Unit #30 / 412 - Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA)
I'm floating down the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway with the Executive Director of the Saint Croix River Association, and she says, "Have you seen anyone else yet? I can often kayak this river for miles and not see another person."
We exit the river, I dry off, then climb into Vanny McVanface and drive 60 minutes back to St. Paul, Minnesota, where I'm staying for my week in the Twin Cities.
I cross another national park on the way.
But like this picture I snapped out Vanny's window, if you don't pay attention, you might not notice this unit of the National Park System.
That's because, unlike the Saint Croix, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area is a place you will likely always see someone else. In fact, surrounded by 3.5 million residents of the metropolitan area, you'll be hard pressed to find a national river with such easy access for so many.
"I mean, I've heard of this place, but I never knew it was a national park!" a good friend said as we walked to Minnehaha Falls, part of the 29 acres and nine islands operated by the National Park Service.
And yet, of the thirty national parks I've been to so far on this journey, this was the largest waterfall I've seen. Bigger than parks miles away from even the nearest small town Dairy Queen.
"It's a different model from many national parks," said a Ranger at the new Upper Saint Anthony Falls Lock and Dam tour (newly opened and running summers through 2020 at minimum). This historic structure, within eyeshot of the new boat-shaped Vikings stadium in downtown Minneapolis, strikes to the core of this national park: It's an urban river, one that shows how human progress has changed a natural waterway, such as the Saint Croix, and how our communities work to save a sense of that wild.
I say that not to diminish the park, but to highlight that while there's a beauty in the solitude of a place like the Saint Croix, how wonderful is it that a national park can be a few steps from a NFL football game.
Or a Guthrie Theater fan's post-show stroll along the water.
Or for an entire city, to be reminded that even in the wake of human progress we are still descendants of those who lived on this land long before ports, or mills, or skyscrapers were made. People who chose this location not because of work at Target, Delta or 3M, but because of the nature.
It's a connection that--even in the historic thriving port of downtown St. Paul--can't be denied. It's why when I met Congresswomen Betty McCollum, a leader in the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior which funds the National Park Service, she turned to gaze upon the river as she spoke of her fondness for the parks.
And for that reason, perhaps more than grand canyons or pictured rocks, it shows why this park is special. That in a country increasingly populated by urban dwellers, there's still a chance to convene with nature within those metropolitan areas. That however small, we as a culture have decided to save some parcels of urban land for something beyond profits and progress, whether that be Harriet Island--where my friend will forever remember first seeing New Kids On The Block at an outdoor stage, or at Indian Mounds Park--where on a St. Paul cliff salacious to developers, sacred burial grounds have instead been preserved.
It's a reminder that no matter how urban we get, we are still connected to the land...even as the skyscrapers of Minneapolis shine in the distance.
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5 Mississippi National River and Recreation Area Highlights (You Can Do)!
1. Minnehaha Falls and Regional Park
Hands down my favorite place along the MNRRA. So much so that I even planned it as the reunion location for all my Twin Cities friends to gather, then went back later the same week.
2. Explore Minneapolis/St. Paul
One of my favorite places to be in the summer is anywhere in the Twin Cities. Because the MNRRA interweaves--and really is crafted by--the Cities, you'd be crazy to skip the abundance of art, bike trails, and (allegedly legendary) State Fair.
And if you stroll Summit Ave. by the St. Paul Cathedral, you might just meet nearby resident Garrison Keillor...
3. Paddle Share
If you want to get on the water and can't drive to nearby Saint Croix National Scenic River, the NPS newly started a kayak rental program which is aligned with the city bike share, so you can paddle downriver and pedal upriver.
4. Tour Upper Saint Anthony Falls Lock and Dam
Another new addition to the MNRRA, for summers currently contracted through 2020, visitors can walk on the locks/dam and hear its storied past relating to the Minneapolis-St. Paul rivalry.
5. For Dog Lovers
Near Coldwater Springs there is a large, no-leash dog zone. As someone mildly-to-legitimately afraid of dogs, every one Andy and I came across on our walk through the area was incredibly well-behaved. Didn't jump on me or nothin'!
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Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations, please! What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)
Iowa to Illinois to Indiana to Michigan to Ohio to New York
-Effigy Mounds National Monument
-Herbert Hoover National Historic Site
-Pullman National Monument
-Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
-River Raisin National Battlefield Park
-Perry's Victory & International Peace Memorial
-James A. Garfield National Historic Site
-Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site
The journey thus far: