The Great (Urban) Outdoors

17 ways to get your nature fix—without leaving the Twin Cities

Log Rolling on Cedar Lake. Photo By Steve Woit

Someday you’re going to move to Alaska. You’re going to build a cabin on the slope of some snowy mountain, among the goats, and run through wildflowers like Julie Andrews in a buckskin suit. Until then, you’re going to stay here, in the seven-county metro area, and you don’t have to feel like you’re settling. There’s nature everywhere around the Twin Cities—because of or in spite of us—if you know where to look. We’ve looked. We’ve also paddled, hunted, and camped. At times we’ve felt very far from civilization—Alaska far. So stay put, get out there, and enjoy some of the most city-proximate nature in the country.

Stand Up Paddleboarding. Photo by TJ Turner

Aquatic Yoga
PaddleSculpt Yoga and SUP Calhoun (that’s short for Stand Up Paddleboard) breathe some quietude into paddleboarding, the gentler cousin of surfing, which can sometimes seem all ’tude and no quiet. If you can swim and downward dog, you can do this. Launching into lakes Calhoun, Cedar, Isles, or Nokomis, you paddle out just before sunset. You stop and you center yourself. Or you fall in.

Rolling & Tumbling
Log-rolling is more about fitness than deforestation these days, the ultimate sport for urban lumberjacks and anyone else who, um, rolls like it’s 1899. It requires fast footwork and exceptional balance, but the Minneapolis park and rec department offers an entry-level class on Lake Calhoun—taught by some of the top competitive rollers in the nation—to get you started.

Hiking & Trail Running
Hiking high above the Mississippi River through the Pine Bend Bluff Scientific and Natural Area in Inver Grove Heights—one of the last relatively undisturbed ecosystems in the Twin Cities—you’re as remote as you can get within 30 minutes of the IDS Center. Bring breadcrumbs and a cell phone. Beginning trail runners like Pike Island in Fort Snelling State Park, with its flat three-mile trail along the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. Hyland Lake Park Reserve in Bloomington is for the easily bored: Its no-sweat ski hill is a tough running hill, and the scenery flashes from meadow to forest to lake. Real thrill-seekers may only be satisfied by running up walls, which is what parkour, or free running, is for. Look for gatherings at Peavey Plaza, French Park, and elsewhere on,,

Paragliding. Photo Courtesy of

Paragliding the Prairie
A few years back, a guy paraglided from Cosmos to Waseca after being towed into flight by a pickup truck—93 miles, a state record. You could try to do better, with lessons from SDI Paragliding Academy, which launches the fearless and feather-envious out of Cosmos, Apple Valley, and Hayfield. Or tell your family you love them and try powered paragliding, basically flying with a motor on your back.

Setting Sail
Sailing is not for back-floaters or tubers. It demands constant calculation and manual labor just to stay on course. Minneapolis Park and Recreation offers lessons on Lake Harriet. You learn to rig, jib, tack, and dock on an easily maneuvered 14-foot, two-sail Lido. Then you get to wear a captain’s hat for the rest of your life.

Archery. Photo by Derek J. Dickinson/Three Rivers Park District

Archery in the Open
Until the Hunger Games, archery was for survivalists and Robin Hood. Now kids in sock-monkey hats are taking to the woods with compound bows. Elm Creek Park Reserve, in Maple Grove, has a mile-long archery hike—suitable for all ages—with some aspirational targets, like a depiction of a pronghorn antelope, its heart circled.

Hunting the Suburbs
The greatest concentration of deer in Minnesota is, somewhat surprisingly, in the relative sanctuary of the Twin Cities. The living is easy, the predators few. But that’s changing: If you want to hunt deer literally in your backyard, you can do that now with a bow and arrow in Burnsville, Inver Grove Heights, and elsewhere. You can hunt deer and ducks with a gun in the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, between Shakopee and Bloomington—throw some camo over your suit after work, hike into the bush, bring home dinner.

Zipping through the Woods
Terrestrial life is for suckers. Sand Creek Adventures has a better idea: flying across the Sand Creek bluffs in Jordan, a hundred feet above water, on a zip line. A total glide of more than a third of a mile, no skill required except to hold your breath. They also offer ropes courses, which have their own peculiar language: postman’s walk, diminishing islands, Charlie Chaplin. Bottom line: You are balancing on ropes and boards with a hard hat, a harness, and some latent lemur DNA.

Horsing Around
Sometimes you just need to get in the saddle and go. River Valley Ranch, in Carver, is a no-fuss stable: You get a horse, a guide, and a forested path along the Minnesota River. Thirty bucks for one hour. Giddy up.

Seeking the Showy Lady’s Slipper 
You could search the woods from here to Bemidji and not see our ephemeral state flower. Or you duck out during your lunch break and head two miles west of downtown Minneapolis to Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary, in a quiet, thickly wooded bowl of Wirth Park, and walk Lady’s Slipper Lane. Sometime in June, they’ll dutifully and patriotically appear.

Downtown Kayaking
Above the Falls Sports takes kayakers down the Mississippi River under the Stone Arch Bridge, into a scenic gorge, through the Ford Lock and Dam, to the quiet sand beach where Minnehaha Creek enters the river—a several-hour excursion with a quick lesson, no experience required. You can hike up the creek to see Minnehaha Falls or eat fish tacos at Sea Salt, or just hang out on the beach like driftwood.

Plein-air Painting
Here’s how you paint outdoors: Head to Silverwood Park, the newish amalgam of art and nature in St. Anthony. Hit the gallery for inspiration. Hike the poetry trail through a woods filled with foxes, oaks, and wetlands. Head to the cafe for a Francis Bacon Wrap or an Impressionist Panini. If there’s still any light left,

Canoeing on the Mississippi River. Photo by Jeremy Nelson

Canoeing the Mississippi River

I grew up with urban rivers on fire in Cleveland, Chicago, and Detroit. It never occurred to me to put a canoe in the Mississippi until I met someone who does it all the time. Every Monday evening my wife’s cousin launches from East River Flats, below the University of Minnesota hospital, introducing new recruits to canoe racing through the Minnesota Canoe Association. The stretch between the Twin Cities, part of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, is surprisingly bucolic. No barges. Slow current. A beaver lodge sits in the shadow of downtown Minneapolis. It’s our amphibious Central Park. Many urban waterways are cleaner now than their rural counterparts. The Rice Creek Chain of Lakes Preserve, just 10 miles from St. Paul, can seem like wilderness, with ospreys and eagles. But paddling the Mississippi is also geographically soothing. Fort Snelling, which can seem so isolated in a tangle of highways and airport, is a straight shot from either downtown on the river. Minnehaha Creek comes to a tidy, sandy conclusion—you can lunch, as we did, in its quiet eddy. Even locking through the Ford Dam, holding a rope as you sink into a concrete cavern, is a breeze compared to rush-hour traffic. Pulling out a few hours later at Hidden Falls Regional Park, in St. Paul, felt like returning to the fray. 

An American KestrAl. Photo by Mike Williams

Birdwatching in the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge

Few of us go looking for birds. They’re just out there, like grass, background noise—unless you know what you’re hearing. Last fall, I grabbed my grandmother’s big black Sears binoculars and met Craig Mandel, who leads birding trips almost weekly through the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, at the Bass Ponds Trailhead. Here, a mile from the Mall of America, a trout stream trickles to Long Meadow Lake, a Serengeti of waterfowl. Brown creeper, Mandel called out. Black-capped chickadee. Ruby-crowned kinglet. Thrush. We’d been in the woods less than five minutes. Not that birding is about keeping score or even about spotting birds. Audubon watched birds a couple hundred years ago, when they weren’t so hard to find. No, it’s about knowing what’s around you. When you understand what you’re hearing, another layer of experience opens up and it suddenly seems strange that you moved through life for so long with creatures you couldn’t identify. Start with the birds in your area, Mandel advised, the familiar ones, so you can rule them out when you hear something more exotic. “It’s good to just stop and watch awhile,” he said, “see what’s around you.” High above the lake, something soared below planes landing at MSP—big, graceful. Northern harrier, Mandel said, a raptor I’d probably seen all my life and never known it. Now I do.

Mountain Biking. Photo by Jeremy Nelson

Mountain Biking in Lebanon Hills Park

Almost as soon as I began pedaling in Lebanon Hills Regional Park, I yard-saled. Everything—arms, legs, face, bicycle—spread out everywhere in the dirt. Later, I slipped off the seat and slalomed downhill in such a manner that the creation of my daughter, many years later, qualifies as something of a miracle. My friend had flown down a similar hill and woken up on a picnic table with a dented helmet and no memory of how he’d arrived there. This was the late 1990s, when greenhorns were hauling mountain bikes into the woods like invasive species. Much has changed. Lebanon Hills remains the metro’s premier mountain biking park not because of how hard it is—the extreme drops, the wild rock rides, the steep log stepladders—but how easy it has become to navigate. It’s larger than many state parks but there are maps at every intersection. There are shortcuts. There are beginner routes. And there are filters—obstacles to preclude the unprepared. The most difficult trail is in the middle of the park; to reach it, you have to pass through tougher and tougher stretches, a design that rewards practice more than hard heads. You will know you’re ready for the next level when you suddenly find yourself there, as in a video game, intact and upright and exquisitely unsurprised.

Camping in Lake Elmo Park Reserve

The park entrance winds through cornfields converting to McMansions. Mercedes and Porsches patrol the perimeter. But I only had to drive to the park’s Nordic ski center and hike a few hundred yards to walk-in campsite No. 3, and there—20 minutes from the Xcel Energy Center—I was alone. The primitive sites are mostly beside a scenic smudge of a lake, and, if not exactly the Boundary Waters, they feel more remote than the campground loops in many state parks. When the trail lights click off about 9:30 p.m., the only signs of civilization are a glow in the west and a slight highway hum easily outdone by geese. In the summer, the place fills up. There are evening naturalist talks, kids on bikes, and a gregarious park host in an RV full of SpaghettiOs, same as every camping memory stuck in your brain like so many s’mores. Spring and fall, migration time, it’s even more crowded. Not that anyone else was staying in the woods when I visited in October. But Margaret Lake, a short hike from camp, was like the monkey room at the zoo. Primeval cacophony. The mallards and mergansers quieted at night. And I went to sleep, as in all the best escapes into nature, feeling both a part of everything and apart from it all.

Fishing on Lake Harriet. Photo by Todd Buchanan

Fishing the City Lakes

The first time I fished in Minneapolis, I lost two bobbers, two hooks, and—on one particularly careless cast—the end of my fishing rod. There aren’t many anglers like me. Casual casters. Dilettante dunkers. Not in the city. The people who fish the city are working. Fishing for food, some of them. Fishing for redemption, all of them. There are big fish in these lakes—the biggest, actually: For a long time, a muskellunge caught in Lake Calhoun held the state record. Anyone who goes looking for them has more misses than hits. That’s how it starts. An obsession you can’t pack up like a cabin. These lakes are right in your backyard, waiting. Recently I got some nightcrawlers from my local bait shop, in the Bryn Mawr Bobby & Steve’s service station, and walked over to Wirth Lake. The water was glassy, sun-soaked, disturbed only by a trio of diving ducks. But I didn’t notice once I started fishing. I was working. There are northern pike in Wirth and I wanted to catch one, hoist it up with the skyline in the background. Instead I caught three sunfish, each smaller than the last. But I’ll be back—it’s almost as easy as not going anywhere.

Photos by TJ Turner.