For the average motorcyclist, the words “scenic byway” likely conjure up images of a twisty road rolling through beautiful countryside. The Grand Rounds Scenic Byway is certainly beautiful, but it’s a byway of a different sort. Minneapolis’ Grand Rounds parkway system is an interlinked series of seven park and byway districts, and the 50-mile loop they make is nearly unbroken — maps on the Park Department’s website show how to fill the gaps. All the parkways of the Grand Rounds are limited to a leisurely, vintage-friendly 25mph, so don’t be afraid to bring out your weirdest and most delicate machinery. Though gorgeous in any season, the low speed limit of the roads also make this a great route in spring or fall when it’s a bit cool to be out blasting the back roads.
My run of the Rounds was inspired while watching the Garden Guru on local TV, who was discussing how to jump-start your garden by setting out potted plants, touting the virtues of the pansy, a flower known in greater gardening circles as a hearty bud able to withstand, in potted display, outdoor temperatures as low as 28 degrees Fahrenheit. This got me to wonder how “pansy” may have earned its negative connotation, and I decided I wasn’t going to be out-toughed by a dang flower. And so, a chilly Easter Sunday found me out on a season-starting ride around the Grand Rounds parkway system in Minneapolis.
For my ride, I wound north through the Theodore Wirth district to see the Quaking Bog, where nearly 200 tamarack trees shade the understory sphagnum moss of the hidden five-acre acid bog. When it’s warmer, a walk out on the floating dock way takes you across the open moat for a better view of this rare ecosystem. From there I headed east through the Victory Memorial and Northeast Districts. This “top of the city” segment takes you past the city’s industrial and heavy rail regions as they cluster near the river’s landing point.
From there, the run south through the downtown riverfront district takes you past the most recent fusion of industry and art, as much of the downtown district’s historic warehouses have been refurbished into swank living or, in one case, captured as a museum honoring the city’s former, once massive flour industry. Internationally renowned architecture is represented in the new Guthrie Theatre penned by French architect Jean Nouvel, and just south on the University of Minnesota campus is the famous Weisman Art Museum designed by architect Frank Gehry.
Nearest the river and heading west, the large park surrounding Minnehaha Falls anchors the Minnehaha district. Stop for a picnic and walk to the falls before heading along the parkway flanking either side of idyllic Minnehaha Creek. And as you top the last rise of the Minnehaha parkway the lane drops away to reveal the sparkling, cobalt blade of Lake Harriet. The Lake Harriet band shell sits centered on the far bank with its peaked roofs and pennants flying, looking like a renaissance palace on the lake.
I finished my ride turning north again, through the Chain of Lakes District past some of the oldest and fanciest homes this side of the river. The 40 miles added to my odometer could have been made 50 by riding complete circuits of the four main lakes. Breaking off and heading home after making the loop, I felt I’d gotten a fresh view of a city I have lived in for over a decade, and I’m looking forward to doing it again soon, now that the flowers are in bloom. Come on out! And if it’s cold, be a Pansy!
The SkinnyWhere: The 50 mile loop in the heart of Minneapolis has around 20 access points, some from major highways.
Why: It’s a cozy, scenic route giving an inside view of the city you won’t get just riding by. It can be done in a couple of hours, or make a day of it with friends and food. The Grand Rounds ring downtown Minneapolis, so eating, entertainment and libation are never far away.
Best kept secret: Diamonds Coffee Shop is a great stop between the Northeast and Downtown districts. Good food, great coffee, and the owner’s a motorcyclist!
Avoid: Sand and grit leftover by winter road maintenance in the spring. Watch out for pedestrians, skaters, dogs and bicyclists as the weather warms up.
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