The Best Parks on the Mississippi River

Starting upstream at the Mississippi Gateway Regional Park and Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park, these two parks on opposite sides of the river are joined by a near-half-mile path on top of a historic dam built in 1913. One park has 446 acres of parkland, the other 160, and between the two there’s enough shore and parkland to keep you bird-watching for a lifetime—that dam overlook is a famous place to spot osprey. Islands of Peace, the next big park downstream, accessible from Fridley, is 78.5 acres and notable for its three islands, one of which can be reached by a picturesque 100-foot pedestrian bridge popular for photo ops.

Next up on the west side of the river (and hidden behind the I-94 freeway wall) is North Mississippi Regional Park with its Carl W. Kroening Nature Center and ideal river access. Farther south, the 26th Avenue North/Great Northern Greenway Overlook opened last summer and symbolizes a taste of what’s to come as future RiverFirst projects convert industrial areas along this stretch of the river to recreational spaces. This project and Water Works at Mill Ruins are both initiatives of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation.

Boom Island (technically no longer an island), famous mainly as the best place to watch Fourth of July and Aquatennial fireworks, is also the home of Minneapolis’s only private water taxi. Take a paved path north to Psycho Suzi’s, The Sample Room, and, between those two, Gluek Park, former home of the Gluek Brewery and mansion. Or take the paved path south and you’ll end up at Nicollet Island Park on Nicollet Island and the St. Anthony Main complex—reward your efforts with a good bottle of wine at Aster Cafe, perhaps?

Down the staircases from St. Anthony Main, on the east side of the river, you find little islands and hidey-spots with ducks and muskrats and the Father Hennepin Bluffs. Up above is Water Power Park, a former mill site that offers phenomenal cityscape selfie backgrounds. The southernmost anchor of this park-rich bit of downtown is the Stone Arch Bridge. Use it to head west to downtown, and you’re in Mill Ruins Park, which has been extended over the last year with Water Works at Mill Ruins, a three-acre park area with an outdoor pavilion, a playground, native plant gardens, and a showcase for Owamni, the food and drink spot by local Indigenous chef Sean Sherman.

Downstream from downtown Minneapolis, the East River Flats Park, at the base of the bluffs below the University of Minnesota, has long been a student haven, even more so after the 2007 construction of the Gopher crew boathouse. Just south of that, a new boardwalk path for strollers, bikes, and wheelchairs gets you to a bit of river that feels a little like a northern Grand Canyon, even though you’re in the middle of the city.

As the river flows, you now enter St. Paul—and the next park to explore is Shadow Falls Park, nestled between University of St. Thomas and the river. Find it by parking where Summit Avenue meets the river, then taking the Mississippi River Boulevard’s bike and walking path north to the hairpin turn the road makes around the gorge. Follow a gentle path down to a natural spring, and you’ll discover the misty waterfalls, promontories to sit on, and eventually the river.

Across the river, back in Minneapolis, explore Minnehaha Regional Park, the 167-acre wonderland where Minnehaha Creek plunges over the 53-foot Minnehaha Falls beside everyone’s favorite seasonal fish shack, Sea Salt Eatery. Then follow the creek along Lower Glen Trail until you reach the river. Discover a wading area, a boardwalk through the city’s most reliable lady’s slipper patch, and a long stretch of riverside where fisherpeople cast from the sandy banks.

From this point downriver, the Mississippi is a St. Paul story. St. Paul’s two wilderness areas, Hidden Falls Regional Park and Crosby Farm Regional Park, are best understood as one unit, with a combined 6.7 miles of trails and a broad expanse of winding river and oak-covered slopes stepping up to steeper bluffs. Now that the former Ford Plant above Hidden Falls Park is nearly through redevelopment, paths have been mended, and it’s a little easier to find the historic WPA staircase beside the upriver park’s eponymous falls. Beware swimming in the river at Hidden Falls: The river looks placid, but currents are dangerously swift.

On the opposite shore, we find the metro’s only state park, Fort Snelling—you’ll need a park sticker to get in. Here, the Minnesota River joins the Mississippi, adding greatly to its strength and width. The Dakota consider this area sacred and called it Bdote (buh-doh-tay), or “joining of waters.” Make your way through the cathedral of cottonwood on the island trails to the tip of Pike Island and you sense why this spot is believed to be the center of the earth, the origin of all people. It feels just that big.

Since 2021’s addition of the Robert Piram Regional Trail, Lilydale Regional Park, Cherokee Regional Park, and Kaposia Landing and Harriet Island operate as one great park connected by a walkable/bikeable path. While all offer great views of downtown St. Paul and access to the mighty river, only Harriet Island has hosted concerts with Sting, Beastie Boys, and Tone Loc. It looks like events may be making a return to the island this year, as well as Bloody Marys and nachos at seasonal river eatery City House.

The final significant park on the river for explorers is an area of spiritual and natural importance. Up on the bluffs east of St. Paul, Indian Mounds Regional Park is the site of the metro’s largest collection of undisturbed spiritually significant burial mounds. Standing among them, you see the expanse of river, the St. Paul airport floodplain, and the soaring skyscrapers. Below is Wakán Tipi, “the Dwelling Place of the Sacred.” Today, the Lower Phalen Creek Project is trying to develop a Wakán Tipi Center to protect and pay tribute to the cave for future generations.

At river level below is the Twin Cities’ park of the future, Pig’s Eye Regional Park, 904 acres of lake, wetland, bluff, and forest that entities—including Great River Passage Conservancy, the Friends of the Mississippi River, Ramsey County, and the City of St. Paul—are working to turn into our newest river jewel. As recently as 1989, Pig’s Eye was a Superfund site, the consequence of decades of use as an industrial and city dump. But toxins were dredged out and topsoil laid over, and nature has begun to heal. The park is already critical habitat for egrets and herons.

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