One little irony about social distancing: The more we pursue it, the less room we seem to have. Normally serene Twin Cities walking and biking paths, for instance, now feature parades of people getting away from it all — often forcing one another into the streets.
But the pandemic's persistence has also allowed time to explore the Great Elsewhere — lesser-known places away from the Chain of Lakes or the Mississippi River or other major Twin Cities outdoor attractions. As we head into fall and the temperatures moderate, we're likely to be walking more, not less. These places tend to be less crowded, or even offer a bit of solitude.
Here are some highlights from recent months of walks off the beaten path, suggested by friends, neighbors and spending too much time looking at maps.
In Minneapolis' Lakewood Cemetery you can encounter the city's celebrated founders as well as Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Tiny Tim. But its curving, shaded paths and slopes surrounding lovely Jo Pond and offering glimpses of the Chain of Lakes are also populated by the workers, civil servants and eccentrics who energized the city for the past century and a half.
St. Paul's Oakland Cemetery, established in 1853, offers hilly walks past governors as well as dignitaries from the city's Hmong community, with distinctive black headstones and cultural imagery.
Roselawn Cemetery in Roseville has a more modern, uniform feel, while Edina's Adath Yeshurun Cemetery features a lovely sweep along a curve of Minnehaha Creek, nearly a secret well hidden behind the tight rows of headstones on the high ground.
Lebanon Hills Regional Park
A metro area gem, this Eagan park features lakes and woods, rugged terrain and 15 miles of trails to provide peace and quiet. The paths are extremely well-marked and some have been changed to one-way to limit contact.
A 1-mile saunter along Grass Lake Terrace, which runs between the lake and the surrounding homes tucked between Interstate 35W and Crosstown Highway in south Minneapolis, can feel like a visit to an upstate resort town. Many of the homeowners maintain gardens and picnic areas that offer open views of the lake.
This 1,400-acre preserve near Afton offers 4.5 miles of sometimes steep trails through fields of big bluestem (also known as "turkey foot," another hiker taught my friend Barbara and me) and oak savanna. A bison herd, which spends summers there, underscores its Out West feel. A bison observation platform is located in a 250-acre area at 15551 Division St. in Afton.
Staring Lake Park
The 2.3-mile loop through woods hugging the Eden Prairie lake offers a flat, hourlong hike that's a good urban refresher. But be careful: The attached loop to the north, skirting Eden Prairie Center, can be a sock-tester.
Thanks to COVID-19, it's not just for work, shopping and drinking anymore. Indeed, it's included here as a 2-mile walking trail from the Mississippi River, through downtown Minneapolis and Loring Greenway, across the Irene Hixon footbridge and through the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, making it a strenuous, though civilized, walk.
The roughly 3-mile loop below Fort Snelling State Park takes hikers to the magical and historically significant junction of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. Low water this year has allowed a long sand beach to emerge. Allow time for stone-skipping.
Big Rivers Regional Trail
It can be a strange treat to walk or bike along the trail with a freight train barreling along on the track just below, seemingly an arm's length away. Most of the time, though, this paved trail along the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers and Pickerel Lake offers a quiet tour along wooded, spring-trickled bluffs and through the lush bottomland that once sheltered the community of Lilydale. Stands of cathedral-like cottonwoods, elms and maples create a hush. Interpretive signs locate walkers in history.
Lake Elmo Regional Park
The 3.8-mile trail around Eagle Point Lake through hilly grassland offers views of the lake. But the park offers many more miles of interconnected loop trails, all well marked with varying distances. Those large white four-legged animals? Goats, working on reducing invasive plant species in the prairies.
Wood Lake Nature Center
Who would have thought you could share a walk with deer in the heart of Richfield, with traffic from I-35W hissing behind a sound barrier? The 2 miles of wheelchair-accessible, crushed limestone and blacktop trails wind through woods and prairies, while floating boardwalks beckon you across marshes.
Walk out your door toward the nearest park, or woods, or water tower, vacant lot, grocery store, whatever. Check out the gardens, the front doors and porches, the hopscotch games, the weeds. Greet some neighbors. Any distance possible. No map required. It could be the most eye-opening walk of all.
Bill McAuliffe is a retired Star Tribune staff writer.