A Walk in the Woods: How to Get Away Without Leaving the City

By Graham Smith

With all of the stresses and responsibilities that come with being a college student at the University of Minnesota, sometimes you just need some time to disconnect, put your aside the oppression of your to-do list for a few hours, and clear your mind. For some, this outlet might come in the form of yoga, exercise, or binge-watching Netflix. To me, there’s nothing more relaxing and refreshing than turning my phone to airplane mode, putting on some sturdy shoes, and finding a place where I’m surrounded by trees and water and where I feel like I’m far away from the hordes of stressed college students and fluorescent-lit buildings that fill the U’s campus. Although it might seem difficult to connect with nature when you live at a university of over 50,000 students in Minnesota’s largest city, you actually don’t have to go too far to find some solitude in the natural beauty of campus’ surrounding area. As finals season approaches and the weather gets warmer, it can be extremely rewarding to take just a few hours for yourself to commune with some trees and feel the dirt beneath your feet. Below is a selection of some of my favorite spots I’ve found to get away from it all, none of them very far from campus.

Bridal Veil Falls

How to get there: This spot is located just west of the Franklin Avenue bridge, where it meets East River Parkway in Prospect Park. It can be reached by following the trail that begins in East River Flats Park along the river (when the trail is open), or by a (much steeper and more treacherous) dirt path that can be accessed near the intersection of Superior Street and East River Parkway.

At one time, this spot was a waterfall where a creek emptied into the Mississippi River. Today, what remains of the creek trickles down a brick structure and is carried through a peaceful wooded gorge, which has become a popular spot for students to find respite from their responsibilities, often in a  hammock with the company of a good book. (Some of its popularity probably stems from its proximity to the Superblock dorms.) Also worth noting is that in the winter, you’ll often see brave ice climbers scaling the frozen falls!

Father Hennepin Bluffs Park

How to get there: Located by the intersection of 6th Avenue SE and SE Main Street, the park is a quick 20-minute walk or 10-minute bike ride from Dinkytown. Many take a service road that begins near the pedestrian suspension bridge by Wilkins Hall.

The Stone Arch Bridge is probably the most-Instagrammed place in Minneapolis, and for good reason. The former railroad bridge is a beautiful historical landmark, and the wooded area that surrounds its base on the east bank of the Mississippi River treats visitors to a fascinating stroll through the intersection of the city’s human history and natural beauty. Dirt paths and bridges guide will guide you between wooded islands where moss and ivy are slowly reclaiming the brick remains of the milling industry that once dominated the area. Wooden stairs near the entrance to the bridge (technically off limits) take visitors to a riverbank view that is a favorite of local photographers.

Winchell Trail

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How to get there: This trail is a 5 mile round trip, and runs along the west bank of the Mississippi River, between Franklin Avenue and 44th Street. Getting there is a short bike ride from the U’s West Bank campus, but a little farther than most students probably will want to walk.

Running parallel to West River Parkway, this trail has a long history that began as a Native American footpath, and walking here makes it easy to forget that you’re still in the city. Some parts of the trail take you close to the riverbank, while other portions meander through steep wooded bluffs. If you’re looking for an extended, peaceful hike where you can disappear between thick swaths of trees and gaze at impressive views of the Mississippi, this is the place for you.

Shadow Falls Park

How to get there: Located near the University of Saint Thomas campus, the entrance to this park can be found by the intersection of Cretin Avenue and Summit Avenue in Saint Paul. Biking there from campus along East River Parkway is a beautiful ride that will take most less than half an hour. Alternatively, it’s about a 10 minute drive.

This spot is a lot farther than the others I included in my list, but it’s been one of my favorite places since childhood and I personally think it’s worth the trek if you’ve got some time to spare. The first thing visitors will notice is a 36-foot tall stone monument to veterans of World War 1, erected in the 1920s. But walking past that, one only has to follow a footpath a short way to reach dramatic limestone cliffs that overlook the Mississippi River. For those looking for some more adventure, it’s just a short scramble down the bluff to get to a wooded gorge traversed by a creek that spills over a picturesque waterfall. The area is permeated with miles of unofficial dirt paths carved out by free-spirited wanderers. Here, one could spend hours exploring the woods and ambling between sandy riverbank and sheets of limestone carved with countless initials. Views of the gorge when the leaves change colors in the fall are a must-see.