The Best Hiking Trails in Mississippi National River and Recreation Area

When the pandemic kept us from #parkchasing for a while, we found ourselves spending most evenings and weekends on the trails of our local national park, Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.  The 54,000-acre park winds through the heart of Minneapolis and St. Paul just a few miles from our home.  So many places to explore and enjoy the river.  Today we’re sharing our list of the best hiking trails in Mississippi National River and Recreation Area for your next trip to the Twin Cities area.

Sections of Mississippi National River and Recreation Area

Mississippi National River and Recreation Area map

The National Park Service divides the sections of the Mississippi River throughout the park into five main areas:

  • The Wild and Scenic River (River Mile 879 to 863) — North of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the river has a state wild and scenic river designation.
  • The River of the Falls/The Urban River (River Mile 862 to 852) — From Brooklyn Center, a suburb of Minneapolis, the river approaches several falls, beginning with Saint Anthony, and enters the historic milling district in downtown Minneapolis.
  • The Gorge/Where the Rivers Meet (River Mile 852 to 843) — After the Milling District, the river enters the Mississippi River Gorge that extends to its confluence with the Minnesota River at Fort Snelling.  This is the section of river and hiking trails we spend most of our time on.
  • The Working River (River Mile 840 to 833) — From near downtown St. Paul (where our home is) the river begins to feature tow boats and barge traffic as it winds towards a large natural scientific area.
  • The Forested Floodplain (River Mile 833 to 806) — From South Saint Paul, the river widens further, the bluffs on either side move higher. This is one of the new areas of the park we got to know during the pandemic

Top Trails in Mississippi National River and Recreation Area

Stone Arch Bridge Minneapolis
Stone Arch Bridge - Minneapolis, MN

Gold Medal Park to Water Power Park via the Stone Arch Bridge

Length: 1.8 miles one way
Configuration: Out and back
Difficulty: Mostly level, paved and dirt trail

Description: Start at Gold Medal Park in downtown Minneapolis (where we enjoy the 4th of July fireworks every year) and travel through Mill Ruins Park towards the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area visitor’s center at St. Anthony Falls.  If you have time to stop at the lock and dam for a tour and view of St. Anthony Falls, do so.  It’s one of the best areas t0 see in the park. 

Then travel across the Stone Arch Bridge to Hennepin Island and Water Power Park.  The Dakota and Native American people who originally inhabited Minnesota viewed this area as having significant spiritual power.  Today, the park commemorates the nation’s first commercial hydroelectric generation station and how hydroelectric power changed the nation.

More Info: Water Power Park – NPS.gov

Minnehaha Falls
Minnehaha Falls - Mississippi National River and Recreation Area

Minnehaha Falls Creek to Mississippi River

Length: 2.8 miles
Configuration: Out and back (although we like to do this as a loop down one side of the creek and then back to the other side)
Difficulty: Mostly level, although the trail surface can be muddy and slippery in spots

Description: Start at Minnehaha Falls, one of the Twin Cities most iconic landmarks.  Enjoy the falls then walk down the steps on either side to the Minnehaha Creek at the base of the falls.  Follow the creek path you’ll find a stone bridge to cross to either side of Minnehaha Creek.  Both sides are fitting hike, so choose one and follow the creek to where it empties into the Mississippi River (about 1.5 miles).  When you reach the River, enjoy a few minutes on the sandy shore before turning around and walking back on the other side of the Creek to the base of the falls.

More Info: Minneapolis Parks and Recreation

Lilydale Regional Park - Mississippi National River and Recreation Areaw

Mississippi Gorge / Winchell Trail

Length: officially 5 miles, although multiple access points mean you can complete sections or a full loop for a longer hike
Configuration: Out and back
Difficulty: Mostly level, although the trail surface can be muddy and slippery in spots

Description: The 5 mile roundtrip Winchell Trail is a hiking-only trail on the west bank of the river between Franklin Avenue and 44th Street in Minneapolis. Unpaved trails break away from the main trail along the bluffs and cut into the woods, permitting additional exploration of the Mississippi gorge. One section takes the hiker down to the river while another crosses an oak savanna restoration. Some sections are rugged and may be muddy after storms. There are also a number of stairs along the route. Between 38th Street and 44th Street the Winchell Trail is paved and is separated from the adjoining bike path.

More Info: Winchell Trail, Minneapolis

Grey Cloud Dunes Scientific and Natural Area

Length: N/A – there are no organized trails in the SNA area, dispersed hiking only
Configuration: N/A
Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous depending on the route you chart

Description: Visitors to Grey Cloud Dunes Scientific and Natural Area will find a peaceful place away from the hustle and bustle of the Twin Cities. Hiking, photography, and nature study are options for the inquisitive in an area of dry prairie on two crests with the first at 40-60 feet above the river and a second cresting at about 110 feet above the river. Gently rolling dunes cover both. Blowouts are common.

Distinct plant communities are present throughout the area so bring your wildflower identification book. Blue racers and prairie skinks are also present as are white-tail deer, coyotes, foxes and other common mammalian species.

More Info: Grey Cloud Dunes SNA – Minnesota DNR

Lilydale Regional Park - Brickyard Trail

Length: 1.8 miles
Configuration: Out and back
Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous

Description: The Brickyard was the site of the Twin Cities Brick Company, which was founded in 1894 and continued to make bricks until the 1970s. The interest in brick-making boomed after a number of local villages and cities, constructed primarily of wood, burned during catastrophic fires during the late 1800s. A level trail leads from the parking lot (be prepared for mud during inclement weather) to the brick kiln. Visitors can hike a graveled trail from the kiln up the steep hill to the quarries.  

When you’re done here, explore some of the paved biking and walking trails through the rest of Lilydale Regional Park.  We love the large cottonwood trees here in the summer and fall.

More Info:  Lilydale Regional Park – City of St. Paul

Coon Rapids Dam

Length: 2.2 miles for the full loop, can be made shorter
Configuration: Loop (plus a spur if you go out over the dam)
Difficulty: Easy

Description: Coon Rapids Dam is part of Mississippi Gateway Regional Park and a popular spot for hiking, fishing, rafting, and cross country skiing in the winter.  The trails here are loops, one on each side of the river with a foot path across the dam over the Mississippi River.  Trails connect to other parks in the area for a full day of hiking. 

More Info:  Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park – Anoka County

Pike Island Trail - Fort Snelling State Park

Length: 3.7 miles for the full loop, can be made shorter with a mid-point cut off
Configuration: Loop
Difficulty: Easy

Description: One of the first hiking trails we do every year to start the new year is the Pike Island Trail at Fort Snelling State Park.  The hike is located directly between Minneapolis and St. Paul at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers.  

The Dakota believed that these two rivers were the origin of life and joined together here at the center of the earth.  You’ll see cottonwoods, silver maple and willow during the river bottom hike.  We almost always encounter white-tailed deer and wild turkeys as well.

Best to hike here in the early morning or evening to avoid the busiest times.

More Info:  Fort Snelling State Park – Minnesota DNR

Have a favorite hiking trail in Mississippi National River & Recreation Area? Post it using the hashtag #parkchaser to be featured

The Best Hiking Trails in Missisippi River National River and Recreation Area

Other Activities in Mississippi National River and Recreation Area

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