Five Top Winter Running Trails in the Twin Cities
Story and photos by Scott Wooldridge
Minnesota runners are a hardy bunch and continue to put in the miles, regardless of the cold. I’m partial to the Minnesota River for my winter off-road running. It’s an impressive green space that travels along urban and suburban areas and for most of its course in the Twin Cities area there’s public access to trails runners can enjoy.
1. Fort Snelling State Park (St. Paul)
The Minnesota River ends here and joins the Mississippi at Bdote, the Dakota name for this confluence. The park features miles of paved and natural trails but there are other multi-use trails including a path straight down the center of the Pike Island. Steer clear of the groomed cross country ski trails there. Picnic Island has a loop of paved road as well as natural trails and offers stunning views of Mendota Bridge. Under the Mendota Bridge: Don’t miss a great four-mile out and back run from the main parking lot to Bdote at the end of Pike Island. As an alternative, park at the Snelling Lake Road entrance and run along the trail on the banks of the Minnesota, over to Picnic Island, then to the boat landing under the massive Mendota Bridge. It’s only two and a half miles, but there are many other trails you can access from that area.
2. Black Dog Trail (Cedar Nichols Trailhead) and Old Cedar Avenue Bridge (Bloomington, Burnsville, Eagan)
These connected trailheads on the north and south side of the Minnesota River are linked by the Highway 77 bridge. In the winter, the old Cedar Avenue Bridge, open only to pedestrians and bikes, is a wonderful, scenic spot along Long Meadow Lake. Less than a mile away, trails head east or west along the river. Southeast of that bridge, the Cedar Nichols Trailhead features dirt trails going east and the paved Black Dog Road trail heading west. This is perhaps the most jogger-friendly trail you’ll find along the river, with an easy, level trail that’s plowed in the winter.
The Big Loop: Looping around the Minnesota River via trails over the Hwy 77 bridge and the 35W bridge allows you to run on both sides of the river, on paved and unpaved trails. Don’t do this right after a snow. You don’t want to be breaking trail on this nine-mile loop. It’s a challenge in any season. Recommended starting spots: Cedar Nichols parking lot or the Lyndale lot.
3. Minnesota River Bottoms, Lyndale, 35W (Bloomington, Burnsville)
On the south side of 35W bridge, the Minnesota River Black Dog Trailhead is on the west end of that trail and features terrific views of the river and Black Dog Lake. The 35W bridge has a pedestrian/bike path connecting the two sides of the river. On the north side, at the Minnesota River Bottoms Lyndale lot, A winding, paved path goes east for about two miles east before ending. There are also some narrow dirt paths, but keep an eye out for people on bikes. Finding Nine Mile Creek: West of the bridge is a gravel path that leads to trails the Nine Mile Creek Park system and the Minnesota River Bottoms trails. Going west on that trail from the Lyndale lot will take you from a prairie-like setting to a deep woods with a winding course until you suddenly reach the creek. The three mile out-and-back course has great scenery and you may encounter some bald eagles along the shores.
4. Bloomington Ferry Bridge, Wilkie Trailhead (Bloomington, Shakopee)
This must-see trail crosses the Bloomington Ferry Trail Bridge on the north side of the river and ends at the Wilkie Unit trailhead two miles west. The view of the river from the pedestrian bridge is one of the best in the metro area.
Here, we also find the Minnesota Bottomlands system of trails going east and west. Keep in mind this area often floods during the spring thaw.
Over and under bridges: A very straightforward run, on paved trail and roads, is the route between the Bloomington Ferry Bridge and the Wilkie Unit National Wildlife Reserve parking lot. The out and back, four-mile route will take you over the river and under the long Highway 169 bridge. Watch for ice on this trail!
5. Chaska Lake Loop
This is another trail that can have impassable points depending on ice, river levels, and whether the trail is broken after big snows. But when it’s clear, it’s a manageable distance of about four miles, and parts of it are quite flat with long, straight, paved sections. Start at Carver Riverside Park in Carver and follow the Chaska Trail through a wooded area, run along the Minnesota River and through a wetland near Chaska Lake. You’ll then head back west on the Chaska-Carver bike path.
About the Author
Scott Wooldridge is a writer and musician who has been running along the rivers in the Minneapolis and St. Paul metro area for several years, accompanied by his dog, P.J. During that time he’s managed cover paths along both the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers between Belle Plaine, Minnesota and Prescott, Wisconsin bit by bit, a distance of about 75 miles.