Red River State Recreation Area is one of the most misunderstood parks in the Minnesota State Park system. Dreamed up as a unique greenway, created after a horrific flood, the park has a bit of an identity crisis. Is it a state park? Or is it an RV park? Once you understand more about how it came to be, you’ll start to realize that this park is a marvel of engineering. Either way, there are tons of things to do at the Red River State Recreation Area in East Grand Forks, worth exploring.
This was our second stop on our Northern Minnesota Loop. In some ways, this was the park that I was least looking forward to. I heard that the hike was like walking through a city park. At some point, you end up walking through a neighborhood. What I didn’t realize was until I got there was how fascinating the park would be.
Mother Nature at work
Heading up to the park, we got some warning on our phone about air quality. It seems that the fires in Canada were blowing smoke in our direction. We could even see the cloud of smoke in the distance as we approached. By the time we arrived, we were right in the middle of it all. I jumped out of the car, excited to get my passport stamped, and confirmed the best place to park the car and travel trailer while we did our quick stop at the park. In case you are wondering, it’s fine at the back of the movie theatre lot.
After chatting with the Ranger at the park office, I opened the door again to the smoke and got lightheaded. This was going to be a different adventure for sure. Thankfully we all had our facemasks in the car and decided that even in the hot sticky weather, it might be best to cover up.
History of Red River State Recreation Area
A devastating flood in 1997 that destroyed East Grand Forks is the first city in the United States to install an invisible flood wall. Soon after the flood, the Army Core of Engineers and the State of Minnesota developed a new levees system that included a flood plain. All the homes in the area were bought. Natural hills were created and floodwalls were added where natural structures were not usable. Instead of leaving the newly constructed greenway vacant, the state has created a State Recreation Area in its place. On the North Dakota side, they have a levee and park that mirrors Minnesota’s.
Walking through the area, you forget that this was once where people’s homes once stood. Most of the people lost everything in the floods. What’s exciting to hear is the stories about homeowners that come back to check on how some of their stuff is doing. Near Walk-in Site one, you’ll notice some things like Apple Trees and shrubs that were planted. Some were generational plants, received from their grandparents. Others come back to check on the tree that they got engaged in front of and carved their initials into.
Everything in the area has a history that’s so easily overlooked. When you visit, make sure to check-in at the office and get some of the details. As more and more residents come back, these stories continue to get shared.
Things to do at Red River State Recreation Area
Red River State Recreation Area Hiking Club Trail
Miles: 2.2 miles
Total Miles Hiked: 122.2 miles
The hiking club trail gives the best overview of the entire park. Starting at the Park Office, we passed by the first set of flood walls and into the park. The entire trail is along a paved trail. It’s a popular biking trail in the area. If you want to give your legs a break for hiking, it would be an easy bike too. The trail continues through the campground and past all the walk-in sights. If you are interested in the history of the area and want to see the evidence of some of the old homes, take the spur trail past the walk-in sites.
Once out of the campground you’ll pass by the highway 2 bridge and on to the green space. It feels like a city park before you eventually turn and head back. On the way back you’ll turn into the neighborhood briefly and into a tunnel. At this point, you’ll get to the only hilly area of the hike. It’s the natural barrier to flooding.
On the other side of the park is the Sherlock Park Playground. This playground is epic. If you have kids, and you are not worried about the smoke in the area, let them go loose. If you are staying at the campground, the park is very close. After the park, you’ll head back down to the beginning of the loop.
Camping at Red River State Recreation Area
Since the park is designed to flood every year, at the end of the season they pull all amenities at the campground up. Tables and hookups are removed. It’s not until May of the following year after they are confident that it won’t flood that season before they open back up. This is the only park in the Minnesota State Parks system that offers full hookups for RVers.
The park has around 113 campsites. Everything is very open making it feel more like an RV park. Its openness in an urban area makes it a great addition to the Minnesota State Parks system.
Another things to do near Red River State Recreation Area
One of the things that make Red River State Recreation Area unique is that its located in the middle of downtown. It is within walking distance to great restaurants, a movie theatre, and downtown shopping. You can even walk to a Cabella’s in case you forgot any outdoor gear.
Would I go back to Red River State Recreation Area?
This was one park I would have loved to spend more time at if the weather was more favorable. When we got to the end of the hike, we all wanted to be in some fresh air, and remove our masks to cool off a little. It was suffocating. Camping would be fun if you had a big rig. While there were some beautiful older trees in the area, the space was still open. I was disappointed in the lack of river views. You could find them if you wanted to stray off the trail. I consider Red River State Recreation Area as one of the more underrated parks in the State Park system.