• A series exploring the best outdoor experiences in the Twin Cities •

Exploring Elm Creek

Get linger-worthy views, dozens of trail miles, and a who’s-who of resident wildlife at this sprawling north metro park.

Do It

The largest reserve in the Three Rivers Regional Parks system, Elm Creek Park Reserve’s 4,900 acres hosts nearly 30 miles of paved bike/hike trails, with connections to the Rush Creek and Medicine Lake Regional Trails, and more than a dozen miles of hike-only trails. Throw in a swimming hole, a pair of camper cabins, and former digs of one our state’s renowned explorers, and this park checks a long list of popular outdoor pursuits.

 The hard part is deciding which activity to do next. Like to cruise on a road bike? Elm Creek’s impeccable trails are velvety smooth, with ride-off-the-trail gorgeous scenery. Roll through meadows luminous from a Crayola palette of wildflowers, past pockets of wetlands, and in shady copses of hardwood forest.

 If wildlife viewing is your thing, count on having company from the ground up. White-tailed deer, fox, and gray squirrels roam the forested areas, while turtles and loons and beavers ply the waters of the park’s five interior lakes. Look to the air low and high to see butterflies, an orchestra of songbirds, and soaring raptors.

 Score a reservable cabin for luxe camping in the park’s quiet northern fringe. The cabins sport comfy beds, screened porches, and even ceiling fans. Pack friends or family and stargaze in style.

 History runs deep in the park, as well. At the park’s southern boundary is the Pierre Bottineau House, resplendent today as it surely was in the 1800s. Monsieur Bottineau’s was a legendary Minnesota frontiersman, planning many an exploration from this outpost here in the wilds of a largely unknown territory. The swarthy Bottineau was an intrepid voyageur, and his travels through the wild corridor northwest of the present-day Twin Cities opened the area to settlement.

The laudable efforts of Elm Creek Park’s forestry, wildlife, and water resources teams are evident throughout. Much of the park is managed or retained to its natural state, and officials are constantly striving to preserve wildlife and rare plant species. To wit: The reintroduction of native species like osprey and trumpeter swans, and management programs for the threatened Blanding’s Turtle. For hands-on learning about all of the park’s wildlife and more, don’t miss Eastman Nature Center’s stacked calendar of interpretive programs and kid-centered nature camps.

Get there: From Minneapolis, follow I-94 west to US 169, then north to MN 610. Head west to the Elm Creek Blvd. exit. At the roundabout, take the second turn at James Deane Parkway and follow this road into the park.


By Steve Johnson