Enjoying the National Park That Runs Through the Twin Cities

The Mississippi River is part of one of the country's more unique national parks.
The Mississippi River is part of one of the country's more unique national parks. Mackenzie Havey
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Most residents of the Twin Cities don't realize they have a national park right in their midst. Known as the Mississippi River and National Recreation Area (MNRRA), this 72-mile stretch of the Mississippi River runs from Dayton and Ramsey Counties in the north to the bottom of Dakota County at the southern end. This corridor includes 54,000 acres, which mostly consists of the river itself. The National Park Service also owns about 64 acres of land, much of which is located on nine islands.

To learn more about the MNRRA, we connected with the superintendent of the park, John Anfinson. Also the author of the book, The River We Have Wrought: A History of the Upper Mississippi, Anfinson has long been an expert when it comes to this stretch of water. In this recent interview, he shares a bit about the MNRRA itself and the many opportunities for recreation on and around the Mighty Mississippi.

A 72-mile stretch of the Mississippi River is the heart of the national recreation area.
A 72-mile stretch of the Mississippi River is the heart of the national recreation area. Mackenzie Havey

What makes the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area particularly unique compared to traditional national parks?

One thing that makes us unique is that we own very little land. Consequently, we don’t have the classic entry gate through which visitors enter onto land the NPS owns. In 2010 the Department of the Interior gave us the Coldwater Spring property, which we are restoring. We do have a temporary NPS entry sign there and hope to have something more permanent soon.

Congress established us to bring the corridor’s 25 communities, five counties and other entities together to protect, preserve and enhance the river’s key qualities. Our goal is get them to see the bigger picture. Since we own very little land, we have to do this through partnerships. We are a “Partnership Park.”

As odd as we once were within the NPS system, we are now becoming critical to the Park Service’s future. Over 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas and we recognize that we have to engage our current and future visitors, stewards, and advocates in urban communities. Those visiting and supporting national parks in the future will need to be far more diverse than they are today. For these reasons, the NPS Director announced the “Urban Agenda” this spring in San Francisco. MNRRA is poised to become a gateway community, not just for our national park but for many others.

We are gearing up for the National Park Service Centennial in 2016, and our Washington office is looking to us to play a key role in engaging the next generation of park visitors, steward and advocates. You should check out the Findyourpark.com website.

Can you say a little about the Mississippi River along this 72-mile stretch?

I often tell people that the Mississippi River changes more over our 72 miles than anywhere else along its course. The reason is that there are three distinct reaches:

The Prairie River: The Mississippi enters the corridor as a prairie river. Here it has banks rather than high bluffs, and the river is fairly narrow. This reach sees little flooding. In many places, homes and businesses are constructed close to the river’s edge, with little worry. For two short stretches in this reach, you can experience the last free flowing sections of the Mississippi River.

The Gorge: At St. Anthony Falls, the Mississippi drops into the river’s steepest and narrowest canyon. The bluffs are one-quarter to one-third of a mile apart, and the river drops about 110 feet from above the falls to the confluence of the Minnesota River, 8.5 miles downstream. There are few islands, little floodplain and no backwater channels or lakes.

The Large Floodplain River: At the mouth of the Minnesota River, the Mississippi widens out dramatically. This is the river of Mark Twain, “the river of image, myth, and metaphor,” as one writer titled his dissertation. This river was formed by the Glacial River Warren, which drained Lake Agassiz for some 2,700 years. The River Warren flowed down what is now the Minnesota River from the northwest, carving out the Minnesota and Mississippi River valleys. This river has high bluffs, which can be miles apart, a large floodplain, backwater channels and lakes and lots of islands.

What are some of the environmental challenges facing this park?

Water quality and urban development are two key issues. Portions of the river in the Twin Cities are impaired for bacteria, sediment, and other pollutants. The Minnesota River brings in massive amounts of agricultural runoff, including sediment, nitrogen, phosphorous and chemicals. Urban expansion is cutting into the natural forested lands and grasslands and some development is occurring in the floodplain. Some developers are pushing for larger and taller buildings along the river that block scenic views of the river. The loss of natural areas adversely affects birds that rely on the Mississippi River as their migratory flyway and impacts other species. Asian carp are another looming issue, especially the Silver, Bighead and Grass. We are finding more of each in our corridor every year.

How are you hoping to engage people with the river and the surrounding land?

We have lots of education and interpretation programs that engage youth in the outdoors. Our Big River Journey program, with the Padelford Packet Boat Company, has put 60,000 school kids on the river. The Urban Wilderness Canoe Program, which we do with Wilderness Inquiry, gets more than 10,000 school kids on the river each year. At Coldwater Spring, our effort to restore the former Bureau of Mines campus into an oak savanna and show people how we can restore habitat in the heart of the Twin Cities. We have had hundreds of volunteers engage in over 10,000 volunteer hours on this property.

Two key partners are helping us out: The Mississippi River Fund and Friends of the Mississippi River. The former is our philanthropic partner and the other is the key advocacy organization for the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities.

What are some of the most popular outdoor activities offered along this stretch of the river?

Canoeing and kayaking; boating (small and, below Lock and Dam No. 1, large boats); fishing; biking along the river roads and trails; walking; scenic viewpoints; and enjoying the 79 state, local, and regional parks in the corridor.

Where is the visitor center and how can people learn more about the MNRRA?

Our visitor center is in the Science Museum of Minnesota in downtown St. Paul. People can learn more about us at the visitor center from one of our rangers or knowledgeable volunteers. They can also look at our website and at the Mississippi River Fund’s website. They will find various programs and events highlighted on the latter site.


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