John Anfinson is on a mission to educate you about the Mississippi River, specifically a 72-mile stretch that meanders through the Twin Cities. It’s called the Mississippi National River & Recreation Area (MNRRA). Perhaps you’ve heard of it. If you haven’t, don’t worry. You’re likely not alone.

“The number one issue we have is getting people to know we actually exist,” said Anfinson, the recreation area’s superintendent with the National Park Service (NPS), which owns and manages 64 of the recreation area’s roughly 54,000 acres. “It’s my goal to change that in the coming year before our centennial in 2016.”

The MNRRA runs south from Ramsey and Dayton to just below Hastings in Dakota County. The area links numerous state, regional and local parks throughout its corridor. The park was established by Congress in 1988 as “a nationally significant historical, recreational, scenic, cultural, natural, economic and scientific resource.” It’s a hub of outdoor recreational opportunities, including hiking, biking and bird-watching, as well as quiet stretches made to order for fishing, boating and canoeing.

“It’s the only national park about the Mississippi River on the river, and the only one that runs throughout an entire major metro area continuously,” Anfinson said. “For people who want to learn and interact with one of the world’s great river systems, it’s an amazing stretch to have in our back yard.”

Anfinson said the recreation area’s biggest issue is a “lack of ownership.”

“If we owned and managed the approximately 89 state, regional and local parks in our corridor, and each one had an entry gate like at other national parks, people would know we exist,” he said.

As the third longest river in North America, the Mississippi flows 2,350 miles from its Minnesota headwaters at Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a diverse watershed, especially its northern reaches that encompass the MNRRA.

“The river changes more here than anywhere along its entire course,” Anfinson said. “I often ask people how many Mississippi Rivers there are in the Twin Cities. I do it because most people see one homogenous river. The Mississippi River here is far more complex than that.”

Anfinson said there are actually three Mississippi Rivers that run through the 72-mile recreation area. “Each is strikingly unique, and the change from one to the other is abrupt and unmistakable.”

Moving downstream, the first reach is the prairie river, which begins immediately above St. Anthony Falls and extends northward with little flood plain. The second reach is what he calls “the gorge,” which extends about 8.5 miles from the mouth of the Minnesota River to St. Anthony Falls. “This is the only place on the entire Mississippi that the river falls so steeply through such a tight, narrow canyon.”

The third reach is the large flood plain river — “the river most people imagine when they hear the great river’s name” — that stretches from the mouth of the Minnesota River to the Gulf of Mexico. “This is the river of Mark Twain and steamboats, the river of image, myth and metaphor,” he said. “It’s characterized by a broad valley and a wide flood plain, with many side channels, backwater lakes, wetlands and wooded islands. Nowhere along its entire course does the Mississippi River change so dramatically as it does here.”

Anfinson said his overriding goal and purpose with the NPS is to tell the story of the Mississippi in its Twin Cities corridor. The more people learn about its history (cultural, natural, ecological), the more they’ll likely want to use and care for the MNRRA.

“Given that we own only 64 acres, we’ve had to establish close partnerships with the communities and organizations throughout the corridor if we hope to accomplish our purpose,” Anfinson said. “In particular, Congress established this park to help facilitate conversations about development so that it occurs in a way that protects the river’s key resources. Our mission is to get people to think of the whole and care for it as a whole, but that is hard, when you don’t own much.”

One such partner is Friends of the Mississippi River (, which works to protect and enhance the river in the Twin Cities area. The group has partnered with the NPS to produce the State of the River Report ( The easy-to-read report highlights 13 indicators of river health.

“We’ve come a long way since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 in protecting this unique natural resource,” said Whitney Clark, executive director of Friends of the Mississippi River in St. Paul. “But serious problems with water quality still exist, particularly with agricultural runoff.

“We consider ourselves a voice for the river and its watershed in the Twin Cities,” he said. “The river can’t speak for itself, so we try to speak for it. Opinion survey after opinion survey shows that the public cares deeply about the ecological health of the Mississippi in this region.”

Another partner is Wilderness Inquiry, a Minneapolis-based group. Through its Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventures program, the group has regularly used the MNRRA to introduce Twin Cities students to the river.

“The majority of the kids we take out are from minority communities that have very little practical outdoor experience,” said Greg Lais, Wilderness Inquiry executive director. “The experience on the river opens a great big world to them. They become fascinated with not only the river, but its flora and fauna. Most come away saying they want to do it again. My hope is that we’re helping educate the generation of stewards for the river in the metro area.”


Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer living in Prior Lake. Contact him at