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BEST PLACE TO HIKE (URBAN) Minneapolis 1998 -

Crosby Regional Park beats out the chain of lakes, Theodore Wirth Parkway, and the bluffs on several counts: There's no risk of getting beaned by a beach volleyball, no chance of crashing an upscale wedding, and no danger of losing your footing off a cliff. This park is serene, sparsely peopled, even terrain that shifts with the seasons and the direction you head from the main parking lot. Go south toward the Mississippi-Minnesota river junction and you'll pass through some of the wildest bottomlands in the region--a turf caked in silt from decades of flooding, with a lush spring understory of native wildflowers and scrub that smells like musk after rain. The crown of oaks and aspens turns the place into a shadow-riddled oasis by midsummer and by autumn into a blazing glory. Walk a few hundred yards and you'll pass right through it, onto an untamed beach that stretches for miles. In winter the ice-buckled river looks like an Ansel Adams wide-angle of frozen clouds, in summer like all the diamonds in the world. On a lucky day this time of year, the Harriet Bishop riverboat queen might pass by with its red paddle wheel and a triple-deckload of waving schoolkids. Go north toward Crosby's two lakes, and you'll pass through some pretty prairie and into the marshlands that ring the waters. In summer dragonflies throttle up out of the reeds and what sounds like a thousand frogs make their own weird music. Well into fall, migrating Canada geese in formation fly low enough for you to feel their wingbeat, and the cattails turn into torches. Winter in this part of the park means lots of tracks--deer and mice, rabbits and domestic dogs--with occasional sightings of the owl that comes out around dusk and stays 'til dawn. In springtime (right about now) you can catch the calls and gorgeous featherings (bring binoculars) of mallards and mergansers, male cardinals and wood ducks, great crested flycatchers, swallows, jays, yellow rump warblers, and, on their way north, pairs of loons. The smell, a month out, will be a heat-sweet alchemy of lily pads ripening in the sun. There are 6.7 miles of paved trails in this park--good for biking, pushing a stroller, and wheelchairs. Get off the hard path and you'll have 540 acres to roam. Crosby is open from sunrise until 10 p.m., with picnic tables and fire rings under shelter.

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