Traipsing Around Town: Circling the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway

By Taylor Uggla

Plans for the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway began in the 1880s as Minneapolis became an increasingly urbanized city. At a time when population growth soared and the milling industry boomed, advocates of land conservation came up with a plan for an advanced park system that would preserve the city’s natural character. Initiated by Horace Cleveland and continued far into the twentieth century, the Grand Rounds eventually developed into the circular pathway that we know today, a gem that contains over 50 miles of walking and biking trails.You’ve probably encountered parts of the byway already. Many Macalester students have enjoyed weekends at Lake Calhoun or Minnehaha Falls, and the Mississippi River has certainly become a favorite for scenic runs. What’s great about Grand Rounds is that it connects all of these favorite spots, and you can literally go for hours along its trails without ever having to cross the street. It’s the perfect way to combine nature and exercise and certainly provides a space for weekend socializing. You can bike, walk or run and, if the weather provides, go swimming along one of the trail’s many lakes or creeks.

The Grand Rounds can be divided into seven main districts: Downtown Riverfront, Mississippi River, Minnehaha, Chain of Lakes, Theodore Wirth, Victory Memorial and Northeast. All sections provides a unique mix of the natural and historical, and each deserves a visit.

Along the Downtown Riverfront, a good place to embark, you’re going to see a lot of different bridges. From the famous Stone Arch Bridge, you can look around at the river’s lock and dam system, as well as the old mill ruins. You’ll get a beautiful view of downtown Minneapolis and you’ll also get a chance to walk around historic St. Anthony, one of the oldest parts of the city. It’s fun to walk across the old railroad bridge, and you’ll certainly have to check out Nicollet and Boom Islands, which are great places for picnics. You could even take a riverboat cruise if you so desired.

The Mississippi River district provides similar trails, but the area is more natural and serene. Here you can find the Mississippi River Gorge, the only true gorge along the entire length of the river. Its beauty is unreal, and definitely something worth seeing. There are great hiking trails here, and you can even search for the Winchell Trail, an ancient Native American path that runs through the woods. I recommend going at sunrise or sunset for the best views and color combinations, which you’ll certainly find among the many bluffs surrounding the river.

The main attraction in the next district, of course, is Minnehaha Falls. I love to sit and listen to the water, and in the springtime the blooming pink and white trees along the parkway are a sight to see. This is also a great place for picnics, and you can always visit Lake Nakomis, my favorite lake for swimming. If you’re in a studious mood, you can even stop by the Longfellow house, a beautiful replica of the poet’s Massachusetts home that now serves as an information center for the Grand Rounds.

At this point you’ll be close to the Chain of Lakes district, which begins with Lake Harriet. If you come at the right time, you might be able to listen to music at the historic Lake Harriet Bandshell. Trails separate and reconnect around Lakes Harriet, Calhoun, Brownie and Lake of the Isles, and you can rent a canoe to paddle from Calhoun to Brownie. This district is one of the most scenic for its wooded canopies and beautiful mansions, as well as a hot spot for local celebrities. (My boyfriend once saw Sven Sundgaard, Minnesota’s most celebrated weatherman, jogging the trails.) The Chain of Lakes are great for swimming, sunbathing and people watching, and I’ve spent many a day chatting and watching sailboats with friends.

I’m also a big fan of the Theodore Wirth district, which is next in the order of the byway. In the winter you can go tobogganing and cross-country skiing, but its great for warmer weather as well. Theodore Wirth is the largest regional park in Minneapolis, and once the May flowers come, it’s great to visit the Eloise Butler Garden and Sanctuary. The oldest public wildflower garden in the nation, it contains 500 species of native plants and 140 bird species. It’s so quiet that it doesn’t even feel like the city, and the environment is astonishingly beautiful. In this area you can also enjoy Wirth Lake, a 1900s picnic pavilion and my personal favorite, the Quaking Bog. A marshy area surrounded by tamaracks, the bog has floating dockways perfect for exploring. There’s no better place to relax, and I’ve even seen fawns prancing around a few times.

The paths of Theodore Wirth eventually connect to the Victory Memorial district, a more urban section in North Minneapolis with endless rows of elm trees. This area is definitely family-oriented, and when the weather’s nice you’ll see football games and lots of dog walkers. This district, true to its name, holds several interesting war memorials, the largest being the World War I monument about halfway through. Along the entire parkway you’ll see markers in the grass honoring Hennepin County soldiers. It’s definitely a historic place, and if you’re tired benches surrounding an Abraham Lincoln statue provide an excellent resting spot.

After going by a few local parks, you’ll cross the Camden Bridge and arrive in Northeast, the byway’s final district. You’ll go by old train yards and the Columbia golf course, and although it might not be the most exciting part of the loop, it’s definitely a good place for a long run. You’ll be next to the Mississippi again, and still have gorgeous views of the city. (A gap exists between the Northeast and Downtown Riverfront districts, but city officials are currently making plans for the byway’s completion.

So, the next time you’re feeling outdoorsy, check out the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway. It was declared a National Scenic Byway in 1998 and is a great way to experience the unique history and nature of Minneapolis. Anyone can find something fun to do along its trails, whether it be a full-on marathon or a relaxing ride to the beach.