Blazing a trail

Over the years, Russell resident Gary Thooft has built up his own network of ATV trails

Gary Thooft spoke about how he built ATV trails on his land near Russell last week. More than 5 miles of trail wind through wooded areas and clearings near Coon Creek.


It’s not obvious that the trails are there. Even when viewed from the perspective of a Google satellite map, it’s not easy to see many of the paths under the oak trees by Coon Creek.

But the spreading network of trails, designed for offroad vehicles, have gotten positive reactions from guests over the years, Gary Thooft said. Building and maintaining the trails has been a hobby for this rural Russell resident for years now.

“It’s been an adventure,” Thooft said.

The trail network, about 5.5 miles in total length, winds through woods and clearings near Coon Creek, on the edge of Russell. They aren’t the kind of trails built for lots of speed. As Thooft toured around the property on a utility vehicle last week, he went up and down steep hills, around corners, and through areas of dense trees and brush.

But the views were good, with the flowing creek, and touches like a covered bridge built from recycled materials.

“My daughter thought I should have a covered bridge,” Thooft explained. So, he built one.

“It’s been building for some time,” Thooft said of the trails. The first ones were built for the land’s previous owner, Ed Burckhardt. Burckhardt didn’t live on the property, Thooft said, but he would sometimes visit, and go for Jeep rides there.

“I made the trail for him, so he could take his friends around,” Thooft said. “He always liked the native prairie,” Thooft said, and Burckhardt conserved areas of it on his land.

After Burckhardt died in 2010, Thooft bought the land. Now, he keeps up the trails on his own, and has added to the system.

Thooft said he didn’t have a master plan when he built the trails. He just decided where to go, and cleared a path. He maintains the trails with a skid loader and a backhoe, removing fallen branches and trees. With those tools, it can take only a few hours to clear a new trail segment, he said.

It hasn’t all been simple work, however. Thooft said the aftermath of the severe storms on July 1, 2011, took a lot of extra cleaning up.

Over time, Thooft has also added trail marker signs and other features to the trails. There’s a shelter with a front porch perched on a hillside, and several small bridges over the creek. He built them all.

It took work to build them, but the trails have been an enjoyable place to spend time, Thooft said.

“I like to come here and listen to the water,” he said, pausing by one of the bridges on the creek.

Thooft has had family, community groups and other guests come to use the trails over the years. But, he said, he’s been thinking about how to keep the trails going in the future. After seeing an article in an offroading magazine about the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ assistance program for off-highway vehicle trails, Thooft said he thought about opening the trails up as a park for all-terrain vehicles. He approached Lyon County Planning and Zoning Administrator John Biren and Brooke Wyffels, head of county parks programming, about the idea.

“He did a lot of that initiative,” Biren said of Thooft’s proposal. Biren was able to help refer Thooft to resources like the county parks department and the DNR.

Biren said he had heard that Thooft had built ATV trails, but he had never seen them until about a year ago, when he was on a four-wheeling trip there.

“It was pretty neat,” Biren said. He “never dreamt” anything like the trails were there. The fact that there are areas of native plants on the property also added interest. It would be nice to see some of that land protected, like it would be as part of a park, Biren said.

The Lyon County Board heard Thooft’s initial proposal in April. In the meantime, Thooft said he’s encouraged by the response he’s gotten so far from the county, and from members of an area ATV club.