Brown bus bench with steep drop off behind, stairs needed to reach it, or steep street

Let’s (St)roll There — A Visit to Nicollet Island by Bus

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series we’re calling Let’s (St)roll There, stories about ways to get to unusual or out-of-the-way places by foot, bus, train or bike. Zack Mensinger wrote the first piece, in June, about riding his cargo bike to Stillwater to pick blueberries.

When held its annual picnic at Boom Island Park in early August, I took the Route 61 bus to get there from my home in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood of St. Paul. That route runs between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul on East Hennepin, Larpenteur, Arlington and Arcade, connecting to a number of high schools along the way.

One of those high schools is DeLaSalle, which is located on Nicollet Island in Minneapolis. I realized that the DeLaSalle stop — on the Hennepin Avenue bridge — had one of the shortest walks to the picnic at the far end of Boom Island, with the best access from my house, too. Nicollet Island should be a good stroll, so why not?

As Streets.MN co-founder Bill Lindeke commented on X (formerly Twitter) recently, the Hennepin Avenue bridge is “way too big.” That definitely becomes a problem when trying to include bus stops on Nicollet Island.

Map shows location of westbound bus stop on Nicollet Island, red arrows show inaccessible path to west island edge and accessible sidewalk path to east edge

Why would someone be taking the bus to Nicollet Island? The most likely reason is to go to the high school. Otherwise, it could be a visitor to the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board’s property at the south end, or one of the residents at the north half. Or maybe a visitor staying at the Nicollet Island Inn who’s a transit rider.

The westbound stop location is not user-friendly, since the quickest access is a jaunt up/down a grassy (or snowy) slope. (Streetview now tells me there’s a stairway a bit farther west, but I didn’t know it then.) The only accessible path is a sidewalk to the east and then north, connecting to the east end of the high school building and also to the east edge of the island. So that’s fairly out of the way if you want to go to the west. But this stop has the advantage of being close to the high school and visible from it, at least.

I wanted to go to the west edge of the island, so I took the grassy slope and cut through the DeLaSalle parking lot.

The walk to the north end of the island was pleasant, as I had expected. There’s a beautiful block of historic stone townhouses just north of the high school, and then a row of late-19th-century houses. Along the way, I saw some good examples of what you can do with a narrow boulevard planting, sometimes called a “hell strip.”

Colorful flowers planted closely together in a narrow boulevard between pavement areas.

This pollinator-heaven planting, down the side street, combines just a few plant species: prairie dropseed, a flowering onion, white calalmintha and creeping stonecrop.

Spiky grasses alternate with round white flower shapes filling a boulevard next to a brick street, white picket fence

As I approached the north end of the island, which is parkland, I saw a number of people conferring with binoculars, birding.

I knew from my transit app instructions that some kind of pedestrian bridge connects Nicollet Island to Boom Island, but I didn’t know what it was exactly until I got there.

Historic tan-colored metal bridge with 1901 plaque

Reaching the bridge also required a flight of stairs, so that’s completely inaccessible. There’s no signage on the Boom Island side, indicating that the steps connect to Nicollet Island. There were lots of runners, bikers and walkers on the bridge and paths on the Boom Island side.

Author’s note: Since this piece was published, a reader provided some helpful feedback. See those thoughts at the end of the article.

Coming Home

Anticipating the return trip several hours later, I was a bit nervous. I had to hit the timing just right because the 61 bus on Saturdays runs only once an hour. Even more importantly, I wasn’t sure where the stop on the other side of Hennepin was located or how to reach it. The lanes of the “way too big” bridge are completely separated and the other side was not visible when I exited the bus. And there is no way for a pedestrian to cross the two parts of Hennepin at grade. We have to go under the street.

On my return trip on the island, I walked down the east side, which is less interesting than the west side, mostly because of the boring DeLaSalle athletic field that fills part of the frontage. The homes had fewer gardens as well, or maybe I was in more of a hurry because I was worried about making the bus.

As I approached the looming heights of 1st Avenue/Hennepin Avenue, I found the stop location on my phone and figured I had to go under the streets and come back around to reach the far side of Hennepin where it was located. I still wasn’t sure how to walk to the stop, though.

Here’s what I discovered:

Map shows location of eastbound bus stop on Nicollet Island, red arrows show inaccessible path through parking lot/stairs and accessible sidewalk path around entire city block

The route I took of the two possibilities was the shortcut available for people who can climb stairs (they’re the little white angled line by the red arrowhead). That red line goes through a privately owned parking lot for the Nicollet Island Inn. The accessible route is around an entire city block and up a fairly steep grade on Wilder Street.

Here’s what the bus stop looks like, with the stairway and final uphill sidewalk block in the background:

Brown bus bench with steep drop off behind, stairs needed to reach it, or steep street with sidewalk.

The bus was on time, and the trip home was uneventful.

Two things that would have made the return trip easier: more frequent bus service — even every half hour — so I didn’t have to worry as much about missing the bus, and some way to know in advance how to get to that inaccessible bus stop.

Those final words make me realize that busing to unfamiliar locations or taking an unfamiliar route brings at least low-level anxiety in me, especially about the return trip. I wonder how common that is, and whether Metro Transit or other transit agencies have studied it.

Following publication, a reader provided these thoughts about the bridge and flight of stairs: “Apparently the author missed the most beautiful part of the walk. I agree it’s tricky but I don’t want to see any improvements made. This poor island has suffered enough over years and years — maybe a century and a half — of high-flying suggestions.

“The stairs are one way from Nicollet Island to Boom Island. Another way starts on the east side on Island Avenue at the railroad crossing. It’s a long block or two of a path along the riverside, completely surrounded by trees, with water peeking through. I’ve crossed paths there with a man in a wheelchair.

“The author might also have enjoyed avoiding the ‘boring De LaSalle athletic field’ by taking the walking path to the left [east], emerging on Island Avenue about halfway to the Merriam Bridge. Lots of flowerbeds have plants labeled.

“I suggest the author should come back someday.”

Pat Thompson

About Pat Thompson

Pat Thompson is cochair of the St. Anthony Park Community Council's Transportation Committee, a member of Transition Town - All St. Anthony Park, and a gardener in public and private places. She is a member of the Climate Committee.

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