Throughout the Twin Cities, you can explore more than 50 parks and nature reserves across the metro. Some will have you leaning down to peer more closely at a flower; others will have you working up a sweat on the beach volleyball courts; and still more will connect you with nature as you walk, jog or bike along miles of paved trails.
As you’ll find during your exploration, Minneapolis’ and St. Paul’s current rankings as the No. 1 and No. 2 park systems in the country are well deserved. And with parks in Minneapolis, St. Paul and the surrounding suburbs hosting outdoor movies and concerts, there’s even more reason why these are some of our favorite spots to spend the summer.
The Chain of Lakes in Uptown is always buzzing with people on nice-weather days, particularly Lake Calhoun, also known as Bde Maka Ska. With a perfect circumference for 5K runners, the largest of the five connected lakes has three beaches, the Minneapolis Sailing School, volleyball courts and park areas. If you want a bit of history, on the southwest side of the lake is the Bakken Museum, an interactive museum for science and technology housed in a historic mansion with landscaped grounds.
All of the lakes in the Chain of Lakes are connected via trails, too, so you can make your way to Brownie Lake, Cedar Lake, Lake of the Isles and Lake Harriet. Bird and flower lovers should make their way to Lake Harriet, while visitors with furry friends can enjoy the Lyndale Farmstead off-leash dog park or Lake of the Isles’ off-leash dog park.
One of the best things about Minneapolis’ top parks and green spaces is they all offer something different. Minnehaha Falls is a beautiful 53-foot waterfall nestled in South Minneapolis, a mere half-mile walk from the 50th St.-Minnehaha light rail station. The rushing waters amid a backdrop of miniature bluff and rock make for one of the city’s most popular photo spots, but people are also drawn to the park’s many other amenities.
The Longfellow House, Princess Depot and John H. Stevens House (fun fact: the latter was pulled by about 10,000 school children when it moved to Minnehaha Park in 1896) make up the three historic sites in the park. Perhaps more popular is a newer structure, the Sea Salt Eatery. Three separate lines for food, drinks and ice cream keep everything moving on the busy summer days. The park also contains three gardens, a bandstand, biking path, disc golf course, wading pool and more.
On the east side of downtown is Gold Medal Park and its neighbor, Mill Ruins Park. Gold Medal Park isn’t the largest park in the Twin Cities, but its location makes for a perfect summertime break while you’re out and about in the city. Bordered by the Guthrie Theater, the Mississippi River and Izzy’s Ice Cream, the park is often filled with people lounging in the sun, eating frozen treats and walking their dogs.
A half mile past the Guthrie, through the Central Mississippi Riverfront Regional Park, is Mill Ruins Park, which is the fallen-down testament to Minneapolis’ former title as the Milling Capital of the World. While you walk through the area on your own, consider downloading the Mill Ruins Quest Activity Guide from the Minneapolis Parks website or stopping at the Mill City Museum to learn more about city’s past.
On the northeast part of Lake Harriet is Lyndale Park Garden with its four themed areas and the Thomas Sadler Roberts Bird Sanctuary. The most well known is perhaps the Rose Garden, which showcases more than 100 different rose varieties on 1.5 acres. Pedestrians appreciate the beauty of the flowers, and history lovers relish the fact that it is the second oldest public rose garden in the United States.
The three other themed gardens are the Annual-Perennial Garden, the Butterfly and Hummingbird & Perennial and Border Gardens, and the Peace Garden. As one might guess, the Butterfly and Hummingbird & Perennial and Border Gardens offers one of your best bets to see flitting pollinators. In the Peace Garden rests “The Spirit of Peace,” a bronze origami crane sculpture by local artist Caprice Glaser that is, officially, an International Peace Site. Also in the garden is a bridge, a series of sculptures, and rocks and small conifers that evoke feelings of calm and balance.
For potentially the biggest swath of green space in Minneapolis, look no further than Theodore Wirth Park. The park covers more than 740 acres, which includes almost 83 acres of water, two golf courses, trails and gardens. Common activities in the summer include disc golf, fishing and biking. Just a year ago, the 14,000-square-foot Trailhead opened with amenities that include a Cajun-themed restaurant and a full-service bike shop, but the gem of the park is still the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary.
Spanning 13 acres, Eloise Butler’s paths invite you to wander along its forest, wetland and prairie areas. For flowers, you’ll see the tail end of the Lady Slipper blossoms, irises and cardinals flowers in July, and after that, you’ll see sunflowers, white and purple asters, and the tall columns of blazing stars and goldenrods. Just outside the garden is a beach, picnic shelter and more hiking trails if you want to make a day of it—after all, there’s plenty to do in Theodore Wirth.
For more options in Minneapolis, check out Lake Nokomis, which includes a beach and a delectable hot dog stand called Sandcastle; Tower Hill Park, where you can see the tower that inspired Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”; and Loring Park, the downtown site for many festivals year round.
Located a little east outside of downtown St. Paul is the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. The 29-acre park is a relatively new endeavor; it has only been open to the public since 2005. Before that, the community, several organizations and the city had to work for decades to restore the original prairie, oak savanna and floodplain forest buried under industrialism’s effects. Now a stream runs through it, and you can spot wildlife at the sandstone bluffs and the two ponds. Interpretive signs help the Native American history of the park stay alive as well. As you walk among the 2,000-plus trees that volunteers planted, you can see for yourself: The vision for Bruce Vento may still be evolving, but this park will only get better with time.
One of the most defining traits about this 450-acre park in northwestern St. Paul is its proximity to the Como Park Zoo & Conservatory, a free zoological garden with local and exotic animals; a 100-plus-year-old conservatory with Japanese garden, orchid room and palm dome; and a small amusement park (with a nominal admission fee). Even without that feature, though, every day you can find people drawn to the park’s green grasses, pond and pavilion, and golf course. At the pavilion is a seasonal cafe, a stage that hosts music performances and nearby boat rentals.
Fort Snelling State Park covers more than 2,000 acres of land and is one of the most visited state parks in Minnesota. Its presence stretches to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the border of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, where it is easily accessed via the Metro Blue Line light rail or car. Once you get there, take time to explore the 18 miles of hiking trails and five miles of biking trails which connect to the 53-mile long Grand Rounds Scenic Bikeway. GPS locators, fishing poles and birding kits are all available to check out for free from the Visitor Center as well. (If you’re a Minnesota resident, you can fish without a license, but if you’re not, you can purchase one at dnr.state.mn.us.) As for the birds, some of the common ones that are found in the summer are the blue-winged teal duck, great blue heron, great egret, red-tailed hawk, the killdeer with its striped face and neck, and multiple species of woodpeckers.
If you hike north, you’ll find your way to the Historic Fort Snelling (but you can also drive to it). In 2018, the Minnesota Historical Society began enacting its plan to revitalize not only the fort’s historic programming but its buildings as well. The fort is perhaps most known for its role in the US-Dakota War of 1862, but over the years, many have passed through its land, including Native Americans, fur traders and slaves. With new experiences, demonstrations and displays, you can now learn a more complete history of the land and the fort.
Along the Mississippi River is Harriet Island Park (above), another smaller park nestled in the heart of the city. While it’s no longer an island—in 1950 the backchannel was filled in to connect it to the shore—you’ll still get a nice walk along the water. The island is named after Harriet Bishop, the city’s first public school teacher, and over the years, its amenities have changed as the activity around and the health of the Mississippi River have changed. Now, the park has a pavilion for concerts and serves as the takeoff point of Padelford River Cruises.
Irvine Park, just west of downtown St. Paul, is yet another small but picturesque space within one of the city’s historic neighborhoods. It is the most popular park for outdoor weddings in St. Paul, so don’t be too surprised if you see one during your visit—it seems people can’t help falling in love with (and at) the park’s gazebo and fountain. If the weather is nice, meander through the residential streets around the park to see some of St. Paul’s most stately and historic Victorian mansions.
While significantly smaller than Como Regional Park, the two-acre Mears Park in downtown St. Paul has its own charm. In 1993, the architect Brad J. Goldberg redesigned the park so it could meet the needs of the community with a performing pavilion, a plaza, benches bordering the flowers and trees, and a trickling stream. In addition to the Music in Mears Park concert series, which goes through the end of August, the free Lowertown Blues and Funk Festival is held July 19 and 20 this year. Surrounding Mears Park are eateries like St. Dinette, Handsome Hog (“Top Chef” Justin Sutherland’s first restaurant) and the Bulldog Lowertown, and just a few blocks away is CHS Field, home of the St. Paul Saints baseball team.
For more options in St. Paul, check out Off-Leash Arlington Arkwright Dog Park to spend a day exploring multiple terrains with your dog; the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area for gorgeous hiking among the shoreline and bluffs; and Raspberry Island, an island accessible by car bridge on the Mississippi River.
Centennial Lakes (West)
At Centennial Lakes in Edina await more than 10 acres of park and water. In the winter, the park is filled with ice skaters gliding across the frozen pond, while the summer brings just as many visitors to its lapping shores. With a North, Central and South area, there is so much to do here. Depending on where you are in the park, you can rent boats, go fishing, wander a hedge maze, or put your skills to the test with a putting course, croquet and lawn bowling. As you make your way through the park, don’t forget to stop and smell the flowers peeking out from the various gardens, and take a break on a swinging bench and enjoy the view. Summers also bring free cultural performances Monday through Thursday as well as movies on Thursday evenings.
Central Park (East)
One of the many parks on the east side of the Twin Cities is Central Park in Roseville. This park breaks down into six different sections: One has a nature center, others have sports fields, and some have picnic shelters and playgrounds. One, Central Park – North, is described as an “undeveloped oasis of nature” where you can walk among the quiet woods and wetland of Minnesota.
Lebanon Hills Regional Park (South)
Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Eagan is another massive park in the Twin Cities with more than 20 miles of hiking trails, 11 miles of mountain biking trails and almost 10 miles of equestrian trails. More than seven lakes populate the park, giving way to a beach, fishing piers and boat launches. Five trailheads and a visitor center make it easy to orient yourself during your adventure. While all of the parks offer nature and activity programs, Lebanon’s includes parent-child canoe and kayak classes, puppet shows, and survivalist classes.
Minnesota Landscape Arboretum (Southwest)
The 1,200-acre grounds in Chaska include a plethora of gardens, habitats and plant collections, with public art scattered throughout as well. A favorite family feature is the PlantMaker Studio at the Learning Center, which hosts activities for children on the weekends from noon to 4 p.m. Through July, activities center around roots and the unseen underground world of plants, and in August and September, the activities focus on the power of scent using herbs. Also included in admission are free guided walking tours (and with such a big place to roam, no tours are the same) or, for $5, an hour-long guided tram tour.
There are plenty of places to get outside and enjoy nature in the suburbs, and one of the largest swathes of land is the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. With access points in cities like Bloomington, Burnsville and Chaska, the wildlife refuge’s 14,000 acres spans across southern and western parts of the metro. Along the hiking trails, you might spot animals like wood ducks and river otters while you explore the floodplain forests, tallgrass prairies and wetlands. To help you explore, you can download the free Discover Minnesota Valley Game for nature trivia, Discover Nature Virtual Sign for guidance, or iNaturalist to help you identify the plants and animals around you.
Noerenberg Memorial Gardens (West)
For flowers and formal landscaping, head to Noerenberg Memorial Gardens along Lake Minnetonka. Standout flowers include daylilies, azaleas and ornamental shade trees. The pagoda looking out over the water is always picture perfect, and the paved paths send you ambling under the pergola or toward blooming shrubs.