays, the intensity of use on summer weekend/holidays is about double that on weekdays. It is noteworthy that the intensity of use on weekdays on the Gateway exceeds weekends/holidays on all other trails.

Biking is the predominant summer activity on each trail, and it accounts for 72 percent of use on all trails combined. On local-market trails (Douglas, Gateway, and Luce Line), biking is the leading activity, but it is not as dominant an activity as on tourist-market trails (Heartland, Paul Bunyan and Root River). This difference is due to the fact that tourists almost exclusively bike (88 percent of tourist use), while local users are much more likely to walk, run and skate. To tourists, the trails are "biking" trails, whereas to locals they are more multiple-use facilities.

Six of the trails surveyed during 1996, 1997 and 1998 have parallel paved and unpaved treadways. The unpaved treadways are not heavily used in comparison to their paved counterparts. Each unpaved treadway accounts for less than 5 percent of total (unpaved plus paved) segment use. The activity patterns on the unpaved treadways are far different than on the paved treadways. About half the use of the unpaved treadways is horseback riding.


Most trail users first hear about the trail either by living near the trail or by word of mouth from family or friends. The former is more important to local users, while the latter is more important to tourists.

There is substantial agreement across trails and between locals and tourists on the factors that make the trails appealing for summer recreation. Primary among these is the natural setting (scenery/ wildlife/beauty) in quiet surroundings that facilitate a general enjoyment of out of doors. Also of primary importance is the fact that the trails are off-road and exclude motorized vehicles.

The tourist-market trails (Heartland, Paul Bunyan and Root River) are significant factors in draw-ing tourists into their general areas. The Root River, however, is a more important tourist draw for its general area than the Heartland and Paul Bunyan are for their respective areas. Perhaps the Heartland and Paul Bunyan are less important because of the larger number of recreational draws in the Brainerd lakes area, which diminishes the importance of any one facility (like the Heartland or Paul Bunyan Trail).

Trail users generally give high marks to the trails for their use and enjoyment. Ratings of ‘good' to ‘excellent' account for 95 percent or more of users on each trail. For all trails combined, 70 percent of users give ‘excellent' ratings. Very few users give ‘fair' or ‘poor' ratings on any trail. Although positive ratings prevail, there are some important distinctions in the mix of ‘good' and ‘excellent' ratings.

The tourist-market trails (Heartland, Paul Bunyan and Root River) have the highest portions of ‘excellent' ratings. The Gateway and the segment of Paul Bunyan near Lake Bemidji State Park, too, are lopsided toward ‘excellent', but to a lesser extent than the preceding three. The Douglas, Luce Line, Glacial Lakes and Sakatah Singing Hills have lower ratings; each has less than 60 percent ‘excellent' ratings. The Douglas and Glacial Lakes have the lowest ratings, and each has less than half of users rating the trail as ‘excellent'.

A number of factors affect these overall trail ratings. One leading factor is the quality of facilities and services on the trail, especially maintenance-related items (trail surface quality, trail mainte-nance, and management of vegetation in the trail corridor). When satisfaction with these mainte-nance- related items drops, overall rating of the trail drops too, suggesting that these items are of primary concern to trail users. A second factor is the origin of the user: tourists tend to give higher ratings than locals. A third factor is the activity of the user: skaters tend to give lower ratings, probably due to their higher sensitivity to the quality of the trail surface.

When users were asked about their preference for the type of trail surface for their activity, most selected the surface type of the trail on which they were recreating. All trails have asphalt paving, except the Luce Line, which has a crushed-limestone surface. The Luce Line was the only trail that had more than 10 percent of users expressing a preference for an alternative surface type. Seventeen percent of Luce Line users preferred asphalt and 14 percent preferred a natural surface (grass or dirt). Two-thirds of Luce Line users preferred the existing crushed-limestone surface.

Users' top priority for trail improvement (among 21 possible facilities and services) on each trail is availability of drinking water. Next on the priority lists are usually the availability of toilets and telephones. After these leading items, priorities differ considerably from trail to trail.

Conflicts among users are not all that common. Most trail users (69% or more on each trail) indicated they did not have a problem or conflict with others. When problems or conflicts do occur, the most likMarch 18, 2007s passing without warning, or pet problems on the trail.

Finding the trail too crowded for enjoyment is not a common experience. Less than 10 percent of users on any trail find it too crowded. The two trails—Gateway and Root River—with the highest intensity of use (user-hours per mile of trail) have correspondingly the highest frequency of ‘too crowded' responses (7% and 8% of user responses, respectively).

Trip spending by trail users during the summer period totals to just over $5 million each year. The

bulk of the spending (83%) is attributable to tourists, who bring new dollars into a local ecApril 15, 2007urs on three trails with high tourist use: Heartland, Paul Bunyan and Root River Trail. For these three trails, summer tourist spending is in the range of $0.75 to $1.50 million. A typical tourist spends between $25 and $39 dollars per day—depending on the trail—mostly on food, lodging and transportation.

Three trails (Heartland, Root River and Sakatah Singing Hills) have quite a bit larger on-trail trip extents, which means that users travel further and spend more time on these trails than on the other trails.

Party size on the Heartland and Root River is larger than on the other trails. The local-market trails (Douglas, Gateway and Luce Line) tend to have smaller party sizes, due in large part to the preva-lence of one-person parties. Adult couples are common on all trails, as are parties composed of adults and children.

State trails serve broad segments of the Minnesota population. Trails draw large numbers of users from all age classes, from both genders and from the full range of income classes.

Skaters tend to be younger than other trail users, aMarch 18, 2007at is most representative of the age distribution of the Minnesota population.

Some 55 to 50 percent of bikers and skaters are male, while 65 percent of walkers are female.

About half of all trail users report household incomes under $50,000, and about 60 percent of users report incomes between $25,000 and $75,000 per year. Trail users have a slightly higher median income (just over $50,000) than Minnesotans as a whole ($46,000 in 1997-98).

Download the complete Minnesota State Trail Use study (pdf 320 kb) and the Appendix and Trail Maps (pdf 980 kb).

July 2000

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