The Wild in the Heart of the City

by Katie Nyberg, Executive Director

Last month, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. Thanks to the leadership of Bruce Vento and David Durenburger, Congress established the 72-mile, 54,000 acre park in 1988. Of the Mississippi River’s 2,350 mile journey, this 72 miles best represents our nation’s heritage and beauty. The boundary of our national park starts at the Mississippi River in Ramsey / Dayton and extends south just beyond Hastings.
Many people I encounter are surprised when they hear about this national park because they typically think of the big parks out west—Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Glacier—but in fact, there are more than 400 national parks in our country—each with a unique set of resources and compelling stories to tell. Those of us who live here often overlook the places and stories that are part of the American narrative and contribute to what makes America and the Mississippi River great.
So, what does it mean to have a national park in the heart of the Twin Cities?
Our park owns little land and has minimal regulatory authority. There is no grand entrance. But where we lack in real estate, we are ample in community engagement. Each year, the park serves 15,000 kids with content rich educational experiences on riverboats, canoes and on foot. Urban parks like this one play a huge role in introducing thousands of young people to the very idea of national parks.
In addition to exemplary public programs, the park partners with dozens of local and state government agencies to provide thoughtful insight into riverfront development, water quality issues, and protection of our community’s rich history. I could go on with the long list of many worthy projects the National Park Service has made possible, from Nice Ride Minnesota bikes in St. Paul to organizing partners to face the threat of Asian carp, but most people I meet just want to know “What can I do?” “How can I get there?”

At the Mississippi River Fund, our job isn’t only to raise money for park programs. We also help connect the community to the great resource we all share. I encourage my fellow Twin Citians to take advantage of our national park this winter. You will be amazed to have a wild experience right in the heart of our city. There is nothing better than being at the river’s edge in the winter and seeing snowshoe tracks mixed in with tracks of deer, otter and beaver. Go on a park ranger-led hike at Coldwater Spring, view soaring bald eagles from Indian Mounds Park and stop by the park’s visitor center located within the Science Museum of Minnesota. Or, join the 3,000 people who volunteer for the park every year—even in the dead of winter! 

So the next time you drive over the river, bike along a river trail, or visit a historic site on the Mississippi, remember that you are in a national park, and you didn’t have to drive 1,200 miles to get there.