Forests and Parks in the Twin Cities Metro Area

Nelly Nehring
Minnesota Conservation Corps Member

Many city dwellers dream of building a rustic cabin in the north woods. We want to escape the city and get back to nature. It is perhaps a response to the seemingly unsettled wilderness so tantalizingly close to us near the Canadian border. City dwellers listen with true longing to their neighbors, the cabin owners, making plans to head up north for the holiday.

Long no more! There are parks, forests, lakes, rivers and prairies enough for all. While there is a state park within fifty miles of everyone in Minnesota, here in the metro area there is no need to go even that far. Within Minneapolis are green areas surrounding Lake of the Isles, Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet, with bike trails connecting all three. St. Paul boasts Ft. Snelling State Park, the most visited of Minnesota’s seventy state parks. Southern metro residents frequent Black Dog park reserve in Burnsville, while those in the north fish, swim and ski at Coon Rapids Dam. Easterners visit Afton and William O’Brien State Parks, and those who live west of the metro have a wealth of options in the Suburban Hennepin Regional Park District.

This list does not begin to scratch the surface. Most people can name a park or two within a couple blocks, and we’re not just talking a baseball diamond and some bleachers. Theodore Wirth Park, a part of the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation system, is composed of 500 acres surrounding Wirth Lake where visitors can picnic, swim, boat, play tennis and shoot at an archery range. In winter, snow enthusiasts will find sliding hills and cross-country ski trails. This park also houses the Eloise Butler Wildflower Gardens and Bird Sanctuary, located at Theodore Wirth Parkway and Glenwood Avenue.

The park consists of fifteen acres of land planted in deciduous forest, wetland, and prairie.

Snail Lake Park is a county park located in Shoreview. This park has an impressive 450 acres dedicated to all the recreational activities of Theodore Wirth and with all the same ecological habitats, oak woods, wetlands and grasslands. The parks have almost the same recreational opportunities and habitats, but one is a city and one a county park. Another type is Lake Rebecca Park Reserve, which is part of the Suburban Hennepin Regional Park District. This system is its own political entity, and operates all fourteen regional parks and park reserves under its banner. Also known as Hennepin Parks, this district is dedicated to providing recreational activities for everyone, while preserving as much natural habitat as possible. For Hennepin Parks, this means preserving eighty percent of each park, and using the other twenty percent for public use and recreational purposes. It is because of this dedication to the natural habitat that Lake Rebecca, a 2200-acre park off Highway 55 in Rockford, can provide swimming, camping, boat rental, horse trails and more while sustaining a trumpeter swan restoration program. Visitors can see these birds, the largest of the world’s waterfowl, from overlooks along the hiking trails, and can even hear the birds from even farther off.

The state parks are, of course, all over Minnesota, but five of them are located around the Twin Cities. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources maintains these parks. Like Hennepin Parks, these areas exist not only for recreation but also, and perhaps more importantly, for the preservation of native wildlife and habitat, such as the endangered peregrine falcon, the Blandings turtle and the dwarf trout lily. William O’Brien State Park, twelve miles north of Stillwater on County 95, on the St. Croix River, is part of an oak savanna restoration program. Lake Maria, located in Monticello off highway 39 and Wright County 11, is home to the yellow-spotted Blandings turtle. When you visit any of these parks you can pick up the State Parks Traveler , a free publication with a schedule of all the interpretive programs that will be happening in the parks. The interpretive programs, run by naturalists familiar with Minnesota’s natural state, past and present, can help people to better enjoy their natural surroundings in any park, not just the state parks. The parks also offer the Passport Club, for those who want to meet the challenge of visiting all the state parks, and the Hiking Club, geared toward people interested in hiking 190 miles in various parks. Younger nature lovers can join the Junior Park Naturalist Program. Businesses, civic groups and individuals can become more involved by joining the Park Partners, a volunteer organization that helps maintain the parks, monuments, historic sites and trails.

Most of the parks mentioned above, from the neighborhood to the national forest, will have programs like those provided by the DNR parks and all will welcome the help of volunteers. In this way it is possible to show our appreciation for the natural areas that surround us, even in the “big city.”

Read Up

Minnesota’s Natural Heritage, John R. Tester, 1995

Finding the Forest, Peter P. Bundy, 1999


Act Locally
Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board – Forestry Section
3800 Bryant Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 612-313-7732

Department of Natural Resources
1200 Warner Rd.
St. Paul, MN 651-772-7928

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA)

Ami Voeltz, Do It Green! Minnesota

The BWCA in northern Minnesota is famous as a place of unspoiled beauty. I recently traveled there and experienced the real meaning of wilderness. There were no airplanes, cars, or even other canoes around for miles and miles. Only wild animals accompanied my partner and I as we moved through the forest and paddled across the lakes. Through all my travels, I can truly say that the BWCA exemplifies a pure, healthy, complete ecosystem.

The BWCA is about five hours north of the Twin Cities. This pine-forested, stony-cliffed wilderness explored by Native Americans, explorers, voyageurs and tourists has over 1,000 pristine lakes and streams for a canoeist to explore. The BWCA is over 1.1 million acres of land without houses or roads. Canoeists travel from all over the world to experience the BWCA’s solitude and undisturbed landscape. The vast majority of the area’s lakes are off limits to motor boats. Although a trip to the BWCA requires careful planning, it is well worth the effort. A reservation is required before entering the BWCA and I recommend that travelers complete a preparation course at a participating outdoor store (such as Midwest Mountaineering or REI).

BWCAW Reservation Center

BWCAW Information:
Superior National Forest

Forests & Parks

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