A Quick and Dirty Guide to Trail Running near Minneapolis

Ed Kohler
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With over 20 dirt-running trails in the metro area and dozens more found within nearby state parks—home to rustling prairie grasses, river gorge ravines, and thickly wooded forests—it’s obvious to see that Minneapolis is home to some world-class trail running terrain. (At least, when it's not buried in a few feet of snow, that is.)

And thanks to the avid running community, some of which include the Upper Midwest Trail Runners (UMTR) and Minneapolis Running, during the warm months, there are trail races almost every weekend all across the metro area.

Here, a guide to some of the can't-miss trail running destinations in the Twin Cities.

Afton State Park

Running through the wooded ravines
Running through the wooded ravines Molly O'Connor

Just 30 minutes outside the Twin Cities, Afton State Park is known for its hilly terrain and over 20 miles of maintained dirt trails. Offering over 1,600-acres of woodland, prairie, and rugged hillside, it is no wonder that this park is perfect for endorphin-seeking trail runners.

It is best to start from the main parking lot and then head north following the trails to the first scenic vista. From the vista, you can see the gifts the glaciers left Minnesota after the most recent ice age, such as steep ravines and exposed sandstone bluffs.

For a warm-up, the North and South River Trails offer flat, wide paths, perfect for a few sprints or a slow jog. The Prairie Restoration Trail and Prairie Loop Trail feature short elevation gains, while also taking you through beautiful flower meadows and lush prairie grasses. For a sweat-inducing hill climb, the Trout Brook Loop hosts a steep 100-foot elevation gain, which will make even a well-seasoned runner pant and perspire. But what Afton is famous for is its lung-bursting hill climbs found within the steep ravines in the center of the park. There are over 4 miles of interconnected trails that twist and turn through forested ridgeline, offering its runners many opportunities to work on uphill stamina and downhill balancing.

Garnering attention since 1994, Afton State Park hosts the Afton Trail Run 50K and 25K, which has received attention for not only being difficult, but also for being one of the oldest and most beautiful trail runs in the nation. Registration opens in March and the race date is usually in early July.

Minnesota River Bottoms

The River Bottoms
The River Bottoms RLEVANS

Locally known for its excellent 11 miles of single and double track mountain biking trails, the Minnesota River Bottoms is also a favorite destination for trail runners. Technically, Bloomington’s Minnesota River Bottoms Trail is a part of a 14,000-acre park system called the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, which follows over 70 miles of the scenic Minnesota River. The River Bottoms section is just a small portion of what the park offers trail runners.

There are three access points to the main River Bottoms Trail, all of which lead you to trails that weave through floodplain forest and wetlands. Several sections of the trail are pretty flat and offer shade from the nearby silver maple or cottonwood trees. For those runners who want tight turns and elevation changes will be pleased to find technical routes that offshoot from the main trail. Developed by local mountain bikers, these trails offer hairpin turns, steep declines, and heart racing inclines. Be on the lookout for bikers sharing the trails.

Depending on where you start, the trail conditions can change dramatically. The areas that flood are often more sandy, while other portions of the trail are extremely muddy. If you ever want to know trail conditions, visit the Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists (MORC) page. Some of the Minnesota River Bottoms trails are maintained by the DNR, but these technical routes are all thanks to the efforts of the MORC. Consider joining them on their weekly trail cleanups and trail maintenance meetings.

Theodore Wirth Park

For a run that works on your footwork and gets your heart pumping, the Minneapolis Urban Track  is the best bet. Not every city can boast that they have prime dirt trails found within the city limits, but thanks to the Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists Association (MOCA) , there is a roller coaster ride of trails with quick elevation changes and windy turns. The trail is perfect for the urban runner wanting a change of pace from their usual running route.

Interstate State Park

Interstate State Park
Interstate State Park Tony Webster

Similar to Afton State Park, but with towering basalt bluffs and bottomless glacial formed potholes, Interstate State Park is the St. Croix River Valley’s trail running mecca. Straddling the Dalles of the St. Croix, this park can be found both in Wisconsin and Minnesota, each of which offer fantastic dirt trails for the outdoor runner. Steep ravines, scrambling climbs, and off-the-beaten track paths will bring trail runners back to their ancestral roots. It’s hard not to feel like a primal hunter following its prey while twisting through lush woodlands, scrambling up basalt lined cliffs, and evading the ankle-breaking holes strewn about the pothole area.

And as an after workout treat, exploring the Prairie Pothole Region is a must-do while visiting Interstate State Park. Delving deep into the potholes is an unforgettable experience. Sometimes crowded during the weekends (especially on the Minnesota side), it’s best to hit the trails early in the morning or sometime during the workweek.

Additional Resources

Groups: Upper Midwest Trail Runners , Twin Cities Running Experiment (Meetup)
Races: Trail Loppet
Retailers: Gear Running Store , TC Running Co

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