The Legend of Hidden Beach

The Twin Cities' most infamous party spot has undergone a makeover—but try telling that to the regulars

You wouldn't notice it unless you stumbled on it. You couldn't find it unless you were looking for it.

Nestled beyond a dead-end street in Minneapolis's Kenwood neighborhood, across a set of rusty train tracks, lies a small clearing in the dense foliage. A narrow dirt path winds underneath soaring birch trees and around impermeable buckthorn before banking slightly to the right. Laughter grows audible. A secluded beach appears beyond the brush.

There it is: Hidden Beach, the Twin Cities' most infamous party spot.

Nick Vlcek
Nick Vlcek


See the photo slideshow of the Twin Cities' most infamous party spot.

A gaggle of jaded vagabonds sneak sips of Ripple wine under an oak tree. Tie-dyed hippies pass around a joint and recount tales of gruesome acid trips and run-ins with cops. A crew of college guys frolics in a nearby mud pit, slinging muck at one another. Three topless women lie in the sand soaking in the rays. No one pays them any mind.

This was Hidden Beach during its rambunctious adolescence.

To the heathens, drifters, free spirits, and outdoor enthusiasts who made their escape to this beach on Cedar Lake's northeast shore throughout the decades, it seemed almost too good to be true: here was a Shangri-la of debauchery hidden deep in the heart of staid Minneapolis.

But a secret that good wouldn't keep. It became a legend, and that was its undoing.

For the beach happened to be located in the middle of the wealthiest neighborhood in Minneapolis, and the deep-pocketed neighbors weren't too thrilled when the freaks started flocking to their area code.

• • • • •

HIDDEN BEACH'S old-time regulars can often be found at a picnic table known as the "family table." On the first real day of summer, they're absently smoking cigarettes when someone's voice calls out.

"The Love Boat has docked!"

Johnny Love, a disheveled man with a panoramic grin and bright blue eyes, is Hidden Beach's saintly, unofficial mascot. Today, the weathered 48-year-old is clad in a tattered blue shirt; six inches of his unseasonably pale legs are visible between his crusted cargo shorts and pulled-up tube socks.

He offers hugs. He shakes hands. He graciously acknowledges the sporadic calls of "Hey, Johnny!" greeting him across the beach. Today is his first Hidden Beach appearance since last July.

"You don't know how much I've missed this place!" he exclaims.

He spreads his arms and smiles toward the sun hovering over the lake. He's seen a lot during his time—from crisscrossing the country as a nomadic drifter to baiting hooks on a 125-foot fishing boat in the Bering Strait during the early '90s—and is eager to impart his wisdom to anyone who makes eye contact. Seeing four amused twentysomething punkers sitting on a bench, he approaches them.

"It's not what you do that determines what you are," he tells them. "The truth is, what you are determines what you do. Be bold. Be strong. Don't ever hurt people or steal from them."

When a cumulus clouds eclipses the sun, Johnny suddenly takes offense and jerks into action.

"Move that way!" he shouts toward the sky, looking like Carlton Fisk waving his homerun fair. "That way!"

He turns to his onlookers. "It takes a lot of energy moving these clouds," he says. "But I always say, it's not me who moves 'em; it's God's work."

Even Johnny Love isn't old enough to remember the early days of Hidden Beach. It began its run as a misfit magnet sometime around the Great Depression—the proximity to a nearby rail yard made it a natural hotspot for wayward hobos. During the 1960s, its bucolic setting and urban convenience made it an inviting locale for Baby Boomers to tune in and turn on.

In 1971, a group calling itself the Lake Calhoun Property Owners Association complained to the Park Board about the "longhaired invasion" at Thomas Beach (formerly Bagel Beach). Those who preferred to keep their profiles low started flocking to Hidden Beach, which remained relatively free of scrutiny.

Among the new arrivals to Hidden Beach were nudists. The spot soon morphed into a popular destination for scattered naturists and an after-hours destination for skinny dippers, so much so that it was something of a clandestine nude beach (or what The Minneapolis Star in 1979 politely—if slightly erroneously—called, "a private, mostly nude, mostly gay beach at the end of 21st and Upton Avenue.").

Johnny Love first became a fixture of Hidden Beach in the mid-'70s, "back when it was a literal Garden of Eden," as he puts it. The area was draped in lush canopy to the point where it felt completely isolated from the rest of the city.

"People could just be," Love says. "There was no need to do any of this"—he looks over both of his shoulders in mock fear. "You know what I mean?"

Then he's off to the lake. Inexplicably, he squats down and puts his head toward the water, as if he's about to kiss the lake's surface. He looks up.

"There's an underwater spring on the west side that feeds clean water in," he says, pointing into the distance. "When the humidity is low like it is today, and when there's a slight breeze coming in from the west, you can do this." He puts his face back down to the water's surface and takes a 10-second long, multiple-gulped pull. When he raises his head, his grin is wider than the lake itself. "Go ahead!" he says, droplets falling from his stubbled chin. "Try it!"

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