MENDOTA, Minn. -- Throughout this six-month tour of Minnesota’s Backyard, from the four corners of the state to the heart of the lakes country, to the rolling prairie of the west and to the towering bluffs of the southeast, we have often visited places that can accurately be described as secluded, serene and peaceful.
And then, there is Fort Snelling State Park, which provides an oasis of wilderness in the heart of the Twin Cities metropolitan area, but could not accurately be described as secluded or serene.
Your first indication of the park’s proximity to all that makes Minneapolis/St. Paul fun and exciting is a “bird watcher’s guide” posted near the park’s sprawling beach. Instead of sparrows and swallows and their ilk, the guide will tell you the difference between a Boeing 747 that’s headed to Europe, and a short-haul turboprop bound for International Falls. The park sits in the floodplain where the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers converge, and is literally next door to Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport, meaning you are as likely to see and hear airliners as you are to see birds.
At the far northeastern corner of the park is Pike Island, named for Zebulon Pike, who was most prominent among the military men who “discovered” the confluence of the two rivers in September of 1805. Although it is folly to claim discovery of a region that native people had called their home for centuries before. Pike also got his name on a notable peak in Colorado’s Front Range, so apparently he was a big deal 200-plus years ago.
So much eventually happened in this part of Minnesota, that the term “Fort Snelling” is used today for this park, for the neighboring historical site, for the former military base, for the Metro Transit light rail station nearby and for the golf course and recreational facilities there as well.
Depending on the time of day, both Pike Island and Picnic Island sit partially in the shadow of the towering Mendota Bridge, one of the primary traffic arteries in this part of the Twin Cities. Thus, the ambient noise of cars and trucks passing overhead adds to the general feeling of activity.
A hike around Pike Island is one of the more popular activities for park visitors. From the parking area near the Fort Snelling Visitor Center to the tip of the island, where the muddy Minnesota and the clearer Mississippi waters meet, is nearly two miles along a sandy, wide trail shadowed by towering oaks and cottonwoods, and with the occasional barge or tourist paddlewheel boat cruising past. It’s another mile and a half or so back to your car, but there are two shorter trails on the island for those not up for the entire round trip. In the winter, this is a popular cross-country skiing loop as well. If you visit in the spring, check in with the park office before hiking, as the swollen rivers often mean parts of the trail are closed.
The park also offers river access both for trailered boats (with ample parking) and carry-in access for canoes and kayaks. It should be noted that hiking here at any time of the year, as long as the rivers are free of ice, you will see hearty folks fishing in all weather conditions and nearly any temperature.
Minnesota’s most urban state park is not only neighbors with the state’s largest airport, it is a short hop from the nation’s most renowned retail experience as well. Folks who are hungry and thirsty after a summer hike around Pike Island need to drive less than five minutes to reach the many food, drink and shopping options at Mall of America, which has two large-scale food courts, dozens of places to get a cold beverage, and even some higher-end sit-down restaurants to meet any palate. And if the hike reminded you that an upgraded pair of boots is in order, they have many places to buy footwear as well.