Green & Pleasant Land

Metro area parks are a resource free for the using.

Gabriel Shapiro

We live in an urban area with an unusual abundance of parks, lakes and natural beauty.

Summer is a great time to take advantage of all the options for free outdoor recreation, visiting familiar fun places and seeking out new adventures. Both near campus, in town and out in the sticks, there’s a place and activity for just about everyone, and best of all, most of it is totally free.

There are over 170 parks in Minneapolis, and nearly that number in St. Paul. Many residents take these places for granted, but recent budget cuts have brought attention to their vital role in creating and maintaining our high quality of life here.

If you haven’t gotten around to exploring Minneapolis, St. Paul and the surrounding areas, now is the time, and here are some of our favorite places.

1. The Chain of Lakes, Minneapolis.

This is one of the region’s most popular attractions, and it’s right in the heart of the city. A system of connected parks, lakes and paths comprise the Chain, which represents over 13 miles of the over 50 miles of scenic byways that make up the Grand Rounds.

Brownie Lake and the Sculpture Garden are at the Northern end of the Chain, near Interstate 394, as is the Cedar Lake Trail. With the exception of Lake Harriet, all of the lakes are connected, making it possible to canoe from Brownie Lake all the way south to Lake Calhoun. Lake Harriet is the Southernmost Lake, and features the Band Shell, where live performances are held.

There are several beaches and gardens included in the Chain area, as well as a bird sanctuary. As locals will tell you, the best swimming is often found away from the official beaches, but use caution and go at your own risk. As silly as it sounds, swimming at “unofficial” beaches can lead to a ticket from park police. Hidden Beach on the East end of Cedar Lake is an example of this kind of beach.

2. Como Regional Park, Saint Paul.

Como Park has a bit of everything. From the Conservatory and Japanese garden, to golf, tennis and ball fields, it’s not all free, but it’s all in one place.

The park itself is bounded by Hamline Avenue to the West and Hoyt Avenue to the North. Its Eastern and Southern boundaries are a bit less neat, but are around Victoria Street and Como Avenue, respectively.

The paths that wind through the park are lined by flowering trees and roll over hilly terrain and past Como Lake. Walking and jogging through the park is a popular activity, and with the lovely views it’s hard to think of a nicer place for it.

One big attraction at Como is the Conservatory, and while it’s not completely free, it’s bound to be the best $1 admission fee you’ve ever paid.

The Conservatory is bursting with tropical trees and colorful flowers, a fern grotto and the Sunken Garden’s koi pond. It is a real treat in winter when the outside world is wrapped in a frozen cocoon, but it’s still fascinating in the balmier months. The Enchanted Garden is filled with plants and shrubs that attract butterflies, making it a unique place designed to view them, and the Frog Pond always has at least one resident.

The Japanese Garden is one of the most serene places in any city, and represents the friendship between St. Paul and its sister city, Nagasaki, Japan. The rocks, water, sculptures, bridges and plants all combine for a most tranquil setting, and on August 22 will host the Como Park Japanese Lantern Lighting Festival.

3. Bike Paths

A visit to the Minnesota Department of Transportation Web site will confirm that Minnesota is a biker’s paradise. Our Midwestern home has more miles of bike trails than any other state in the nation, featuring the first bicycle freeway in the United States. It is possible to bike on trails from both downtowns out to several of the suburbs, or you can pick a trail out in the country, drive there, bike all day and drive home. However you choose to do it, biking in Minnesota is a great way to get outdoors.

Some of the paths nearest campus are in city parks. Others include the river paths on either bank of the Mississippi running through campus and connecting to other trails, the ever-expanding Midtown Greenway and the Gateway State Trail, running 19 miles from Hidden Falls Park in St. Paul to Stillwater, Minn.

4. Your Local Neighborhood Park.

There’s probably a park within a couple blocks of your house. Some are enormous expanses like Theodore Wirth, the largest park in Minneapolis, including flower gardens, bogs and lakes. Others are big fields with playgrounds and baseball diamonds, like Van Cleve Park just North of campus or Newell Park in St. Paul.

Some are long stretches of grass overlooking the river, like the River Flats on the East Bank. And many are unassuming city blocks reserved for green space and pickup basketball, like Uptown’s Painter Park.

Big or small, parks are everywhere in these our fair cities, so get out and enjoy life, nature and your community.