We finally had the chance to experience an incredible hiking trail in Lillydale-Harriet Island Regional Park, The Brickyards of Saint Paul. The trail winds through the former site of the Twin Cities Brick Company, which was in operation for 80 years, up until the 1970′s. As a result, the area is an interesting mix of former industrial site, natural reclamation and the efforts of the Saint Paul Parks and Recreation department to turn this into user-friendly, historic nature walk.
The trails offers a couple of paths, one leads to fossil beds where collecting is permitted with a permit. We chose the trail that leads to the Bruce Vento Scenic Overlook. The trail head begins off of Water Street/Lillydale Road, south of Harriet Island from a large parking area known as the Fossil Ground Parking Lot. The head is not well marked and wasn’t obvious to us until we walked up to the interpretive sign and map that marks the beginning of the trail.
The unpaved trail starts off gradually, but gets steeper the further along you go. Much of it is lined with crushed stone and brick, with shallow gullies created by runoff exposing clusters of mortared brick and flagstone. The path runs through fairly dense woods, so it remained cool even on an unseasonable warm day. Along the way, hikers are exposed to remnants of the Brickyard including a brick kiln (where the bricks were fired) and several quarries, as well as caves and trickling streams and waterfalls. Interpretive signage dots the trail offering maps and narrative history of the Brick Company, Pickerel Lake, and the town of Lillydale, in addition to geological information.
The end of the line delivers panoramic views of the Mississippi River valley at the Bruce Vento Scenic Overlook. Large blocks of stone strewn about the overlook offer a place to sit, soak in the surroundings and catch your breath for the trip back down the bluffs.
Our family is by no means hiker or outdoorsy types, but enjoyed the experience very much. Our 8 and 5 year old kids handled the trail with relative ease, as did our new 4-month-old Goldendoodle puppy “Junior.” We saw several other families passing by along the way, some with children younger than ours, all seemed to be enjoying themselves. A casual hike up and down the trail, with several stops to explore along the way, lasted probably an hour and a half.
The sun isn’t supposed to reappear for a few more days (at least, that’s what Weather.com tells me), but you can start planning now for the better hiking and biking weather that’s sure to come.
One of the best places to start is Harriet Island, just across the Mississippi from downtown. One of the first things you will notice about Harriet Island is that it is not an island. The river channel that separated the island from the mainland was filled in the 1950’s, so now it is an island in name only. But that does not change the fact that it is one of the most charming places in the city to take a picnic and drink in some seriously dramatic views of downtown.
You can also launch a great hike or bike ride from here. Park in the south parking lot (accessible by taking a right on Plato Boulevard after crossing the Wabasha Street bridge from downtown) and head south on the paved trail adjacent to Dr. Justis Ohage Blvd. The first few hundred yards is a bit industrial, but soon you plunge into the woods alongside the river and forget that you are anywhere near the city.
For 2.8 miles the paved trail meanders next to the river and through picturesque forest. You will even get glimpses of Pickerel Lake and the occasional reminder (such as the appearance of a mile-long freight train crossing the railroad swing bridge or a huge barge passing by) that you are sharing space with two thriving transportation corridors.
The trail is flat until you reach the Pool and Yacht Club. There it becomes the Big Rivers Regional Trail* and begins a dramatic ascent up the bluff. My husband and I started our latest hike there (with the baby in tow) to take advantage of the serious cardio workout and the equally serious views.
The trail is nestled between limestone cliffs and the river – part of an old rail corridor that is still active (although the active part is thankfully 50 feet down the bluff). As you climb, the view of the river becomes more breathtaking until you reach the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. This spot is considered sacred by many people native to Minnesota and it is easy to see why. The milky brown of the Minnesota can be seen blending into the deeper green of the Mississippi. It is worth the trip just to see two big rivers becoming one.
* It is important to note that the Big Rivers Regional Trail is closed weekdays until 5:30 p.m. through July due to construction. The trail is open after 5:30 and on weekends.
I’m always searching for the perfect spot to get a quick nature fix. For me, that means a place that’s nearby and easily accessible, but that allows me to feel far from the city and close to the woods. Battle Creek Regional Park, just five miles from downtown St. Paul, may be just that place. Woods, wetlands and grasslands comprise the 1,840-acre park, providing a home to many species of birds and wildlife.
My husband, son and I visited on a recent Sunday afternoon and were surprised to see few other people, even on a sunny spring day. From the parking lot off Point Douglas Road, we crossed a footbridge over the creek, noticing a small, but pretty waterfall to our left. The sound alone of running water set me at ease, reminding me to drop my shoulders and take a deep breath. Spring is finally here!
Continuing on the flat, paved path, we entered a large meadow surrounded by limestone walls. Bright yellow dandelions dotted the green grass and a few empty picnic benches reminded me to pack a lunch next time. Better yet, bring a blanket, sprawl out with a book and sandwich, and skip the benches altogether.
Chirps and bird songs followed us down the main trail. A lone male mallard, with its shimmery green head, flew downstream, gliding in for a smooth landing. We heard and saw goldfinches, warblers, sparrows, and a lovely blue jay, too. Maple, aspen, pine, and oak trees filled in on either side of the trail, with ferns, saplings and other ground vegetation filling the forest floor.
I tend to prefer gravel or dirt trails when hiking, but the paved path is just right for a jog or a leisurely bike ride, especially if you’re towing kids in a bike trailer. It also makes this trail, which meanders along side the creek almost the entire time, easily accessible for those in wheelchairs. Explorers may want to ditch the pavement and hoof it on a side dirt trail (frequented by mountain bikers) that takes you deeper into the trees and away from the open meadows.
The only downside to this hike is the occasional break in the trail where you have to cross a road to catch the other side of the path. The roads aren’t too busy though, and it isn’t long before you’re surrounded by nature again.
I’ll be back soon to check out the other trails, particularly the one that begins off Lower Afton Road, which I’ve heard is one of the best in the park. Next time I’ll bring a book or a journal, too. Benches perched throughout the park call for stopping and taking in the scenery, slowing down, and enjoying some alone time. Do you have a favorite near-town nature getaway you’re willing to share?
Getting there: Take Interstate 94 east out of downtown St. Paul. Exit on Highway 10 South. After about 1 mile, turn left on Lower Afton Road. Take an immediate left on Point Douglas Road. Point Douglas road ends in the Battle Creek parking area.
When I met Jeff, the man who would later become my husband, I was living in the South (where I’m originally from) and we did the long distance dating dance, pining over each other and trying to figure out how to live in the same city. St. Paul got the hard sell, and I was game for a new adventure.
As a born-and-raised Floridian I never would have imagined living in Minnesota. The only time I visited St. Paul prior to moving here was during a snow-filled December weekend. Love is a powerful thing.
It didn’t take long for this city to warm my heart. By the time I moved here—three years ago Memorial Day weekend—St. Paul’s outdoor festivals, downtown farmer’s market, restaurant patio seating, and summer weather perfection were in full bloom. I quickly began exploring, and adoring, this new city of mine.
My now-husband was perhaps (and still is) St. Paul’s biggest cheerleader. He has lived here for 18 years or so, knows all those back roads that confuse everyone else, and is a loyal patron of his tried and true local haunts. His affection has rubbed off on me, though it’s me, with my fresh eyes and non-native status that gets us out to try new restaurants, new hiking trails, and more.
This summer I’m taking my St. Paul exploration to a new level. I have a Google doc going of fun things to do that I regularly add to. Jeff and I plan to spend as much time outside as possible with our 1-year-old son in tow. (Note to self: get to the Roseville REI and buy one of those baby backpack carriers—ASAP!) I’ve got my Minnesota bird and tree naturalist guides in hand and my kitchen ready to make use of our fantastic local produce. Maybe we’ll have the chance to meet at the St. Paul Farmer’s Market sometime.
As the outdoors and healthy living blogger for STAYcation, I’ll be checking out biking and hiking trails, the best spots to take a dip on hot summer days, healthy cooking classes, local farms, ways to get to know our lovely stretch of the mighty Mississippi River, and much, much more. I’ve got my eye on a few yoga and pilates classes I’ve been wanting to try, too, along with some spa treatments I can’t wait to indulge in. I’m also looking forward to trying a few outdoor adventures for the first time—specifically geo-caching and disc golf.
Meanwhile, I’d love to hear about your favorite around-town spots. Where in St. Paul do you go when you need a nature fix, a healthy meal, want to catch a fish, or to take a meditation class to recharge your spirit? And if you hear of a fantastic event I should check out, please let me know!