Celebrating 100 years of National Parks, including the park closest to home

The Mississippi National River and Recreation Area follows the river through the metro area, including downtown St. Paul.

courtesy of Bob Spaulding, map design. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, map data

Gwen Willems
Supervisor with the Ramsey Conservation District


The term national parks brings to mind the famous ones, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, but we also have five lesser-known ones in Minnesota that were established between 1937 and 1988, one running right through the heart of the metro.

They include the 283-acre Pipestone National Monument; the 710-acre Grand Portage National Monument; the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, which spans 255 miles of the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers; the 500 islands and nearly 220,000 acres that make up Voyageurs National Park; and the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, which is 72 miles long, covering 54,000 acres. 

This summer marked the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. It was celebrated locally with special events and the opening of a newly remodeled Mississippi River Visitor Center at the Science Museum of Minnesota in downtown St. Paul. At the center, you can enjoy free videos and interactive exhibits, as well as chat with national park rangers about recreational activities in the park.

What began with a group of hikers fond of Yellowstone in the 1870s became a Congressional bill signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on Aug. 25, 1916 creating the National Park Service. Today the National Park Service administers nearly 400 park areas, including 25 national parks, 80 national monuments, and 45 national historical parks, national battlefields and other classifications of areas. 

The most accessible national park for us in the Twin Cities is the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, which runs through 25 communities ranging from rural Ravenna Township to the large metropolitan cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  

It’s a long, thin strip of parkland, that was designated a national park in 1988. It offers almost limitless opportunities to fish, boat, canoe, cruise, picnic, bird watch, paint, photograph, hike, bike, jog, ski and snowshoe, at various sites that follow along the Mississippi River.

At the Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park, you can fish for carp and trout, hike, bike, cross-country ski and snowshoe. At Boom Island Park, you can enjoy spectacular views of the Minneapolis skyline. At the Stone Arch Bridge, you can walk, jog or bike above St. Anthony Falls. At Harriet Island on St. Paul’s west side, you can hop on an excursion boat, hear a concert or fish. At the Sibley House Historic Site in Mendota, roughly 20-miles downriver from the Coon Rapids Dam, you can learn about Minnesota’s early European-American settlement.

The National Park Service and Friends of the Mississippi River just released a State of the River report that answers the question, “How is the Mississippi River?” by looking at 14 key indicators of water quality and ecological health in the metro river.  

They found improvements and areas of concern, compared to similar research four years ago:

• The river has improved in terms of healthy bald eagle, mussel and fish populations. The river meets standards for pesticides and chloride.

• Of concern are excess sediment, bacteria and phosphorus. Contaminants like mercury and others mean fish consumption guidelines continue in place.

• More alarming are worrisome levels of river flows that destabilize the river system and carry pollution. Nitrate concentrations have increased substantially, and invasive non-native carp continue to move upstream.

• Microplastic fibers from synthetic fabrics, such as microfleece, polyester and nylon, pharmaceutical drugs and triclosan-derived dioxins, which start out in products such as soaps, pose risks to aquatic life and health.

Read the entire report at www.stateoftheriver.com — if you d like some practical steps that individuals can take to improve the health of the river, thus helping the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area thrive, go to www.stateoftheriver.com/stewardship-guide.


—Gwen Willems is an elected Supervisor with the Ramsey Conservation District. The Board of Supervisors sets district policies and oversees the budget, staffing and conservation activities. She also co-chairs the Capitol Region Watershed District’s Citizen Advisory Committee and lives in Falcon Heights.


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