If you’ve spent time in the Twin Cities area, you’ll know that we have some incredible places to spend time outdoors. In part, it’s because of the Top Places to Visit in Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, our local national park.
Minneapolis consistently ranks as one of the best bike-friendly cities in the United States. Our metro area also ranks high among the healthiest and fittest cities in the US because of our access to trails and green spaces.
As mentioned, we’re taking a break from our usual travel adventures during the pandemic and sticking closer to home. Today we’re sharing all about our favorite places to get out doors in our local parks. The next time you’re in the area, add these to your #parkchasing list:
Top 10 Spots to Explore in Mississippi National River and Recreation Area
1. Stone Arch Bridge
The Stone Arch Bridge is arguably the most popular destinations in Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. Offering the best views of the downtown Minneapolis skyline, the Stone Arch Bridge is one of the Twin Cities most iconic landmarks.
On weekends, you can find us biking or walking the pedestrian-only footbridge. It’s also where we catch the best summer fireworks. Our favorite fact about the Stone Arch Bridge: it was constructed in 1881 by railroad baron James J. Hill with a uniquely curved shape. Hill went to the extra expense to create the Stone Arch Bridge’s signature curve, just so he could see his entire train cross the river at one time.
2. Minnehaha Falls
One of our favorite summer biking destinations in Mississippi National River and Recreation Area and one of our top places to bring visitors to the Twin Cities is Minnehaha Falls Regional Park. Located in the heart of the city, the park
In the summer, check out the ice cream and fried calamari from Sea Salt Pavilion and stick around for live music in the band shell. If you’re in the mood for hiking, nearby trails from Minnehaha Falls lead to some of our other favorites on this list including Lock and Dam #1, Historic Fort Snelling and Fort Snelling State Park.
3. St. Anthony Falls Visitor Center & Upper St. Anthony Falls
Of the two visitor’s centers in Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, we’ve spent the most time at St. Anthony Falls. Located near the Stone Arch Bridge, the museum overlooks the Lock and Dam and St. Anthony Falls near downtown Minneapolis. We love bringing family and friends visiting the Twin Cities to the ranger-led tours here during the summer paired with a trip to the nearby Mill City Museum. It’s a chance to tell the history of the river and how it shaped the history of Minneapolis.
4. Harriet Island & River Flats
Harriet Island happens to be one of the most popular parks in St. Paul—and one of our favorite picnic spots during the pandemic. We had anniversary photos taken here a few years ago under the giant cottonwood trees. The park sits directly across the Mississippi River from downtown St. Paul and has a great lawn and picnic area. In the summer months, there’s plenty of barge traffic to watch floating by, including several restored sternwheel riverboats dock at the public pier here.
5. Mississippi River Visitor Center
Directly across from Harriet Island, you’ll find the other Visitor’s Center for Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, located in the lobby of the Science Museum of Minnesota. The Mississippi River Visitor Center is free to the public and has a small exhibit area. It’s also where you can pick up your Junior Ranger program and National Park Passport stamps for the park.
6. Lilydale Regional Park
Even though we lived just a few miles from Lilydale Regional Park, it wasn’t until the pandemic hit that we spent any significant amount of time here. Now it’s one of our favorite places to walk and bike during the work week. Each spring, Lilydale’s 636-acres of floodplain forest Mississippi River fill with the muddy, silty waters from the river. As the waters dry up, the urban adventurers come out. In part, because the park has so many biking, hiking, and birdwatching opportunities. We loved checking in on a pair of nesting bald eagles this summer who chose to make their home so close to ours.
7. Indian Mounds Park
As we’ve mentioned before, the waters of the Mississippi River running through the Twin Cities have been home to people for thousands of years. Indian Mounds Park in St. Paul is a good reminder that the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area were the traditional lands of the Dakota and Hopewell people. Archeologists estimate that 1,500-2000 year ago, the Hopewell created burial mounds (similar to those found in Iowa’s Effigy Mounds National Monument) to honor and bury the deceased. While only six mounds remain in Indian Mounds Park, there were once more than thirty in the area.
The park is a nice spot for a quick walk or picnic, but it’s most popular for it’s stunning views of the downtown St. Paul skyline. If you’re looking for a spot to catch a glowing sunrise or sunset in our city, we recommend the view!
8. Lock and Dam #1
It’s hard to imagine how Minneapolis and St. Paul could ever have grown into major shipping communities on the Mississippi River without the lock and dam system. Lock and Dam #1 is known by locals as the Ford Dam because it was previously owned by the Ford Motor Company factory to power a nearby assembly plant. It was initially completed in 1917 and is one of three lock and dam systems in Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. While the locks are now closed to commercial traffic to prevent invasive carp traveling up the river, visitors can still visit the sites, tour the lock and dam system and walk right up next to the dam. We have a lot of engineers in our family, so a trip to the lock and dam is a popular stop when we’re showing off our city.
9. Historic Fort Snelling & Fort Snelling State Park
In 1825, the United States Army built a military fortification at the confluence of the Minnesota River and the Mississippi River. The confluence was an important location and known to the Mdewakanton Dakota as Bdóte (“where 2 rivers meet”) and the “center of the earth.” Today, the Minnesota Historical Society offers tours of the historic fort structures and the lands surrounding it are one of the most popular hiking destinations in the Cities. We complete the roughly 3 mile Pike Island loop hike at Fort Snelling State Park several times every year. At the half-way mark there’s a great spot to view the confluence of the rivers off the end of the island.
10. Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary
Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary probably doesn’t make a lot of “Best of the Twin Cities” lists. But during the pandemic, it’s been a lifesaver for us. Just a few steps from our front door in St. Paul, we’ve hiked here three or four times per week. At the height of lockdown, we walked the quiet dirt trails here trying to take in a little bit of calm and solitude as the world braced for the impacts of the virus. It was also from the Sanctuary trails where we could see the thick black smoke billowing from the buildings burned during the civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd. In the shadows of downtown St. Paul this tiny slice of nature has offered up deer, herons, bald eagles, and more wildflowers than you can count.
A visit to Bruce Vento probably won’t take you longer than 20 or 30 minutes. There’s no visitor’s center or amenities besides a few signs about the history of this railroad repair yard now turned nature sanctuary. But for a few of us, it’s the place we enjoy Mississippi National River and Recreation Area the most.
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