MINNEAPOLIS — If this were a single-track dirt trail, I may never have left.
Still, the fact that this sprawling paved trail is in the heart of Minneapolis and meanders along pristine neighborhoods, parks and lakes — and much more — will keep me coming back.
Yes, it’s a trail with an “up north” feel in the heart of the metro. And no, the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway trail isn’t the dirt single-track I prefer. But the trail system is a diamond in the rough here. A gem in the metro.
Actually, it’s trails, plural: The Grand Rounds (www.minneapolisparks.org/parks__destinations/trails__parkways/grand_rounds_scenic_byway_system/) is said to feature both 51 miles of biking trails and 51 miles of walking trails — two separate paved trails (sometimes three as the oft-one-way bike trails split in stretches) that run mostly side-by-side and encompass the massive byway.
And the Chain of Lakes loop may be the centerpiece of this whole thing. At over 11 miles, it meanders through some of Minneapolis’ most pristine neighborhoods, with lakeside-style mansions on one side and venerable Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet on the other (and Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake, too).
For the Chain of Lakes loop, a good starting point might be near the Victorian-style bandshell at Lake Harriet, on the bottom end of this loop. There’s a parking lot just north of the lake and the bandshell, right next to a Nice Ride Minnesota bike rental dock. Like the parking lot here, there’s a fee for Nice Ride Minnesota bikes (www.niceridemn.org). But it’s minimal, and if you don’t want to haul your bike to the trails, it’s a nice alternative. (There are three Nice Ride Minnesota docks just off Calhoun, too.)
The bikes aren’t anything special, but they’re plenty good enough — and a sort of hybrid between a road bike and a mountain bike; the three-speed units cover the fairly flat terrain on this stretch of the trail with relative ease.
The trail at the bandshell is easy to find and access, too. It’s just a few feet from the Nice Ride Minnesota dock and the parking lot, and most days, the trail is hugely popular here. You’ll see all sorts of people walking, running, rollerblading and biking. Can’t miss it.
From here, as the Chain of Lakes loop runs from south to north, you might want to start by heading down and east so as to circle Harriet (a good portion of the trail here is of the one-way variety), although the Harriet loop is as good an end to this ride as it is a starting point.
The Harriet loop is about three miles and includes non-stop great views of the lake on one side and all those great homes and neighborhoods on the other. And, like on the trails, activity is typically bustling on the lake, too, with paddleboards, kayaks, sailboats and fishing boats in the mix, along with the occasional fishing pier. (Note to anglers: Harriet is a legitimate fishing lake, a multi-species fishery that includes muskies.)
On the north side of the lake, the bandshell and Bread & Pickle waterside eatery overlook a picturesque marina, dozens of sailboats bobbing in the shimmering waters. There’s a place to rent kayaks, more upscale bikes, etc., nearby, too. Yes, Harriet might just be the centerpiece within a centerpiece on the byway.
After circling Harriet, it’s on to Calhoun, just a short bike (or hike) to the north. If you were to circle Calhoun, it also would be about three miles, with a lot of the same offerings found on Harriet: a nice marina, rentals … (Note to boaters: There’s an invasive species checkpoint at the boat access here, too.) But you’ll want to stay left on this one-way stretch of the trail and continue up to Lake of the Isles, in itself also about a three-mile mini-loop. Then it’s down and around the east side of Calhoun and eventually back to Harriet.
The official loop also includes Cedar Lake. But unlike at Calhoun, Harriet and Lake of the Isles, the trail doesn’t really hug Cedar. So, going north, you’ll cover the west side of Cedar Lake (just over one-and-a-half miles) before jumping on the Cedar Lake Trail — one of many side trails that crisscross the “main” trail — and heading east across the top of Cedar Lake. You’ll quickly run into the Kenilworth Trail, another side trail that will take you south between Cedar and Lake of the Isles to the Dean Parkway, a connector to Cedar, Lake of the Isles and Calhoun.
It’s easy to get lost here, so pay attention to the signage. For example, if you miss the Kenilworth turn and continue up the Cedar Lake Trail, before you know it, you’ll be at Target Field, home of the Twins.
Unfortunately for Twins fans, it’s been a rough summer. But down here on the Chain of Lakes loop, on this day, it was nothing but quaint neighborhoods and sky-blue waters.
And a trail that fits perfectly between the two.