Saturday, July 18, 2009

Best Bike Ride

Minneapolis is well-endowed with bike paths, ranking second only to Amsterdam in one survey. The city’s famous chain of lakes is rimmed with trails, of course, and abandoned rail lines, recently resurfaced and supplied with informational kiosks, also lead out of the city in every direction. Many of the regional parks have extended asphalt loops for bikes, and I think I may have been on all of them.

The best park loop, in my opinion, can be found at Elm Creek Reserve in Maple Grove, just north of Osseo. The twenty miles of trails here course up and down gentle hills, across swamps, through deep woods and over prairielands, past plum trees and majestic islands of sumac. Yellowthroats chatter in the willow thickets and swans nest on the lakes.

The best exurban rail line may well be the recently-completed strip from Wayzaya to St. Bonifacius. Such routes through the suburbs tend to be straight, shady, and a little dull, but the Wayzata line crosses several bays and hugs the shore of Lake Minnetonka for quite a while; it also passes several swamps, and gains in interest due to the architecture and landscaping of the tony neighborhoods it passes through. There’s a decent old-fashioned drive-in just east of Mound (though I wish they’d turn that Paul Anka tape off) and the last few miles before you reach St. Bonifacius run through wide-open country.

But the Minneapolis route par excellence goes like this. You park on any quiet street on the northwest side of Cedar Lake and follow the shore of the lake north to the old Burlington rail lines. From here you ride east toward downtown Minneapolis, leaving the asphalt trail in time to dodge under the elevated freeway and continue east two blocks to the sculpture garden of the Walker Art Center. Here you pass through the tall evergreen hedge into the garden, dismount, and walk along the arbor, admiring the spectacular array of flowers.

When you reach the east end of the arbor, return to the street and cross over to Loring Park, where you can take a look at another fine garden just north of the lake.

Heading northeast on city streets for a few blocks, you’ll come to Nicollet Mall, where there is virtually no automotive traffic and biking is legal on weekends. A trip up the mall is an urban feast of people-watching (watch out for the buses) and a short jog to the east along Washington Avenue will bring you to the weekend farmer’s market across the street from the Guthrie Theater. The produce here is seriously overpriced, but they have a petting zoo, the crowd is diverse yet uniformly well-healed, and it’s fun to wander, sampling the smoked salmon and the artisan cheese made from the milk of cows that have been fed exclusively on organically-raised strawberries.

At this point you head down the lovely path that follows the Mississippi, past the twisted rubble of the freeway collapse and the shining façade of the University’s Weisman Art Center. By the time you reach Franklin Avenue, the river is far below you and the next few miles, though pleasantly shady, are marred by the poor quality of the aged asphalt. But before long you’ll reach Minnehaha Park, where you can indulge in a plate of calamari at the outdoor café or simply spend a few minutes admiring the waterfall.

The final leg of the trip takes you west alongside tiny Minnehaha Creek as it winds through the Nokomis neighborhood and Tangletown, twisting and turning through the trees; this stretch may be the most fun to ride, and when you reach Lake Harriet you'l be cheered to think that at this point, you’re no more than five miles from your car.

Whenever I come upon the sailboats moored on the northwest side of Lake Harriet, I can’t help but think of Monet’s Argenteuil, and the retro bandshell in the distance on the north end of the lake does nothing to undermine the association. The ice cream at the bandshell is top-flight, and it might be worthwhile taking a detour along the north side of the lake to the rose garden.

Lake Calhoun has a more expansive and genuinely urban feel. The grassy sward along the southwest shore of the lake draws frisbee and volleyball enthusiasts from all around, and motorcyclists mill around along the parkway admiring one another’s machines.

Our route takes us north across Lake Street and down Dean Parkway to the Midtown Greenway, a sunken rail bed that cuts east-west through the heart of South Minneapolis, but we’ll only be on that path for a few hundred yards, pedaling west, before veering north toward Cedar Lake.

Cedar is the poor relation of the chain—the “quiet” lake with marshes and woods across the north end and a “hidden beach” tucked into the vegetation on its eastern shore that has only recently been incorporated into the Minneapolis park system. Circumnavigating the west shore of the lake (popular with fishermen) we arrive back at the car, a little weary perhaps, but altogether exhilarated by the colorful, leafy, heavily-used but still very attractive urban environment we’ve been cycling through.

No comments: