I’ll admit one truth: The prospect of spending five hours of a Saturday in Chaska, an extreme southwestern suburb of Minneapolis, was not very high on my list of “enjoyable things to do this weekend.” I can also admit when I’m wrong.

Though I was not looking for it, I’m glad I happened upon the Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area and Trail, which provided a way to be outdoors in a part of the Twin Cities I had never seen.

Like most people living in the Twin Cities, I don’t need to drive across multiple towns to find outdoor experiences. Living through the pandemic has given me ample opportunities to find outdoor experiences much closer to my home than the 45-minute drive getting to this river town. So, why Chaska?

WELCOME TO COLLEGE ADMISSION TESTING SEASON

When I was in high school, it was a rite of passage. I sharpened a couple of pencils and found a calculator. My mom drove me to a local college, where I found my assigned, uninspired-looking classroom and I hunkered in. I was ready to be asked questions on a test aimed at measuring how much I learned in my 12 years of schooling.

Thirty years later, the the experience has hardly changed. Though some colleges and universities no longer require the ACT test for admission, I found myself driving my daughter across town on a Saturday morning so she could do what I did as a high-school junior: try to regurgitate everything I had learned, or not, on a test that could determine which college I go to, or not.

Getting to the testing location was a haul. It didn’t make sense for me to drop her off and drive home, only to repeat the trip a couple of hours later. I decided to spend the morning in Chaska considering trees, water and bird songs while my daughter considered science, literature and math equations. I didn’t know what I was going to find, but I figured, whatever it was, I’d be having more fun than she was.

FIVE HOURS IN CHASKA

If you’ve driven Highway 169 south out of the Twin Cities on your way to, say, Saint Peter or Mankato, then you have, perhaps unknowingly, passed by Chaska. Exiting at Highway 41 and going northwest – or for the directionally-challenged, right – will lead you into the Minnesota River Valley. There you will find a quaint downtown area.

My daughter is one of the kids in the line. She was appalled I was taking photos and gave me ‘the look’ before I could take a zoomed-in shot.

As my daughter and I passed through downtown, she remarked at a bakery with a red bench in front of it. We crossed the river and climbed out of the valley. A few minutes later, I dropped her off at the testing site, wished her luck and started my clock.

Five hours until she would be done.

There is no way I could possibly burn through hours of time on an empty stomach, so I stopped at the bakery with the bench. I bought myself a ham and cheese croissant. The ham and cheese is baked into the croissant. Read that sentence again, with emphasis on “baked into.” I didn’t know this was a thing. But, wow, kudos to whoever thought of this. Pure magic.

I ate the croissant while sitting at a table on the sidewalk. Ten minutes down, four hours and 50 minutes to go. So, what’s next?

MINNESOTA RIVER VALLEY TRAIL

photo of a river, blue sky, no leaves on trees
The lazy backwaters of the Minnesota River.

While planning what I would do in Chaska, outdoor activity was the only thing on my list. Pre-COVID, perhaps I would have found a movie theater, sports bar, book store or shopping center. I would have passed time looking at electronics I would not buy or wandering the aisles of a home improvement store. Over a year into the pandemic, none of those indoor options crossed my mind. If there is a positive result coming from this tumultuous period, it must be my newfound appreciation of what nature can do for me.

Being outdoors was the plan, but I had no idea what I would see or where I would see it.  Off of Highway 41, about a mile south of downtown, I noticed a Trail Access sign pointing towards a gravel road. I figured that was a good place to start.

The road led to a parking lot that acts as a trail head for a multi-use, asphalt path winding through forests and wetlands. This is where I would start wasting time outdoors.

Reading the trail map, I discovered that this trail connects Belle Plaine to Shakopee. It’s about 30 miles long. The majority of the trail is unpaved, but the section nearest Chaska leading towards Shakopee is paved and is just under 10 miles in length.

Map of a trail system.
A 30-mile trail runs along the Minnesota River between Belle Plaine and Shakopee.

PLAIN BEAUTY

As I started walking, I saw the typical things I expected to see, including a turkey, some squirrels, geese, ducks, trees, wildflowers, and a few people on foot and bike. Getting off of the very well-kept and perfectly accessible trail was a nice way to feel a little more connected to nature than the asphalt ribbon provided.

 

Did this trail provide breathtaking views, vast vistas and calendar-worthy photo opportunities? Nope. Did this trail provide access to a waterfront and landscape that was easy to overlook? Yes.

Park like trail with power lines overhead
The power lines reminded I was not, by any means, off-the-grid.

Here’s another true statement: The Twin Cities do not represent the most picturesque part of the state. It ‘s also true that the Twin Cities provide dozens, if not hundreds, of spaces to explore and appreciate. I am adding the Minnesota Valley State Trail to my growing list of spaces I am happy to have taken the time to check out.

As I picked up my daughter after her test, it turned out I had way more fun than she did, but she did seem to appreciate the croissant I picked up for her from the bakery with the red bench.

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This story is made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.

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Reluctant Minnesotan Julie Censullo misses the Washington State mountains she used to trek up with her mom – but she recently discovered a park at least a little fit for a Pacific Northwest resident: Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve in Savage, Minn. Her discovery is your reward.

“I’m 45 years old. If I haven’t yet learned to climb rocks, do parkour or ride really fast on a bike down a wooded path, it’s safe to assume it’s not going to happen. Though I firmly believe this is a time when I should be getting outside and into some wide open spaces more often, I also believe this is definitely a time where I shouldn’t be taking up valuable medical space or attention nursing a broken ankle, snapped ACL or concussion. I’m not a risk-taker. Never have been, never will be. I like to keep things slow and steady.” So Twin Cities Producer Luke Heikkila decided to try a little something called “forest bathing.” His experience is your reward.

On a pristine day in October, Twin Cities Producer Luke Heikkila wandered down to Fort Snelling State Park for a few hours of skipping rocks across the Mississippi River. Both the rocks – and the time – flew by. He recounts his experience in this personal essay.