By Alicia Underlee Nelson
When you can’t decide if you want a city break or a camping trip, head to East Grand Forks, where it’s easy to have both. And you won’t even need to start your car or camper until it’s time to leave; everything is easily accessible on foot, by bike or by canoe or kayak.
Your base is the Red River State Recreation Area campground, right on the edge of downtown East Grand Forks and facing the Red River. The shops, restaurants and 15-screen River Cinema are just a short walk (or ride) away, but you’d never know it; the only sound is the wind rustling the trees that tower above your campsite. RV campers can choose from pull-through sites with electric and full hook-up or drive-in sites. There’s also a group camp site that accommodates up to 40 people.
The four walk-in campsites are even more secluded and rustic. Each spot includes a picnic table and fire ring, although at press time, the rangers only allowed fires in the RV sites. Set up your tent along the banks of the Red River, where you can look for bald eagles as you fish right from the shore.
Buy your Minnesota fishing license at Cabela’s, just a short walk away. The store also stocks bait, fishing and camping gear, dehydrated meals and all kinds of outdoor goodies.
The convergence of the Red and Red Lake Rivers is the historic heart of these river cities. The Grand Forks Greenway runs along the banks of both rivers, reimagining land ravaged by the devastating 1997 flood as a network of parks and trails, golf and disc courses, swimming pools and playgrounds.
The result is 2,200 acres of outdoor green space that threads through the urban core of the Grand Forks – East Grand Forks metro. Bring a bike, scooter, rollerblades or good walking shoes and set off to explore more than 20 miles of mixed-use trails that trace the rivers’ contours and connect with the metro-wide trail system. The space is dotted with interpretive plaques and sculptures, picnic shelters and playgrounds -- even a wildflower garden and labyrinth. You could explore here for days
That’s exactly what we did. Our group stayed almost entirely on the Minnesota side and we never got bored. We took long rides on the bike paths and found hidden treasure (and super teeny micro caches) on our geocaching adventures. (Get the free Geocaching app to try it yourself.) Sherlock Park’s pool and waterslide were a hit. Its sprawling playground (designed in part by elementary school students) impressed even the jaded teenager among us.
“Bring a bike, scooter, rollerblades or good walking shoes and set off to explore more than 20 miles of mixed-use trails that trace the rivers’ contours and connect with the metro-wide trail system.”
The only time we ventured into North Dakota was to head to The Boathouse on the Red, less than a mile from our campsite, to try canoeing and kayaking. There’s something so soothing about seeing a city from the water. After gliding under traffic on the distinctive Sorlie Bridge, staring up at an active railroad bridge and watching a fishing boat dock at one of the public boat launches, we were enveloped by the lush riparian habitat and a profound sense of calm. The landscape felt strangely untouched by time.
This quiet stretch of the Red River was moving just three quarters of a mile per hour that day. It was the perfect spot for the new paddlers in our group to learn.
“For those who have never been on the water, the Red is easy to paddle on,” explained Jonathan Puhl, as he helped us launch our watercraft. “It’s not super wide, it’s not super crazy for currents and it’s not too deep. If it’s windy, just stick closer to the shore. If you’re about five or ten feet from the shore, you’ll be fine.”
You can also survey the river from a spot on one of East Grand Forks’ riverfront patios. Sickies Garage burgers and Brews, Boardwalk Bar and Grill and my sentimental favorite, Mike’s Pizza & Pub, were all buzzing. But pasta, burgers and small plates at The Blue Moose (an East Grand Forks icon) might just be my new post-paddle tradition.
You can also walk to The Spud Jr. for oversized tater tots, clever riffs on grilled cheese and hot dogs heaped with bacon and mac and cheese. The Nacho Taco Pizza from Up North Pizza Pub is worth a pilgrimage too -- although next time I’m trying pizza topped with roasted duck, goat cheese and bechamel sauce. Sit outside to squeeze every last drop of sunlight out of these late summer days.
After dinner or a few drinks, make the short walk back to the campground. When the sun rises again, you’ll still have two cities, two rivers and 2,220 acres of green space to explore. And it’s all just steps from your tent or camper door.
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