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'Driftless Trail' on path to reality

The newest Minnesota backpacking trail could be in your backyard.

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Marty Walsh, left, poses with Andy Petzold, right, for a selfie as they hike the would-be Driftless Trail in Southeast Minnesota June 26, 2022.
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LANESBORO, Minn. — Marty Walsh enjoys hiking and backpacking trips. The drive to get to a major trail, not so much.

“I don’t want to have to drive five, six hours to do that,” he said.

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Walsh has hiked the Superior Hiking Trail along the North Shore, the Ozark Trail in Missouri, the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin. He has his eyes on the Appalachian Trail too. However, right now, he has his eyes on creating that experience in his backyard.

Not literally his backyard, but potentially some people's backyards in Southeast Minnesota. This corner of the state is home to a unique bluffland known as the Driftless area . Walsh is working to create a backpacking trail through the bluffs connecting state parks and primitive camping sites.

Last week, Walsh put his plans to the test. He and his friend Andy Petzold hiked from Eagle Bluff to Lanesboro, Minnesota, along the Root River State Trail through Whalan, Minnesota, into Beaver Creek Valley State Park in Houston County.

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The trip was part adventure, part scouting mission and part promotional to drum up support for a 25-mile Driftless hiking trail that someday could extend as long as 100 miles.

“It’s a very proof-of-concept trip,” he said. “Is it realistic and what do we need to make this work?”

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Walsh stuck to public lands and roads for the trip. Along the way, he noted where private land links could connect trail fragments. He also looked for places that would need signage to guide would-be trail users in the right direction.

The tree-lined bluffs and remnant bluff prairies provide great views, unique wildlife and interesting microclimates in just a few miles of hiking, Walsh said.

“Having this all put together — with signage, maps — is good for the region and will help show off the region and give people some pride in this area,” he said.

State law allows camping on public land as long as it’s not in a state park with designated camping areas or adjacent to Minnesota state-run public camping area. Walsh worked to find some rustic spots for off-trail camping that meets those standards to test his camping gear and find good spots for would-be trail users.

That was the fun part. The next step won’t be as much fun for him — soliciting landowners for potential access to land to link the public routes. Walsh, although outgoing, would rather hike than make personal pitches to strangers for help.

“This is the next big step, and it’s going to take cold calls,” Walsh Tweeted Tuesday. “Yuck.”

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Other trails rely on similar partnerships. Walsh’s father-in-law Tim Gossman owns land at the Ninebark Road trailhead of Lost Creek Trail near Chatfield. Gossman and neighbor Bill Bailey allow people to use their land to access the trail.

“That trail is a really good model,” Walsh said. “Almost all of it is public land but the private partnerships make it possible.”

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Bluffs along the would-be Driftless Trail in Southeast Minnesota.
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Marty Walsh poses along the would-be Driftless Trail in Southeast Minnesota June 26, 2022.
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Andy Petzold crosses a creek in the would-be Driftless Trail in Southeast Minnesota.<br/>
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A road along the would-be Driftless Trail in Southeast Minnesota.
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Nettle blossom along the would-be Driftless Trail in Southeast Minnesota.
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John Molseed joined the Post Bulletin in 2018. He covers arts, culture, entertainment, nature and other fun stories he's surprised he gets paid to cover. When he's not writing articles about Southeast Minnesota artists and musicians, he's either picking banjo, brewing beer, biking or looking for other hobbies that begin with the letter "b." Readers can reach John at 507-285-7713 or jmolseed@postbulletin.com.
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