Explore the Banks of the Mighty Mississippi.
Your guide to exploring Minneapolis’s famed Chain of Lakes, from waterside playgrounds and picnics to the best spots to watch sailing and sunsets.
A nature lover’s visit to Minneapolis isn’t complete without enjoying a lake day at one of the five beautiful bodies of water that comprise the Chain of Lakes. While the Chain of Lakes is notably the most popular destination within the Minneapolis park system, the staggering amount of shoreline in the regional park means you’ll always be able to find a spot of waterfront nature to call your own. Use this guide to pick one lake to thoroughly explore for the day, or choose a few destinations to hop around from sunrise to sunset.
The Chain of Lakes—comprised of Lake of the Isles, Bde Maka Ska, Lake Harriet, Brownie Lake, and Cedar Lake—features over 1555 acres of public land within Minneapolis city limits. The story of the Chain of Lakes began in 1911 when Minneapolis parks pioneer Theodore Wirth oversaw the connection of Bde Maka Ska (then known as Lake Calhoun) with Lake of the Isles via a manufactured canal. Cedar Lake was connected to the chain in 1913, sparking a canoeing trend in the Twin Cities. Thanks to the lush parkland surrounding the lakes, the park has been described as “a necklace of diamonds in settings of emerald,” and it remains a jewel of the city today.
Strolling, Rolling, and Biking
With over 13 miles of pedestrian trails and another 15 miles of bike trails, taking in the lakes in the Chain of Lakes on foot or wheels is popular among locals and visitors. Whether you pedal the entire loop to get in your cardio or use the trails to find the ultimate Minneapolis photo op, the pedestrian and biking trails are a fun (and free!) way to take in some of the best views Minneapolis has to offer. (Need some wheels? Plenty of bike rental options are available throughout the city, making it easy to start your two-wheeled adventure.)
Enjoy a Designated Swimming Spot
Several Chain of Lakes beaches provide easy access to the water for wading, swimming, and splashing. Bde Maka Ska features three (32nd Street Beach, North Beach, and Thomas Beach), Lake Harriet offers two (North Beach and Southeast Beach), and Cedar Lake is home to another three (East Beach, Point Beach, and South Beach). Be sure to follow all posted rules and beach advisory notices, which can be found on the Minneapolis Parks website.
Get On the Water
Canoe, kayak, bike, boat, and paddle board rentals are offered through Wheel Fun Rentals. Boat launches are available northeast of Bde Maka Ska and east of the Bandshell at Lake Harriet. Yes, it is possible to kayak between most of the lakes in the Chain of Lakes! The lakes are connected by a series of channels that allow boaters to travel from one lake to the next (Lake Harriet was never officially connected to the chain due to a seven-foot elevation difference that would have required locks). It’s important to note that kayaking between the lakes requires some skill and experience, as there may be some rapids and currents to navigate. Additionally, it’s essential to follow all safety guidelines and wear appropriate safety gear, such as life jackets. Plan ahead and research the route before setting out on your adventure!
Watch the Sunrise or Sunset
Photographers (and all lovers of natural beauty) flock to the shores of the Chain of Lakes for some of the best sunset views in Minneapolis. South Harriet and East Bde Maka Ska are especially notable spots, but you can enjoy the light show from any lake location with a clear view of the sky.
Bde Maka Ska
The largest link in the Chain of Lakes, Bde Maka Ska (which translates to “White Earth Lake” in the Dakota language) features three beaches, watersport rentals, a popular playground, and plenty of grass for lounging lakeside with a picnic or a good book.
Bde Maka Ska Park features a soccer field, softball field, sand volleyball court, and plenty of open grass for a game of frisbee. There’s even an archery range! Walkers will enjoy the 3 miles of pedestrian paths that weave around the lake, past beaches, boat launch, and parkland. Bicyclists can access the Midtown Greenway just north of the lake, extending the lakeside bike path into limitless ways to explore the city on wheels.
Check out the Bde Maka Ska Public Art Project just south of the East Parking Lot. The project celebrates the lake’s history as the site of Ȟeyáta Othúŋwe (a Dakota agricultural village founded in 1829) with walking path stamps and metal railings that share Dakota images, agricultural history, and language, as well as a public gathering space with circle seating.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, enjoy a meal at Lola on the Lake—a popular restaurant that reopened in 2023 after the pavilion that housed it was destroyed by a fire in 2019. The restaurant will be joined in Summer 2023 by award-winning Pimento Jamaican Kitchen, offering lake goers a delicious variety of beachy eats.
Escape the sun in the afternoon’s heat with a visit to the Bakken Museum on the lake’s western shore. This popular family-friendly education center offers a fun and interactive exploration of science, technology, and the humanities.
Located south of Bde Maka Ska, Lake Harriet is known for its picturesque Bandshell, the picturesque mansions lining its shores, and the public gardens on its north shore. Enjoy a meal at the lakeside Bread & Pickle restaurant, play with the kids at the large, updated nature-themed William Berry Playground, and stroll around the lake on the walking path at sunset.
In the summer, enjoy watching the sailboats speed around the waves in races sponsored by the Lake Harriet Yacht Club or take a sailing lesson via the Twin Cities Sailing Club. The Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board also offers adult and youth sailing lessons on Lake Harriet.
Catch a concert or movie at the Bandshell, the signature venue for the Minneapolis Music and Movies in the Parks concert series. Though the current Bandshell was built in 1986, it’s actually the fifth on the site, connecting recent visitors with generations of families enjoying Lake Harriet events.
Be sure to set aside some time to explore the gardens north of Lake Harriet. The 1.5-acre Lyndale Park Rose Garden is the US’s second oldest public rose garden, featuring over 3000 plants in 100 rose varieties. The Lyndale Park Peace Garden offers a secluded spot to enjoy Japanese-style landscaping with alpine plants, dwarf conifers, a granite and copper bridge, and bronze sculptures of peace cranes that serve as an official International Peace Site. The Roberts Bird Sanctuary offers 31 acres of largely undeveloped woodlands and wetlands that shelter birds and native plants. The William Berry Woods contains one of the few remaining native plant communities in the Minneapolis Park System and has been preserved relatively untouched since the parkland’s acquisition in 1998. It’s a great place to spot native wildflowers in the spring.
Lovers of transportation history will enjoy taking a ride on a 100-year-old streetcar on the Como-Harriet Streetcar Line, located between Bde Maka Ska and Lake Harriet. Board at the Linden Hills Station (Queen Avenue South at West 42nd Street) or the platform at Bde Maka Ska (Richfield Road south of West 36th Street).
Extend your exploration of the Lake Harriet area by exploring the nearby Linden Hills neighborhood, featuring some of Minneapolis’s best restaurants and shopping.
Lake of the Isles
Located north of Bde Maka Ska, Lake of the Isles may not offer as many bells and whistles as the two lakes above, but its peaceful atmosphere and top-notch dog park make it a great destination all the same. Canoe through the channels connecting Lake of the Isles with Bde Mka Ska and Cedar Lake, or pack a picnic to enjoy on the parkland lining the canals to watch nature (and friendly paddlers) go by.
The full-fenced off-leash dog park is located south of the lake and features two sections (for smaller/shy and larger dogs). Visiting any Minneapolis dog park requires a permit, but visitors can get a daily permit for just $5.
Lake of the Isles is an engineered lake—in the early 20th century, the Park Board dredged a shallow lake and marshland to create the current lake’s shoreline. While the lake once contained four titular islands, two islands near the south shore were converted to land when the lake was developed into its modern shape. Stroll the 2.63-mile walking path around the lake as you read the tumultuous history of the lake’s development.
If you’re looking for a sweet treat during your visit to Lake of the Isles, check out Food Network-featured Isles Bun & Coffee. This famous bakery is known for its freshly-baked cinnamon buns, cookies, pastries, and puppy dog tails (twisted cinnamon rolls named by the preschoolers next door). Grab a bun and a coffee and stroll around the lake for a quintessential relaxing Minneapolis morning.
Head to Cedar Lake for some relaxing beach time surrounded by old trees and secluded forest trails. Featuring three sandy beaches, a fishing pier, and a canoe launch, Cedar Lake is an excellent spot for a family beach day—but locals know the real draw here are the woodsy trails that make you feel like you’ve been transported somewhere far from the bustle of the city. Be prepared to explore a bit as the walking trails weave through residential areas, past the railroad, and into the “Burnham Woods,” but Cedar Lake is a delight if you’re up for a bit of adventure.
The smallest and least developed of the Chain of Lakes, Brownie Lake is the best spot to begin a kayaking or canoeing adventure through the four connected lakes in the chain. A hidden gem, unexplored even by most locals, Brownie Lake features a paved walking path, canoe launch, mountain bike trails, and picturesque views you’ll enjoy in solitude (as no motorized crafts are allowed on the lake).
No matter which lake you visit, the Chain of Lakes offers endless opportunities for family fun and adventure. With plenty of activities, food options, and scenic beauty, you’re sure to make unforgettable memories on your Minneapolis family lake day.
Explore the Banks of the Mighty Mississippi.
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