Even after mapping over 150 miles of hiking trails in Minneapolis and St. Paul proper, one of my very favorite hikes is practically in my own back yard. If you haven’t ever followed the sign that points down the stairs to the Lower Trail at Father Hennepin Bluffs Park, then you’re missing a real treat—a walk that is an odd but beautiful dichotomy of urban decay, historic relevance and the incredible beauty of the Mississippi River. My husband and I love this area so much, we even have a print of Albert Bierstadt’s painting, The Falls of St. Anthony (1870) hanging up in our living room; it shows the bluffs, the original location of St. Anthony Falls, and the former Spirit Island.
Just above the park is former St. Anthony, where this side of the Mississippi got its start as a lumber and flour industry as the city that would later become Minneapolis—incorporating the St. Anthony area—got its start across the river. From just about any spot down here, you get an absolutely amazing view of the exposed yellowed brickwork of the old Pillsbury “A” Mill complex’s foundations and gaping tailraces, almost completely buried in the tree-covered bluffs. Nature has almost completely reclaimed the former runoff area for the old mills, and the park is now home to wood ducks, mallards, turtles, raccoons, Great Blue herons, egrets, kingfishers, Canada geese and gigantic gray carp.
The island has many obvious and painful downsides, too. The picturesque wooden bridges that arch over the little creek need to be repaired. The giant alphabet blocks that have been there for as long as anyone can remember are now just bare concrete blocks with spray-painted letters and numbers on the sides. In fact, the most recent construction project appears to be a crude but surprisingly cheery picnic area erected by a homeless person.
With all the work done just across the river at the Mill Ruins Park excavation site, it’s surprising that an area with so many intact structures from the same period of time as the Mill Ruins Park has been so neglected.
At the top of the Bluffs are more remnants of Minneapolis’ history. The buildings the Aster Café and Pracna are located in are among the oldest buildings in the Twin Cities. Pracna even calls itself “Minneapolis’ oldest restaurant,” opening its doors in 1890 as a saloon. The restaurant has really only been open in its current incarnation since the early 1970s, when architect Peter Hall completely renovated the Carl Struck creation.
Next door, the Aster Café building is the oldest surviving masonry structure in Minneapolis, originally opened in 1855 as a hardware store. Across from both buildings is the Water Power Park, which takes visitors practically on top of St. Anthony Falls, the only natural waterfall on the Mississippi River—although with the industrial-looking concrete sheath covering the rocks of the Falls to prevent further erosion, it’s often hard to convince visitors to the area that it’s not an artificial landmark.
Any walk along St. Anthony has to make at least a small stop at Nicollet Island, and to do so, you need to cross the Merriam Street bridge. You may be surprised to know that the historic-looking bridge is a fairly new construction, dating from about 1987—however, the trusses used in constructing the bridge come from the original Broadway Avenue Bridge, which was built in 1887 but dismantled in 1985. (The trusses are decorative, not structural, according to local historian Penny Petersen.)
In the winter, this is a great place to come with your ice skates and sleds to play in the snow. During the Fourth of July and the Aquatennial, thousands of people throng here to see the fireworks displays. And during the spring, this is a great place to come for a picnic lunch.
My favorite spot on the island is at the far corner past the Pavilion, where a small, rickety flight of steps takes you all the way down to the bank of the Mississippi. From here, you can see Downtown Minneapolis on one side, Old St. Anthony on the other side, and St. Anthony Falls and the Stone Arch Bridge dead ahead. The water is still enough that flocks of geese and ducks paddle by here, while crawdads and baby fish can be seen flitting about in the water. It’s the sort of spot that doesn’t seem to belong smack in the middle of an urban metropolis, but, then again, somehow it does.
Second favorite spot in Bridgeland
If you haven’t been to the U of M campus since graduation, you should go back for at least one afternoon this summer. The U campus is home to one of our most prestigious art galleries: the reflective stainless steel of the Weisman Art Museum. Completed in 1993, the Weisman was one of the first art museums designed by deconstructivist architect Frank Gehry.
Then University of Minnesota President Nils Hasselmo instructed the architect, “Don’t build another brick lump.” He succeeded by creating a local icon that has strongly polarized opinions about its provocative exterior architecture, especially its trademark geometric shapes and mish-mash façade facing the Mississippi River.
Inside, the Weisman has many outstanding galleries for viewing art.
Also on the campus is the Bell Museum of Natural History, containing dioramas of preserved flora and fauna, as well as plenty of hands-on activities for kids. The museum will be relocating to the St. Paul campus in the indefinite near future—no word yet on what will happen to the many beautiful bronze statues of animals that mark the entrance of the museum.
Holly Day and Sherman Wick live in the Como neighborhood with their children, Astrid and Wolfgang Wick. Holly teaches writing classes at The Loft Literary Center, and Sherman works at the Downtown Post Office and takes photos for a variety of publications. Their newest book together, Walking Twin Cities, is due out from Wilderness Press in June.