Meet the Mississippi: Four Fun Ways to Experience the 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 all kinds of free or low-cost ways to enjoy the river, there are plenty of reasons 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 updated summer guide to experiencing the river. We focused on things happening inside the MWMO watershed, but we’re open to other places and ideas too! What’s your favorite way to enjoy with the river? Email us at contacts@mwmo.org.

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.

On June 22, the MWMO will host 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, knowledge, or money required. As a side benefit, you get to visit our Stormwater Park and Learning Center.

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 of several different-themed routes.

Paddle Share officially reopens on May 28 this year, but rumor has it they plan to start taking reservations a couple of weeks early. My personal recommendation: start at North Mississippi Regional Park (with a quick visit to see the wildlife at the Kroening Nature 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.)

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. (Photo credit: Lucas Winzenburg)

If you want to see a lot of the Mississippi River in a short amount of time, there’s no better way to do it than on a bike. You can access nearly the entire riverfront as it runs through our watershed via off-street bike paths and/or bike lanes. Best of all, these trails pass by some of the most iconic parks and destinations in the Twin Cities.

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 (featuring the new Water Works park and pavilion) 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.

For those who are feeling ambitious, we mapped out a grand tour of the entire MWMO riverfront, from Islands of Peace Park in Fridley all the way down to the Ford Bridge at the southern tip of our watershed. I recently test-rode it myself and can confirm that it’s a lot of fun. If you’re looking for a shorter bike route with stops at some neat MWMO projects, check out our self-guided watershed bike tour from 2020.

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 exploring the Mississippi River is all the little hidden nooks where you can find 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 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 personally confirm 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 to throw on your calendar:

  • The Stone Arch Bridge Festival (June 18–19) offers a weekend of art and music along the Downtown Minneapolis riverfront.
  • The Minneapolis Aquatennial (July 20–23) features dozens of activities on and along the waterfront. (The Aquatennial fireworks show is a perennial favorite, with dozens of great viewing spots along the river.)
  • The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s summer Music and Movies in the Parkevent lineup includes a number of events at Water Works, the city’s newest riverfront park.

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 at contacts@mwmo.org.

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