Four Fun Ways to Experience the Mississippi River this Summer

If you live in the Twin Cities and haven’t spent time up close and personal with the Mississippi River, you’re missing out. It’s hard to think of another major metro area that has a national park running through the middle of it, and with lots of free or low-cost ways to enjoy the river, there’s no excuse not to get out and experience this natural icon.

Whether you’re into paddling, biking, hiking, wildlife-spotting or just some shoreline relaxation, the Mississippi River has something to offer you. Below is our summer guide to experiencing the river. We’re obviously biased toward things happening inside our watershed, so feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments. What’s your favorite way to enjoy with the river?

Paddle the River, Hassle-Free

A group of paddlers prepares to embark at Share the River Nordeast.
A group of paddlers embarks at Share the River Nordeast.

Paddling the Mississippi River might sound intimidating, but today it’s easier than ever, thanks to a host of new programs and events designed for occasional and first-time paddlers.

Tomorrow, the MWMO will be holding its annual Share the River Nordeast event, where visitors can paddle the river with experienced guides and enjoy a free cookie from Cookie Cart. It’s one of the easiest, most accessible (and fun) ways to experience the Mississippi River, with no skills or knowledge (or money) required. As a side benefit, you get to see our Stormwater Park and Learning Center. If you can’t make the MWMO’s event, the Longfellow Community Council sponsors a similar event called Share the River Gorge on July 25. (They offer ice cream instead of cookies.)

If you’re looking for a solo experience or a longer paddle, check out Mississippi River Paddle Share. This first-of-its-kind kayak-sharing program (think Nice Ride, but on the water) has generated headlines for its innovative approach that makes paddling the river accessible to just about anyone. Simply go online to reserve a one- or two-person kayak and paddle down-river (i.e., with the current) on any one of five different routes (including one that takes you from the MWMO to Boom Island). My personal recommendation: start at North Mississippi Regional Park (with a quick visit to see the wildlife at the Kroening Interpretive Center) and head to Boom Island. Pause along the way to watch the great blue herons gathered at the Heron Rookery, see the landscape here at the MWMO, and admire the newly restored Hall’s Island. (Just do us a favor and don’t set foot on the island; the habitat is in the process of being restored.)

If you’re feeling truly adventurous, you can sign up for a paddleboard race at Aquatennial Skyline Fest 2018. Part of the Minneapolis Aquatennial festivities, the event features multiple paddleboard races for paddlers at various skill levels, as well as an optional paddle clinic the night before the races.

Experience the River by Bike

A pair of cyclists ride a bike trail next to the Mississippi River.
A network of off-street bike trails provide a fun and safe way to experience the Mississippi River.

If you want to see a lot of the riverfront in a short amount of time, there’s no better way to do it than on a bike. West River Parkway Trail offers an unbroken, fully off-street bikeway from Minnehaha Falls all the way to Ole Olson Park, north of downtown Minneapolis. Between those two points are some of the most famous attractions in Minneapolis: the Stone Arch Bridge, St. Anthony Falls (and its lock and dam), Mill Ruins Park and the Guthrie Theater.

If you feel like exploring, just hop across any bridge downtown and wander along the east bank. A bike trail links Nicollet Island and Boom Island, each of which offers its own unique sights and recreational opportunities. You can also check out the newly resurrected Hall’s Island (mentioned above), or head east toward the University of Minnesota and then hop on East River Parkway. From there, you can follow the river all the way to downtown St. Paul or cross over the Ford Avenue Bridge to visit Lock and Dam No. 1.

Alternately, if you prefer a more rustic vibe, you could head further north to North Mississippi Regional Park (on the river’s west bank) or Riverfront Regional Park (on the east bank). Both are accessible by bike trails (with just a bit of on-street riding), and are especially great places for spotting wildlife.

Over the weekend, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area published a video on Facebook highlighting some of the many great bike trails along the river. You can check out their suggested route map here. It’ll take you right through our watershed.

Escape from the City (Without Ever Leaving)

Longfellow Beach at sunset.
Longfellow Beach is one of many hidden gems along the Mississippi River as it passes through the Twin Cities.

One of my personal favorite things about the Mississippi River as it runs through the city is all the little hidden nooks where you can go to get some peace and quiet. The Mississippi National River and Recreation Area offers countless opportunities to escape the hustle and bustle of city life, without long drives out to the country.

One of my personal favorites is the Winchell Trail, a rustic hiking path that begins just north of the Ford Parkway Bridge and ends at the Midtown Greenway. It follows the river and leads through a number of delightfully secluded spots, including quiet, sandy beaches like Longfellow Beach and the aptly-named White Sands Beach. The trail also runs directly through Mississippi River Gorge Regional Park, a forested area with winding trails, clearings, and a peaceful, trickling waterfall. Bring some camp chairs and spend an evening at the beach, or just get lost exploring the gorge; either way, you’ll forget you’re in Minnesota’s most densely populated city.

If you’re just looking for a spot to chill out or maybe even do some fishing, the riverfront is full of opportunities. For natural areas with interesting water features, try Shadow Falls Park or Hidden Falls Regional Park in St. Paul. (I can affirm that the latter has some excellent hammocking spots.) Minnehaha Regional Park is a great all-around destination for exploring both the river and Minnehaha Creek, and boasts a famous waterfall as well as an extremely popular dog park.

Join the Party

Minneapolis Aquatennial fireworks show over the Stone Arch Bridge. (Source: Mac H (media601) on Flickr)
Minneapolis Aquatennial fireworks show over the Stone Arch Bridge. (Source: Mac H (media601) on Flickr)

It should come as no surprise that the Mighty Mississippi serves as a main focal point for local culture and civic life. Dozens of events take place on or near the riverfront each summer. Here are a few of our favorites:

This year’s Stone Arch Bridge Festival has already come and gone, but the Minneapolis Aquatennial (July 18–21) features dozens of activities on the water, including canoe rides, tours of the St. Anthony Falls lock and dam, and the aforementioned Skyline Fest (paddleboard races). The Aquatennial fireworks show is a perennial favorite, with dozens of great viewing spots along the river.

Speaking of fireworks, you might want to check out the Meet Minneapolis Fourth of July Fireworks guide for some tips on the best places to see this year’s Independence Day fireworks show. (Not surprisingly, most of their suggested viewing locations are along the downtown riverfront.)

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s summer Music and Movies in the Park series features a number of riverfront locales. You can see live music Mondays at 7 p.m. at Nicollet Island Park or Tuesdays at 7 p.m. at Father Hennepin Bluff Park. The latter is also a great location to see movies; check out the park board’s movie schedule (PDF) for details.

Finally, local waterskiing demo team, the Twin Cities River Rats, puts on a show every Thursday night along West River Parkway just south of the Broadway Street Bridge. It’s free, it’s fun and it’s right across the street from a taproom.

What about you? What are your favorite riverside activities? Let us know in the comments.

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