Special Places: The one and only river gorge

Mississippi River Gorge

With limestone bluffs, natural springs, oak savanna and hardwood forests, the Mississippi River Gorge is a national treasure in our midst. Carved by a retreating Saint Anthony Falls over the course of 10,000 years, the river gorge spans from roughly downtown Minneapolis to just west of downtown St. Paul and is the only gorge the length of the entire Mississippi River.

This month in our special places silver anniversary feature, venture along with us to a few of our favorite river gorge spots: the rare oak savanna, Winchell Trail and the ruins of the Twin Cities' first Upper Mississippi dam, Meeker. 

Oak savanna

Just off the main path along the south Minneapolis riverfront lies a surprisingly beautiful and rare oak savanna and woodlands. Head to 36th street and West River Parkway, and you can enjoy the highest quality plant communities remaining in the river gorge, including several acres of mesic oak savanna (one of the rarest native plant communities in Minnesota) and oak woodland. 

While this type of habitat was once widespread throughout the Upper Midwest, it has all but disappeared. However, thanks to hundreds of dedicated River Gorge Stewards volunteers, this special site is being restored to its natural splendor, effectively doubling the amount of mesic oak savanna in the metro area!

A glimpse of the prairie of our rare oak savanna in the heart of the metro.

Over 170 bird species have been seen at the oak savanna and in the surrounding river gorge woodlands and parks. You can help protect and get to know this habitat by being a River Gorge Steward. (To learn about upcoming events, contact our FMR volunteer coordinator at volunteer@fmr.org or 651-477-0925 to receive River Gorge Stewards event notices a few times a year.)

The Winchell Trail

Running from Franklin Avenue to 44th Street along West River Parkway, the Winchell Trail will take you to not only the oak savanna mentioned above but a sandy riverfront beach and restored bluff forests.

It is 2.5 miles long, and well worth the 5-mile loop if you have the time. It's a great escape in the heart of the city.

Most of the trail is maintainted and unpaved. Some sections have steps, there are also patches that can be quite muddy after it rains.

Meeker Dam

As the Twin Cities begins to explore the idea of removing locks and dams, we recommend making your way to the first lock and dam built on the Upper Mississippi: Meeker.

Located on the eastern side of the river, the small dam, visible when water is low, played an interesting role in the competion between the Twin Cities. Its ruins are located at the end of a dirt trail, just down the hill from the easiest to place to park, 419 Emerald St SE, Minneapolis. (Yes, you're still in Minneapolis at this location, but St. Paul starts just across the street.)

Learn more about this little-known story of river rivalry rom river historian Dr. John Anfinson, now the head or our local national park, in "The Secret History of the Earliest Locks and Dams."

Meeker Dam ruins

Zoom in to explore this interactive map. Click on the light green stars to learn more about the locations profiled in this article. To view in full-screen, click the squarish icon top right.

25 Special Places

This profile of the River Gorge is part of FMR's 25 Special Places project, which we undertook to celebrate our silver anniversary year and the metro Mississippi River in 2018. We've compiled all these places into our Explore the River page, an interactive Google map and set of guides to help you get to know the river that shapes our metro area.

Upcoming Events

Tuesday, June 25, 2024 - 6:00pm to 8:00pm
Nicollet Island, Minneapolis
New date: Saturday, August 10, 2024 at 5 p.m.
Hidden Falls Regional Park, St. Paul
Wednesday, August 14, 2024 - 6:00pm to 8:00pm
Pine Bend Bluffs Scientific & Natural Area, Inver Grove Heights