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I’ve done a few 5k’s in Minneapolis during the Aquatennial and each time it ends up running over the stone arch bridge. Every time, I’d run right by these ruins and wonder about the story behind them.
Like most people, my weekends always seemed filled and the thought of going downtown usually required a ball game or other event. I never could come up with the motivation to see the Mill Ruins Park in Minneapolis. The Regional Park Scavenger hunt gave me the perfect opportunity to check it out.
Things to do at or near Mill Ruins Park in Minneapolis
What I thought would be a quick trip to Minneapolis turned into a fun adventure exploring all the different parks along Minneapolis Riverfront.
In actuality, there are 10 different parks total along both sides of the river making up Central Mississippi Riverfront Regional Park, all adgacent to the St Anthony Falls.
Mill Ruins was the primary focus, but I also saw Nicollet Island Park, Stone Arch Bridge, and Boom Island.
Mill Ruins Park in Minneapolis
Located on the west bank of the Mississippi River sits the historic Mill Ruins Park.
The ruins are from the Minneapolis Mill Company. In the 19th century, all along the rivers, were all types of mills, water-powered canals, railways, and other historic resources all powered by the water. There were more than 10 mills, sawmills, machine shops, textile and paper mills.
The park emerged from an archaeological examination of the Saint Anthony Falls Historic District, which gained National Register of Historic Places recognition in 1971.
The goal of the development of Mill Ruins Park was to give park visitors a glimpse into the history of the mills in the area.
In 2003 a 650-foot section of West River Parkway was converted to an oak plank road similar to the original plank road that spanned the canals which carried water back to the river after powering the mills.
It was later replaced with concrete due to deterioration. During the creation of the park, the tunnels were uncovered.
From the above road, you may not even notice they are all hiding along the river. If it weren’t for the pieces of steel still shooting up next to the road I would have missed it. After parking, we strolled down the pathway, under the stone arch bridge, and past the lock and dam. There are stairs and a pathway leading down to the ruins site.
The area was a treat to explore, and even better because we had the place to ourselves. It was shocking considering the previous weekend it seemed everywhere we went was packed with people. There was water frozen from the walls.
The canals were visible. What was most shocking was the ruins of the steel beams. It made me wonder what actually would cause the beams to bend and contort the way they did.
For more information on the milling industry and its impact in that area, check out the free program on PBS: MINNESOTA EXPERIENCE Flour Power.
Experience Mill City Museum Tour
Directly across from the park, on the west bank, you’ll find the Mill City Tour.
You can explore Minneapolis’ history at the Mill City Museum.
Set in the ruins of a historic flour mill, the museum offers immersive exhibits, guided tours, and insights into the city’s milling past. Discover the stories of flour industry pioneers and the city’s growth.
St. Anthony Falls Visitors Center and Lock and Dam
You cannot go to Mill Ruins Park in Minneapolis without taking an up-close look at the Lock and Dam. The lock and dam is run by the National Park Service and sits right next to the milling district.
This dam was officially closed down to stop the spread of the Asian carp further upriver. Even though it doesn’t move, it is still a magnificent sight.
You can view it in a few different ways. First from the ground level next to the entrance to the mill ruins. Then take a look from above either on the observation deck or on the stone arch bridge.
The observation platform is open during the summer months only. There is also a Visitors Center with tours offered daily at 11 am and 3 pm.
I’ve been across the stone arch bridge a few times never realized it was even there. It must be a runner’s tunnel vision. I was excited to get the chance to look inside it and get a good look. I honestly don’t know how I missed it in the first place.
Downstream there is also the Lock and Dam No 1. It has the same seasonal observation rules. The closes I could come to it was watching it from the opposite riverbank at Hidden Falls Regional Park.
Stone Arch Bridge
While in the park, enjoy the view of the Stone Arch Bridge. The James J. Hill Stone Arch bridge was built between 1881 to 1883 to carry the Minneapolis Union Railroad over the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis, just below St. Anthony Falls. The bridge has 23 limestone arches varying inside.
The bridge retired railroad traffic in 1982 and was converted for pedestrian use. Today it’s one of the most iconic bridges in Minneapolis.
Walking in between the upper parking lot, adjacent to the Lock and Dam you can see a plaque for the original Minneapolis Union Railway.
Make sure to take a walk across the bridge. It spans .39 miles and connects to other trails. From above you’ll get a view of the lock and dam.
You’ll also see St. Anthony Falls. The falls used to be natural until it partially collapsed in 1869. A concrete fall was created later.
What I love about Minneapolis is how many parks surround the site, allowing you to experience the falls from all angles.
In order to view the top of St. Anthony Falls, you’ll have to go over to Nicollet Island. The island has a few walking trails and an Amphitheatre.
It’s most known for its Pavilion which hosts different activities and rentals. To see the falls, stand near the pavilion grounds on the Westside.
The water flows down over the top of the concrete in a semi-circle. This is the first elevation shift before making it down the rest of the way to the next level of the falls.
Light House on Boom Island
A few blocks north of Nicolet Island is Boom Island and home to the only lighthouse in Minneapolis. The island got its name as it once used as a log sorting station for the logging industry.
The island has a canoe and kayak rental location for those hitting the river. They have a playground, boat dock, biking and so much more.
How much does it cost to visit Mill Ruins Park?
Mill Ruins Park is free to visit, but there is a small parking fee nearby.
In downtown Minneapolis, there are many pay lots to accommodate visitors. For Mill Ruins Park, there are two nearby lots. One at the top of the park near the stone arch bridge and a lower lot.
This is accessible by going straight into the park by the lock and dam employee parking and swinging right. There are also lots on Boom Island and Nicollet Island. Every lot has a pay station that accepts credit cards. You can also pay with the app.
Either way, you’ll need to have your license plate number handy when paying, so snap a picture before walking away from your car. The going rate on a Saturday was $2 for an hour.
Would I go back to Mill Ruins Park in Minneapolis?
Yes, I would definitely go back. If I had to rank them all in order, I’d prioritize Mill Ruins Park for its history and access to the bridge and lock and Dam.
Boom Island is my next favorite for its wide-open spaces to explore and trail system. It also connects to Nicollet Island. Nicollet Island I found interesting more for its unique upper view of the dam took me by surprise.