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Walking Minnehaha Creek: Canoeing it would be a lot easier

Part 1: Grays Bay to Knollwood Mall. From a strictly pedestrian perspective, it’s a disheartening place to begin a walk of the creek.

MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant
“That’d be a nice walk for a few Sunday afternoons.”

The first of three articles

Maps often don’t have much to do with the experience of actually traveling through the places they depict. To look at Minnehaha Creek on Google Maps, you see a line of blue — thin in some places, thicker in others — meandering across the west metro from Lake Minnetonka near Wayzata, then through Minnetonka, Hopkins, St. Louis Park, Edina and finally south Minneapolis. It’s 22 miles long, traversed by numerous major roads and at least two interstates, but clasped on either side by large swaths of green (map code for “parks of some kind”). “That’d be a nice walk for a few Sunday afternoons,” you may think, visions of knee-high pants and wind in the rushes and skipping rocks along the creek bed in your head.

And so, with those thoughts in my head, a phone with a half-dead battery, and a willing accomplice, I set out to walk the first third of the creek, from the headwaters at Grays Bay to Knollwood Mall in St. Louis Park, with walks for the next two segments planned for the following weekends.

Of course, walking the length of Minnehaha Creek is not as simple as it looks on a map. 

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The first seven or so miles of the creek pass through a landscape that acts as an almost perfect visual catalog of the sights and sounds of the Twin Cities’ suburbs. Minnehaha Creek makes its journey through public and private lands, through marshlands and strip malls, across sprawling corporate campuses and bucolic city parks, past 19th-century historic sites and 20th-century parking lots. It passes right under multimillion-dollar mansions and modest, cedar-shingled ramblers that look like they haven’t been renovated since Orville Freeman was governor.

Often, the surroundings change quickly, within the space of a half-mile. Some of this stretch is perfect for a walk. Other parts are about as charming as walking the shoulder of a four-lane highway, with some vague idea that there’s an inaccessible creek running parallel to it. For its first seven miles, Minnehaha Creek disappears with little warning, and reappears just as suddenly.

Minnehaha Creek (do you pronounce it “creek” or “crick”? I’ve seen and heard both) was known by the Dakota as Wakpa Cistinna, or “Little River.” Like the Big River into which it flowed, it is also the parent of a dramatic waterfall. The Minnehaha Creek of the time before the turn of the 20th century was more like a river than a creek, a fact reflected in some of the renaming by white settlers: Joe Brown’s River, after the teenager who wandered up along it from Fort Snelling to Lake Minnetonka in the 1820s. After that, it was variously called Brown’s Creek or Cascade Creek or Little Falls Creek. For decades, it was a powerful enough body of water to play host to sawmills and and flour mills, creating an early industrial base for the growing community of Minnetonka.

This had all came to an end by 1897, when a dam was built at Grays Bay to lower the water level and regulate flooding, more or less creating the modern Minnehaha Creek. In 1979, the current concrete Headwaters Control Structure was built, and the surrounding park serves as a canoe launch for the creek. Minnehaha Headwaters Park is an interesting and clear-cut divide between two popular manifestations of local aquatic culture: Look behind you and you see the sailboats and pleasure craft of Lake Minnetonka. Look ahead of you and you see marshlands, a lazily flowing stream and dads fishing with their kids. This borderland is where the creek begins.

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Look ahead of you and you see marshlands, a lazily flowing stream and dads fishing with their kids.

From a strictly pedestrian perspective, it’s also a disheartening place to begin a walk of the creek. Canoeing it would have been a lot easier. Right out of the dam, the creek flows through the middle of some impressive wetlands about a quarter-mile deep on both sides. This section is not really suitable for walking along without chest-high waders and a ruthless willingness to crush native plants underfoot, neither of which my accomplice or I had.

Mooney Park is the name of this part of the north bank, and Jidana Park is on the south. With the exception of some pleasant creekside boardwalks on the south bank near the Minnetonka Civic Center, much of the land in this first part is either wetlands or privately owned. Walking right alongside the creek is almost impossible, and it’s hard to even get close. There’s a bridge from the Grays Bay dam over the water to a neighborhood called Crosby Cove, through which you must pass to get to McGinty Road, which generally carries you parallel to the creek for about three miles.

Crosby Cove doesn’t look like the sort of neighborhood you’re supposed to walk through — “Crime Watch” and “No Trespassing” signs abound — but scrupulously avoiding any actual trespassing, it’s a quite remarkable way to begin a walk along the creek. The architecture is completely nuts — I suppose you would call it rustic mansion vernacular. Most the houses seem to be designed to call to mind a lakeside resort cottage, to remind you that yes, you’re near a very large lake and a historic vacation spot. In these houses, as in a typical vacation cottage, you see a little Craftsman influence here, a little Queen Anne there, and maybe some Tudor tossed in a few places, all frosted with a chilly millenial sheen. But unlike a vacation cottage, these houses are also enormous. They’re also very new, the bulk of them having been built in the last few years. Based on a little online snooping, the average price is around $3 million.

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Rustic mansion vernacular

Cargill has a large campus on McGinty Road, right on the creek — a very nice Minnetonka Parks employee we meet near the Civic Center tells us later that they “don’t really like people walking on that land.” Fair enough. From the road, you can peer across the campus and there’s only the slightest indication that a major body of water is back there. For the first hour of this walk, I wondered if I was actually going to see the creek at all, or if I was going to have to get a lot more willing to undertake some light trespassing. Again, canoeing it would have been easier. But this column isn’t called “The Paddle,” is it? It’s “The Stroll,” and strolling is what I will do.

Fortunately, after a tiring few miles of cutting through residential side streets and hugging the shoulder of 30 mph roads, stalking the creek from afar and trying to catch glimpses of it in the distance, you reach Minnetonka Boulevard, near 494. It’s here, on this City of Minnetonka-owned park land, that you can finally walk alongside the creek without the benefit of specialty waterproof footwear. 

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The creek here is narrow and fairly shallow, running along pebble-strewn banks and gnarled, century-old trees. Before the dam went up, this was the heart of the milling industry in this part of the region. It was a prosperous enough area that a miller named Charles H. Burwell, who’d made his fortune here in 1870s, built a mansion here in the 1880s, yards from the banks of the creek. The Burwell House has been owned by the city of Minnetonka since the 1950s, and it has been meticulously restored to its full yellow and brown spindly Queen Anne glory.

The Burwell House has been meticulously restored to its full yellow and brown spindly Queen Anne glory.
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Vestiges of the milling industry are still around.

More than that, the vestiges of the milling industry are still around in more subtle ways. One of the clusters of commercial buildings along Minnetonka has a mill fastened to the side, a semi-modern affectation posing cleverly as a reclaimed artifact (though it’s old enough to be a legitimate suburban artifact). The road names all indicate milling: Mill Road and Minnetonka Mills Road, obviously, but a little further downcreek there’s a Loring Road, presumably for the prominent milling family. There’s also a St. Albans Road right over the Hopkins border, named for one of the defunct mills, itself a linguistic vestige of the old-line Yankees that came to this area from New England via Great Britain. Several of the gas stations prominently advertise live bait, as you’d see in any small town along a popular flowing body of water. It’s disorienting enough that when we stop into a small roadside organic café to recharge our long-dead phones and try to reorient ourselves to a map, we have to ask with a touch of bewilderment where we are.

“Broadly, Minnesota,” deadpans our server. “Specifically, Minnetonka.”

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
A sign meant for boaters

That’s one of the odd things about Minnehaha Creek. It doesn’t mark any civil or political boundaries of any kind. On this leg, it flows through three different jurisdictions with little fanfare. Many of the older, smaller streets are clearly built facing the creek, but the larger thoroughfares mostly ignore it — Minnetonka Boulevard is the closest thing to a parallel-running street, but it doesn’t follow the creek all that closely and splits off entirely near 169. The creek is a part of the landscape when it’s convenient, but for large parts, it’s mostly ignored. You get a good sense for this around 169, where the creek is submerged below a massive concrete bridge slapped overtop of it with no concession to aesthetics or water. It’s an almost-subterranean concrete tunnel, complete with way-finding signs attached to the underneath of the bridge and meant solely for those in boats. You can catch a glimpse of this scene below between gaps in the bridge. Kayaking the creek below must seem like a world apart.

Crossing into St. Louis Park on Minnetonka Boulevard, however, is surprisingly dramatic. The landscape changes quite noticeably: The housing stock and sizes of the plots get much smaller, and much older. The streets fall into a more regimented grid. Familiar east-west numerical designations appear, as does the thematic alphabetical grid: Hillsboro, Gettysburg, Flag, Ensign.

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Caution: Sealant

Still, the grid bends to the will of the creek in this westernmost part of St. Louis Park. The signs for the various neighborhoods — Minnehaha, Cobblecrest– feature depictions of Minnehaha Creek, running peacefully under rustic bridges. That’s more or less what the scene looks like, too. It’s still impossible to walk the creek without trespassing through someone’s backyard. But walking down Aquila Avenue to the Cedar Lake Trail, you can follow the creek for a bit, all the way to a charming wooden bridge that crosses it (“CAUTION SEALANT MAY STAIN CLOTHES” reads a helpful warning on the railing). The bridge provides a vantage point for the backyards of nearby homes. It’s rows of little bungalows and ranch houses on either side, with a creek not far from the back doors. One wonders how these homeowners dealt with the high water levels this summer, but the creek makes for a charming neighborhood amenity.

Minnehaha Creek disappears into the background again once it crosses under 36th Street, into a thicket of trees surrounded on all sides by banks, car washes, fast-food restaurants, service roads and some large parking lots. From Knollwood Mall, you’d scarcely know there was a creek anywhere nearby. It’s here we’ll pick it up next week and continue our trip downcreek through St. Louis Park and into Edina.

Next week: Minnehaha Creek from Knollwood Mall to Lake Harriet.

Note: The name of McGinty (not McGinley!) Road has been corrected in the ninth paragraph, as have the details and locations of some of the sites in Minnetonka throughout the rest of the article.