Best Twin Cities Parks for Hiking (Without the Crowds)
Best Twin Cities Parks for Hiking (Without the Crowds)
Last Updated by Ricky Holzer on Saturday, April 11th, 2020
Lists of Twin Cities hikes are a dime a dozen (though I read at least 12 of them before writing this article but without spending a dime), and most of them only list the really popular parks in the Twin Cities: Afton State Park
, Fort Snelling State Park
, Minnehaha Park, and Lebanon Hills Regional Park
. While I agree those are all good places to hike that you should certainly visit if you haven't already, it's time to shake things up and talk about some lesser-known parks around the Twin Cities metro. And since we're all social-distancing, many of these parks are ideal to avoid the crowds of people you'll find at those aforementioned popular parks.
Click each link to see more information about each park and hikes I've done at each. I have personally visited each and every park in this list, and all the photos here are my own.
Skip to Twin Cities Areas:
Minneapolis and St. Paul Parks
Theodore Wirth Park
Cattails and tamarack in Quaking Bog in Theodore Wirth Park
The Central Park of Minneapolis, Theodore Wirth Park (or just Wirth Park) features a variety of attractions and trail types. From the paved trails and boardwalk around Wirth Lake, to the manicured trails in the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden, to the mapless labyrinth of the trails near picturesque Quaking Bog
(pictured above), you'll find something to fill your craving for The Outdoors™.
Crosby Farm Regional Park
A field full of Black-eyed Susans in Crosby Farm Regional Park
Located on the same beautiful part of the Mississippi River as Fort Snelling State Park, Crosby Farm Regional Park is St. Paul's less-crowded alternative. Here, you can savor flower-filled meadows like pictured above, walk around the scenic wetlands of Crosby Lake, and meander through tall trees on your way to the banks of the Mississippi.
Indian Mounds Regional Park
The view of the skylines of Minneapolis and St. Paul from Indian Mounds Regional Park
High on the bluffs above the Mississippi River, Indian Mounds Regional Park is named for the series of burial mounds built by the Hopewellian and Dakota peoples. These mounds are so old that they were around when pharaohs still ruled Egypt! In addition to the cool history, this park offers you the rare chance to see the skylines of both St. Paul and Minneapolis simultaneously.
Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary
Carver's Cave formerly housed North Star Brewery
Just outside of downtown St. Paul is the unassuming Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. After hiking among native prairie grasses that attract butterflies and pollinators galore and around a few cute ponds, you'll find Carver's Cave
secretly tucked into the hillside. Though the entrance is fenced shut, you can still learn more about the history of this cave -- a Dakota holy site known as Wakan Tipi and the former site of North Star Brewery -- from the interpretive signs.
North Metro Parks
Elm Creek Park Reserve
A sunny prairie in Elm Creek Park Reserve during early spring
Elm Creek Park Reserve is the largest park in the Three Rivers Park District system, and as such, it offers the most trail mileage of any Twin Cities park -- over 50 miles including both natural surface and paved trails. Thanks to the looping nature of the trail network, you can design a hike suited to your ability level to view pretty lakes, creeks, forest, and prairie. You can return weekend after weekend and see a different part of the park every time.
Rice Creek North Regional Trail
Trees and wildflowers dot the prairie landscape along the Rice Creek North Regional Trail
Right by I-35W in Shoreview, the Rice Creek North Regional Trail follows its namesake Rice Creek through some surprisingly pretty nature -- so pretty, you'll forget that there's a freeway nearby (see above picture). Along the trail, you can spot large birds like osprey that build nests on top of the tall wooden posts and platforms scattered throughout the park.
Tony Schmidt Regional Park
Late afternoon sun illuminating the wetlands at Tony Schmidt Regional Park
Another park near I-35W, Tony Schmidt Regional Park is located along the shores of Lake Johanna in Arden Hills. You can hike on the Elmer L. Anderson Trail
through a peaceful forest and pass wetlands along the way. This is the perfect park for a weeknight walk, especially when you don't want to drive far.
East Metro Parks
Kinnickinnic State Park
The forested bluffs of the St. Croix River from Kinnickinnic State Park
Afton State Park gets all the glory in the East Metro, but literally across the St. Croix River from Afton is Wisconsin's Kinnickinnic State Park. Featuring the same gorgeous bluffs and river scenery -- the St. Croix is a federally designated Wild and Scenic River -- as the aforementioned park, Kinnickinnic is much less crowded. Color-coded trail markers make navigating the series of loop trails
a breeze as you cruise through bluff-top dry prairies and dense hardwood forests.
Willow River State Park
While crowds fill the refreshing pools by the falls during the summer, the other trails at Willow River State Park offer more solitude
Another gem on the Wisconsin side of the Twin Cities metro is Willow River State Park. While the hike to Willow River Falls
is super popular (as evidenced by the above picture), you can avoid the crowds by hiking any of the other trails in the park. For an interesting sight, you can see the park's former lake returning to its natural state due to a crumbled dam further downriver.
Battle Creek Regional Park
Snow blanketed hills in Battle Creek Regional Park
Straddling the border of Maplewood and St. Paul is Battle Creek Regional Park. While the park is mainly associated with bike trails, there are many miles of looping hiking trails to explore the hills, forests, and prairies of the East Metro.
South Metro Parks
Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge
Massive flocks of birds dot the sky above the wetland paradise of Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge
Of all the parks on this list, I think the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge is my favorite. You might not realize it, but as you cross the Minnesota River on the giant freeway bridges of I-35W and I-494, you're passing over a nature sanctuary teeming with birds and other wildlife. Though the main part of the park is adjacent to loud highway bridges and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, the sheer number of chirping birds will drown out that city noise and the pristine wetlands will make you forget you're smack in the middle of the most populated place in Minnesota. In addition to the main part of the park in Bloomington, there are other units further upriver in Chaska, Jordan, and beyond.
Whitetail Woods Regional Park
The banks of the pretty Empire Lake in early spring
In the rural part of Dakota County between Rosemount and Farmington, you'll find the small Whitetail Woods Regional Park. The quiet setting makes this park the perfect place to escape into nature without having to leave the Twin Cities metro. Walk around Empire Lake
and you'll avoid the crowds you experience at the lake near your house.
Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve
One of many ponds punctuating the forested hills of Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve
Not far from I-35 in Prior Lake is Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve, another wonderful park maintained by the Three Rivers Park District. The hills in this part of the Twin Cities metro (like the nearby ski slopes of Buck Hill) mean you can find some more difficult hikes in this park. If hills aren't your thing, the southern portion of the park offers flatter trails around Minnregs Lake
West Metro Parks
Carver Park Reserve
A yellow algae bloom adding more color to one of the pretty lakes in Carver Park Reserve
Past the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum on Minnesota Highway 5, you'll find the massive Carver Park Reserve. The dirt roads in the park make it feel like you've driven much further from the city. Filled with many miles of both paved and unpaved trails that explore the landscape of lakes, forest, and rolling grassy hills, you're sure to find a hike that meets your needs in this park.
Baker Park Reserve
A highly scenic bench on Lake Katrina in Baker Park Reserve
Over in Maple Plain, Baker Park Reserve is one of the few places within the Twin Cities metro that you can camp overnight. You can hike the long loop around Katrina Lake
or visit the smaller network of trails in the northern part of the park to enjoy the quiet scenery on a nice day.
Westwood Hills Nature Center
The wetland environment of Westwood Lake is but one of several landscapes found in Westwood Hills Nature Center
Adjacent to I-394 in St. Louis Park is Westwood Hills Nature Center. The park's trails loop around Westwood Lake and showcase the variety of landscapes you can find in Minnesota, including wetlands, prairie, hardwood forests, and pine forests. Who knows, maybe you'll even learn something about Minnesotan plants while you're here!
Next time you want to go for a hike without driving up north, check out one of these great parks that contribute to the Twin Cities reputation for beautiful and plentiful outdoor spaces! You can find links to hikes in all these places and many more on this map
. Let me know what you think in the comments below!