For more than a century, people have marveled at the Chain of Lakes in Minneapolis.
It's not so much the beauty of the lakes, though they're glorious. It's more the fact that ordinary folk can walk, bike, swim and play around them — all of them.
It almost wasn't so. Back in 1882, landscape architect Horace Cleveland had to argue his case for putting aside land on the city's lakes, creeks and river.
"Look forward a century, to the time when the city has a population of a million, and think what will be their wants," he wrote. "They will have wealth enough to purchase all that money can buy, but all their wealth cannot purchase a lost opportunity, or restore natural features of grandeur and beauty, which would then possess priceless value . . ."
The city did buy land for parkways and boulevards, enough to put every home in Minneapolis within six blocks of green space, and we're enjoying it today — all million of us, it often seems on summer weekends.
Lined with bike trails, beaches, canoe rentals, band shells, golf courses and picnic pavilions, it's often called the best urban park system in America. Lately, it has just been getting better.
In 1998, the Grand Rounds, the walking/biking/driving route that follows the parkways in a big circle around the city, was named a national scenic byway. Since then, signposts and kiosks have been going up along the route, the only urban national byway, and commuter bicycle trails have made it easier to reach by bike.
There's still a 2½-mile gap on the northeast side of the "rounds," where the parkways run out. But bicyclists can close it either by continuing through the Como neighborhood or by skipping St. Anthony and Stinson parkways and heading south on Marshall after crossing the Mississippi.
For bicyclists, riding the Grand Rounds is unmatched adventure. I've ridden the southern half many times, following the path down the Mississippi to Minnehaha Park and between lakes Hiawatha and Nokomis before ducking into the enchantingly shady and secluded section along Minnehaha Creek between Portland Avenue and Lake Harriet. Heading north along the shores of Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles, I've often returned home on city streets, riding through the Sculpture Garden, Loring Park and downtown if it's a quiet Sunday.
But now, we can use the Midtown Greenway, a below-street bicycle superhighway that parallels 29th Street. It cuts straight across south Minneapolis, linking the Mississippi River to Lake Calhoun and the Southwest LRT trails through the western suburbs.
The spring after the Victory Memorial stretch was paved, I used the Greenway to make a 24-mile northern loop, which is just as lovely as and perhaps more interesting than the lakes section. Riding west under the many concrete bridges of the Greenway, I emerged to street level in Uptown and stopped to have a smoothie on Lake Calhoun at Tin Fish, the seafood restaurant in the refectory, and watch the swirl of bicyclists, skaters, dog-walkers, kayakers and runners.
From Lake Calhoun, I rode along the west side of Cedar Lake, still lined with cedar trees, and past Brownie Lake before plunging into Theodore Wirth Park, where the Swiss-born dean of Minneapolis parks is honored with a bronze statue, hand in hand with a bronze child, in front of the chalet.
Riding up to the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary, I took an hour to roam the paths, lined by clumps of lovely purple trillium, yellow trout lilies, skunk cabbage, Virginia bluebells and other more common spring flowers; for a while, I tagged along on a naturalist-led walk.
There were hikers in the Quaking Bog, golfers on the two courses, mountain bikers on the new off-road trails — everyone was out in the big park, which is 60 percent as large as New York's Central Park.In north Minneapolis, the Grand Rounds path occupies part of arrow-straight Victory Memorial Parkway, where 568 trees were planted after World War I to honor fallen Hennepin County soldiers. Unlike the rest of the Grand Rounds, the parkway doesn't follow a river, creeks or lakes; its wide-open green spaces were meant to serve as a firebreak. Lined by tidy Tudor-style homes, the route continues on Webber Parkway before crossing the Mississippi on the Camden Bridge, beneath which paved trails head north through bottomlands to North Mississippi Regional Park.
On the east side of the river, the Grand Rounds continues on St. Anthony Parkway to Columbia Golf Course and little Deming Heights Park, which boasts the city's highest elevation. It heads south on Stinson Parkway, where bicyclists may feel squeezed by car traffic, to the Quarry shopping area, where bicyclists must continue on an even-busier stretch of Stinson before reaching the relatively quieter streets of the University of Minnesota area (see Tricky bits, below).
Instead, I headed south after crossing the river, following Marshall Street Northeast past the Xcel Energy plant to Marshall Terrace Park, where families were picnicking overlooking the river. At the handsomely preserved 1891 Grain Belt Brewery, I took quiet streets (see Planning a route, below) straight into Boom Island Park, where the Mississippi Queen paddle wheeler gives narrated lock cruises through St. Anthony Falls. From Boom Island, the trail crosses two trestle bridges, one onto Nicollet Island and another to St. Anthony Main, whose renovated brick storefronts led the river renaissance in the 1970s.
This is the most historic part of the city, a romantic destination since Father Hennepin wrote about it in his 1683 best-seller "Description de la Louisiane." Tourists came with the first steamboats in the 1820s and were followed by Yankee entrepreneurs. Soon, mills had harnessed the roaring falls; until World War I, Minneapolis was the largest producer of flour in the nation.
Today, parkland and beautiful trails line both sides of the 3½-mile loop from the Plymouth Avenue Bridge to J.J. Hill's graceful Stone Arch Bridge, once slated for demolition but now the most beloved pedestrian thoroughfare in town. On the west side of the river, the Minnesota Historical Society operates the Mill City Museum at Mill Ruins Park. Next to it, the Grand Rounds passes under the cantilevered lobby of the Guthrie Theater, its shimmering dark-blue facade embossed with towering images of George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O'Neill, Anton Chekhov and four other playwrights.
On the university campus, the Grand Rounds follows both sides of the river, the east sporting the brassy Weisman Art Museum and the west the subdued glass flank of the Ted Mann Concert Hall. At the St. Paul border, bicycle trails continue to the Ford Parkway Bridge, but the Grand Rounds stops in its tracks; ironically, landscape architect Cleveland envisioned Minneapolis parkways that would link with those in St. Paul, whose parks he also helped design.
Still, Horace Cleveland would have been very pleased to see the degree to which Minneapolis heeded his advice.
"It is pretty cool," says Richard Fred Arey of St. Paul, who founded the popular St. Paul Classic bike ride in 1995 and is helping develop a Grand Round for St. Paul. "The fact that they've been working on it for 100 years has really paid off."
Trip Tips: Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway
Maps: A Grand Rounds map is available at the Longfellow House in MInnehaha and at rec centers and refectories along the route. There's also a map at www.minneapolisparks.org and maps on kiosks all along the route. And Richard Fred Arey's handy "Twin Cities Bicycling" ($16.95, Minnesota Outdoors Press) contains a detailed, full-page map for the Grand Rounds and each of the many other rides. It's available in bookstores.
Tour: The second annual Minneapolis Bike Tour will be held on the Grand Rounds Sept. 20, 2009.
Planning a route: The streamlined route — bypassing Lake Nokomis and Lake of the Isles, following Marshall Street Northeast along the Mississippi to the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Area instead of riding through northeast Minneapolis — is 30 miles. The loops around Nokomis and Lake of the Isles add three miles apiece.
If you ride the official route through northeast Minneapolis, skipping the St. Anthony Falls area, you'll ride 33 miles, including the 2½-mile gap from the Quarry to the river through the University of Minnesota campus.
Using the Midtown Greenway as a short cut allows riders to create two other routes. The southern part of the Grand Rounds, following the river and Chain of Lakes past Lake Nokomis, is a 17-mile loop using the Midtown Greenway, which meets the Mississippi at East 27th Street, by the trestle bridge.
The northern part of the Grand Rounds is a 24-mile loop using the Midtown Greenway. Here's what to do if you want to skip northeast Minneapolis to ride through St. Anthony Falls: After crossing the Mississippi to St. Anthony Parkway, continue south on Marshall Street, riding on the rarely used sidewalk; from Lowry to Broadway, ride in the wide parking lane.
At Broadway, turn west for half a block and take the sidewalk across from Bottineau Community Library to quiet Ramsey Street and on to Eighth Avenue. Head one block west and turn into Boom Island Park, where a paved path goes straight to a trestle bridge. Cross the bridge (carry your bike up the steps) and ride onto historic Nicollet Island. At the other end, the 1887 Merriam Street trestle bridge crosses to the St. Anthony Main area.
Before the 35W bridge collapse, bicyclists could then cross the Stone Arch Bridge and continue past the Guthrie and Mill Ruins Museum and down the west side of the river. But until the new bridge is finished, they'll have to use city streets to cross the river. From Main Street, turn north on Sixth Avenue, then east on University. Cross on the 10th Avenue bridge, using First Street to reconnect to the bike path, or continue on University to East River Road.
Tricky bits: It's easy to follow the well-marked bike route, but there are a few tricky bits.
At the north end of Lake Calhoun, several commuter trails converge. To head north on the Grand Rounds, ride a block on Dean Parkway, then take Cedar Lake Road up the west side of Cedar Lake. (An alternative is to take the Kenilworth Trail up the east side of Cedar Lake, then head west on the Cedar Lake Trail to meet the Grand Rounds as it heads toward Wirth Park.)
To close the loop in Northeast Minneapolis, keep going on busy Stinson Boulevard across East Hennepin, where Stinson turns into 18th Avenue. Turn west onto Como, then south on 15th Avenue at Van Cleve Park. Keep going on 15th past Dinkytown and into the University of Minnesota campus to Pleasant Street. To continue on the west side of the river, cross the Washington Avenue Bridge; to continue on the east, turn right onto Arlington Street, before the bridge.
Highlights: At the east end of the Washington Avenue Bridge, stop by the stainless steel Weisman Art Museum; admission is free. In Minnehaha Park, see Minnehaha Falls. For a cool dip, stop at the beaches of Nokomis, Harriet, Calhoun and Cedar. See the Rose Garden at Lake Harriet. In Wirth Park, take a stroll in the Quaking Bog or Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden; on weekends, naturalists lead walks.
In the St. Anthony Falls area, visit the 1857 Lady of Lourdes Church, up the steps from Main Street on the east riverfront. Ride across the Stone Arch Bridge and past the Mill City Museum and the new Guthrie Theater; on Saturday mornings, there's a farmers market.
Repairs and rentals: On the Midtown Greenway at Chicago Avenue, the Midtown Bike Center has a Freewheel Bike Shop, plus bathrooms and showers.
Where to eat: When it's a beautiful day for bicycling, it's a beautiful day for eating outdoors, too. Each of these restaurants has an outdoor patio.
At East Lake Street and West River Parkway, the Longfellow Grill specializes in elaborate burgers but has all kinds of fun food. It's open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
In the 1905 refectory in Minnehaha Park, Sea Salt Eatery serves inexpensive seafood, such as soft-shelled crab sandwiches and oyster po' boys. It's open daily for lunch and dinner, 612-721-8990.
On the beach on the north end of Lake Nokomis, the concessionaire serves ice cream and snacks. (Watch for it; the main bike trail passes a block away.)
A block south of Minnehaha Creek on Nicollet Avenue, Liberty Frozen Custard serves great homemade ice cream and Italian ices as well as sandwiches, soups and salads in a fun 1950s-style former gas station. It's open daily for lunch and dinner, 612-823-8700.
At the refectory on Lake Calhoun, Tin Fish serves smoothies and ice cream as well as quesadillas, burgers and seafood tacos, chowders, sandwiches and platters. It's open daily for lunch and dinner.
If you need a snack, the Northway Deli at North Memorial Medical Center is open daily.
There's a Subway at the east end of Webber Parkway; for a picnic, buy some sandwiches and take them to eat at the river overlook in Marshall Terrace Park, at Marshall and 27th Avenue, or Gluek Park at Marshall and 19th Avenue.
Just south of Lowry Avenue, the small but sophisticated Sample Room is a good place to stop for one of its many small plates or for salads, sandwiches and entrees. It's open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday and for brunch and dinner on Sunday, 612-789-0333.
In the St. Anthony Main area, bicyclists can eat outdoors at Pracna, Aster Cafe, Vic's and Tuggs Tavern.
For people who ride the official route and return to the river via 15th Avenue Southeast, Dinkytown has many places to eat, including the Loring Pasta Bar, which has charming sidewalk tables.
Just off the Midtown Greenway at Chicago Avenue, the Midtown Global Market has all kinds of wonderful delis and restaurants.
Music: On summer Sundays, time a bike trip to coincide with 2:30 or 5:30 p.m. concerts at the Lake Harriet Bandshell. Concerts are held daily on other evenings, generally at 7:30 p.m. Regular concerts and theater performances also are held in Minnehaha Park.
From June through August, free concerts are given at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday in the courtyard between Vic's and Tuggs Tavern at St. Anthony Main.
2009 events: May 15-17, Art-A-Whirl studio and gallery tour along Marshall Street and nearby in Northeast Minneapolis. June 20-21, Stone Arch Festival of the Arts. July 4, Minneapolis Red White and Boom on the riverfront, with music and fireworks. July 25, Aquatennial fireworks show.
For more events, check the Minneapolis Riverfront District and St. Anthony Main.
Accommodations: The limestone Nicollet Island Inn, built in 1893 as the Island Door and Sash Co., is in the middle of everything. It has a restaurant and 24 individually decorated rooms, all with views and some with whirlpool, $200-$265; ask about special rates. 612-331-1800.
Staying safe: The trail is nearly all off-road, but you still need to wear a helmet: You're much more likely to fall on your head by swerving or locking wheels with another bike than you are to be hit by a vehicle. And much of the trail is crowded on lovely weekends.
Information: The 1906 Longfellow House in Minnehaha Park, a 2/3-size replica of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's home in Massachusetts, has maps and brochures about history along the route. It's open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 612-230-6520. For maps through the mail, call 612-230-6400, www.minneapolisparks.org; www.byways.org.