Family hike at Fort Snelling State Park

Spend Time Outside in Twin Cities Parks and Lakes

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Wander the trails at Fort Snelling State Park / Minnesota DNR

Spend Time Outside in Twin Cities Parks and Lakes

By Cinnamon Janzer

With award-winning parks, trails and urban lakes, outdoor adventures are an essential addition to your Minneapolis-St. Paul vacation.

Whether you're biking the Midtown Greenway, kayaking on Lake Harriet or hiking a trail beside the Mississippi River, the Twin Cities are a dream come true for outdoorsy visitors.

Take the Chain of Lakes for example, a local favorite year-round and a must-see spot on any visitor’s list. During the warmer months, they’re filled and lined with runners, bikers, volleyball players, barbecuers, dog walkers, Rollerbladers and so much more. When the lakes freeze, dedicated bikers switch to their studded tires and hit the paths, anglers grab their augers and drop their lines, and walkers cross the lakes with spikes on their boots to enjoy the solitude.

Across Minneapolis and St. Paul, parks, trails and lakes like this make it possible to experience Minnesota's pristine natural beauty from its two biggest cities.

Paddle boarding on Bde Maka Ska in Minneapolis

Stand-up paddle boarding on Bde Maka Ska in Minneapolis / Micah Kvidt

Swim, Paddle or Fish the Chain of Lakes

Collectively known as the Chain of Lakes, this group of five lakes (Maka Ska, Cedar, Isles, Brownie and Harriet) is brimming with opportunities for a variety of water-based activities, the most popular of which are swimming, paddling and fishing. For those who want to canoe, kayak or paddle board, Wheel Fun Rentals, located right on the shores of Bde (the Dakota word for "lake") Maka Ska, will make your dreams come true.

When it comes to swimming, beach options are abundant, but the East Beach at Cedar Lake is a favorite among many. Thomas Beach at Bde Maka Ska is especially trendy for those looking to see and be seen on the water. All of the lakes are dotted with docks that are ideal for fishing, but the one across from the dog park on Lake of the Isles has a particularly stunning view of downtown Minneapolis in the background.

The Chain of Lakes sits just west of the trendy and bustling Uptown neighborhood south of downtown Minneapolis—bookend your time on the lakes with a stroll down the neighborhood's aptly named main drag, Lake Street, for some of the best shopping, dining and drinking in town.  

Cool Off at America's First Naturally Filtered Public Pool

Chemical cleaners are a thing of the past at Webber Natural Swimming Pool. Located in north Minneapolis, the nation's first naturally filtered public pool uses plants and other organic filters to keep its waters fresh for swimmers, similar to how a stream, lake or wetland stays clean. Kids will love wading in the shallow upper pool, while the deeper, lower pool's designated lap swim, open swim and jumping areas appeal to swimmers of all ages. Because of its delicate natural ecosystem, Webber is more prone to closures than chemical cleaned pools; be sure to check the park website before heading over for a swim.

Dry off after your dip and take a short stroll on the attached linear park along Victory Memorial Drive to reach the neighborhood ramen spot, Tori 44.

Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis

Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis / Kurt Carlson

Hike Minnehaha Falls (And Bring Your Pup)

Straddling the Mississippi River between Minneapolis and St. Paul is Minnehaha Park, a waterfall-centered park that will quickly make you forget you’re in the middle of two cities. Minnehaha Falls is a huge draw for family sight-seeing, and after you marvel at the falls themselves be sure to explore the lengthy riverfront park on foot or by bike. Dirt hiking trails begin at the falls; meander through a densely wooded forest to the nearby Mississippi River banks and an off-leash dog park that is so large and forested it doesn’t feel like a dog park at all (other than all the dogs, that is). If you travel with your pup, this spot truly cannot be missed.

To cap off this picture-perfect Minneapolis summer experience, visit the park restaurant, Sea Salt Eatery. The lines at Sea Salt are often as epic as the dishes they serve, but there's truly no substitute for a summer evening of fried seafood delights, ice cream and cold beer from an outdoor patio overlooking the falls.

All dogs must have an off-leash dog park permit before entering the park. Daily permits are just $5, and can be purchased over the phone from Minneapolis Park and Recreation headquarters.

Go For a Run Along the Mississippi

The dividing line between the Twin Cities, the Mississippi River is home to a variety of outdoor activities, and running along the trails that hug its shores is a popular and rewarding option. Named after the immigrant farmer who first owned the land, Crosby Farm is home to 6.7 miles of paved trails along the St. Paul side of the Mississippi River that are a nature-loving runner’s paradise. In Minneapolis, running the Mississippi River Road Trail takes you along a 16-mile loop from Broadway Bridge to Minnehaha Falls and back.

Roll or Stroll the Iconic Stone Arch Bridge

If you’ve ever typed "Minneapolis" into Google, there’s a good chance that the Stone Arch Bridge came up on your first page of image results. In fact, it's such a regional icon it comes up when you search for "St. Paul," too. Connecting the idyllic St. Anthony Main neighborhood with the skyscraper-filled downtown across the mighty Mississippi River, this brick bridge was originally constructed as a railroad connection in the late 1800’s.

Closed to train traffic in 1978, the Stone Arch Bridge was converted into a bicycle and pedestrian span in 1994, boosting the downtown riverfront's reputation as an outdoorsy tourist destination practically overnight. It passes by the modern Guthrie Theater, the historic Mill City Museum and the roaring St. Anthony Falls, so there is quite literally something for everyone to enjoy along the way in addition to the incredible views.

Bicyclist riding through Loring Park with Minneapolis skyline in background

Found on the southern edge of downtown Minneapolis, Loring Park is an urban oasis in the heart of the city / Mike Krivit Photography, courtesy Meet Minneapolis

Lounge in Loring Park

Peppered with fountains and lakes and complete with a small but popular dog park, Loring Park is a great place to spend the day with nothing but a good book and a blanket. It’s incredibly centrally located in Minneapolis, so if you’ve got a couple of extra hours on hand, it’s an easy activity to fit in.

Stop by nearby Lakes and Legends brewery for a local beer on the way, strike a pose at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, and have dinner at Lotus or the Nicollet Diner on your way out to experience the best that the adjacent Loring Park neighborhood has to offer.

Flowers in the Marjorie Mcneely Conservatory at Como Park in St. Paul

Marjorie Mcneely Conservatory at Como Park in St. Paul / Perrine Dailey

Visit the Como Park Conservatory and Zoo

Composed of 13 different rooms and areas that range from an orchid house to a dome filled with palm trees, the Como Conservatory runs on donations so you can pay as little or as much as you want to experience it. Open year-round and located alongside the Como Zoo, the conservatory is a popular winter destination for visitors seeking a taste of the tropics even when the ground outside is covered with snow. During the warmer months, explore St. Paul's landmark park to stroll along Como Lake, find a classic carousel in the amusement park, splash in the outdoor waterpark, play a round of golf and catch a bite at Spring Cafe.  

Bicyclists on the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis

Formerly a railroad corridor, the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis is now practically a highway for bikes 

Bike the World-Famous Midtown Greenway

Whether you’re a visitor looking to pop from tourist spot to tourist spot by bike or a local looking to inject a little more of the outdoors into your daily commute, the Midtown Greenway is the place to do it.

Often described as a highway for bikes, the Midtown Greenway makes joyfully traveling across the dense neighborhoods of South Minneapolis as easy as riding a bike. Built in a former railroad trench, the trail cuts effortlessly across 5.5 miles of Minneapolis connecting the Mississippi River to the Chain of Lakes and beyond. In many ways the trail functions as a hub of the entire Minneapolis-St. Paul bicycling network, with connections to trails and paths that can take you nearly anywhere in the region.

Even if you don’t have anywhere in particular to go, this bike and walking path touches so much of Minneapolis that no matter where you stop off, you’re likely to find something new and fun to do along the way. Pedal your own bike or borrow a ride from the Twin Cities' bike-sharing program, Nice Ride.

Fall bikers Carver Park Reserve

Stop into Carver Park Preserve for a glimpse of lakes and prairies just off the trail / Three Rivers Park District

Explore History & Nature at Carver Park Reserve

Just west of Minneapolis in Victoria, Carver Park Reserve offers something for everyone. As one of the largest parks in the Three Rivers Park District, it encompasses 3,500 acres of rolling hills, woods, countryside and several lakes. Miles of winding, paved and unpaved trails cater to bicyclists, runners, hikers and horseback riders.

Three park facilities highlight area culture and nature. The Lowry Nature Center has animals including snakes and raptors and interpretive displays in a prairie-style building and trails and wildlife viewing on its 250-acre site. The Grimm Farm Historic Site tells the history of 19th-century German farmers and pioneering seed-savers who gave us the first winter-hardy alfalfa. View more wildlife on the lake and wetlands at the King Waterfowl Sanctuary.

Other park amenities include a children’s play area, boating, fishing, archery and an off-leash dog area. Stay the night at the Lake Auburn campground or one of the group camp areas. The Carver Park Reserve is linked to Hopkins by the 15-mile Lake Minnetonka LRT Regional Trail, which passes through Chanhassen, Excelsior and Minnetonka.

Cinnamon Janzer

Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis who writes broadly about culture, business and travel. Her words have been published in National Geographic, New York magazine, The Washington Post, Fast Company, Eater and USA Today.