Walking the Grand Rounds in Minneapolis: Part One

When you live in Winnipeg and are looking for the nearest drivable, big city adventure, that destination is Minneapolis. That said, it is still a lengthy 7½ hour, 755-kilometre drive down interstate highways I-29 and I-94. That’s the distance from our house to Mall of America, one of the largest malls in the United States and, it seems, the primary destination for Manitobans.

But Gail and I are odd ducks. We avoid the suburbs and head downtown. We go to the Guthrie for theatre-in-the-round. We have dinner at the Dakota Jazz Club while listening to captivating music. We gallery-hop to the Walker, the American Swedish Institute, the Minneapolis Centre of Book Arts and, my favourite, the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts. Shopping consists of quality time in a gallery gift shop or a visit to the Uptown district (more about that later). If we feel the need for a Mall of America experience, it’s a quick shuttle on the Metro Blue Line LRT.

And we walk. Everywhere. In particular we walk the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway. The best, most comprehensive, most pleasurable long distance urban walk network I have come across – anywhere. 

Just a few weeks ago, Gail and I set out from our downtown hotel, the near-historic Normandy Inn, for a day’s walk along the Grand Rounds. The sun had just crested the low buildings carpeting the city’s eastern fringes. It was promising to be a pleasant warm day as we headed east down 5th Street South to the Mississippi River. Past the endless construction of a city that never seems to stop growing and evolving. Past the Moderne-styled Armoury. Past worker-bees in cars racing to their downtown work hives. Past streets of salvaged brick warehouses until we arrive at the great river itself. Wide and powerful. The catalyst and energy for the historic mills lining its banks. Brick and stone structures now repurposed for museums, offices and homes.

In front of us, the graceful Stone Arch Bridge curves away from the banks of the river and crosses its breadth. It once transported railcars. Now the bridge is all pedestrians and cyclists. We don’t cross it today but continue along the river’s edge, heading south.

The Grand Rounds path is well marked. The only hiccup we encounter happens early on, under the I-35W and 10th Avenue bridges, where too many intersecting trails and too many choices result in a scenic, circular detour. The correct direction? Just keep following the river.

The paved walking and cycling paths diverge from roadways, and wherever possible, cyclists and walkers travel along separate paths. Where the two merge out of necessity, the lanes are clearly marked. It makes for a pleasurable walk, not having to worry about speeding cyclists approaching from the rear. For a bit of relief from the urbane path system, unsurfaced trails lead down treed slopes, more closely following the river’s edge. There’s even a small beach to explore. Autumn reds and yellows float against the blue sky and paint our riverside trails.

The variety of trail types and route options, the consistent yet understated signage, the interpretive plaques and kiosks dotting the route are all features that make the Grand Rounds a highly successful multi-use path network. Another appreciated feature, too often neglected in the design of urban pathways, are washroom facilities.

Sooner or later we all need them. Better to anticipate the need than to invite the inevitable workaround.

The Grand Rounds has biffies stationed at fairly regular intervals. Nothing fancy, just your everyday portable washrooms, often with a simple wood fence to hide them from adjacent residences.

The Grand Rounds was designated as a Minnesota State Scenic Byway in 1997 and a National Scenic Byway in 1998. Worthy recognitions, to be sure, but they are no more than the most recent acknowledgement of a valuable resource first imagined and protected in 1883. That year, landscape architect Horace Cleveland was hired by the Minneapolis Park Board to create a comprehensive park plan for the city. He envisioned a system of connected parks and particularly focussed on the Mississippi River as the jewel in the network.

The city pounced on Cleveland’s plan and immediately started buying land along the river’s shore. This is where forward-thinking and civic leadership merge to create something special and lasting. As Cleveland said in 1883:

Look forward for a century, to the time when the city has a population of a million, and think what will be their wants. 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 . . .

Our three-hour ramble along the Mississippi pauses at the impressive Minnehaha Falls. It’s our chance to sit down at the falls-side Sea Salt restaurant for an alfresco lunch of fish, local craft beer and cider. Our chance to recharge our bodies for the remainder of the walk.

Next week: The conclusion of our Grand Rounds walk.

If you plan to walk the Grand Rounds, here are some useful links:

Maps: http://50.59.38.231/grandrounds/map_M1.htm

Minneapolis Parks Board: https://www.minneapolisparks.org/parks__destinations/trails__parkways/grand_rounds_scenic_byway_system/

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Rounds_Scenic_Byway

 

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