Paddle the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes

Minneapolis/Hennepin County • No vehicle permit needed

kayaking cedar lake mpls chain of lakes regional park
A calm Cedar Lake on a lovely July afternoon

Minneapolis’ Chain of Lakes is hugely popular with kayakers, canoeists and stand-up paddle boarders—and for good reason. It’s a beautiful urban setting for paddling with lots to love about it.

What’s the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes?

The Minneapolis Chain of Lakes has been part of the city’s park system for over 100 years. It’s the focal point of the city’s Chain of Lakes Regional Park.

It’s mostly known for its network of paved trails around these beautiful lakes used by thousands of walkers, runners and bikers. But it’s also a spectacular paddling spot in the heart of Minneapolis.

The Chain includes five lakes (from south to north): Lake Harriet, Bde Maka Ska (recently renamed from Lake Calhoun), Lake of the Isles, Cedar Lake and Brownie Lake. Of those, all but Lake Harriet are connected by waterways.

kayaking bde maka ska mpls chain of lakes
Of the 4 lakes in the Chain, Bde Maka Ska is the busiest and has the most urban feel

Where to Launch & Park

According to the Minneapolis Parks & Rec website, Brownie Lake has a canoe launch on its north end. That’s where we planned to launch the other day when my friend, Kathy, and I headed out.

We couldn’t find it! GPS took us to an office building off Wayzata Blvd. To make things more confusing, lots of the residential streets and parkways around the lakes are closed during COVID so bikers, runners and walkers have more room.

(I did an online search and found the answer: there’s a dirt trail near the intersection of Wayzata Blvd and Theodore Wirth Pkwy just northeast of Brownie Lake. But no signage and no parking!)

We ended up at the Cedar Lake Canoe Launch by accident. Kathy looked at the map on her phone and directed me to what we thought was the beach. It’s on the west side of the lake at 2100 Cedar Lake Pkwy.

canoe launch on cedar lake mpls chain of lakes
The canoe launch on Cedar Lake is super easy to use—shallow and accessible

You can also launch at the north end of Lake of the Isles off W Lake of the Isles Parkway (which is one-way, going counter-clockwise). My iMap says 2372-2380 W Lake of the Isles Pkwy.

Or launch at Bde Maka Ska:

  • There’s a dedicated canoe/kayak launch at 2715 W Lake St (north end)
  • The North Beach lot is right next door to that launch
  • Thomas Beach is on the south end of the lake at 3700 Thomas Ave S

There’s very little parking near any of these launches for the amount of people that use these lakes. So if you’re limited to weekends, get out early or wait until the late afternoon or evening and give it a try. Some of the parking lots in the Minneapolis park system require payment, just FYI.

brownie lake, mpls chain of lakes
Brownie Lake is the smallest and quietest of the lakes in the Chain (looking towards the channel into Cedar Lake)

Where to Rent Canoes, Kayaks and SUPs

On the day we went, lots of people were out paddling with rented kayaks, canoes and SUPs from WheelFun Rentals on Bde Maka Ska. They have a great location just off the canal coming from Lake of the Isles.

It’s also next to the marina where a ton of little sailboats are, so it’s a busy spot. Take care and be aware!

If you want to paddle the whole chain, go with the half-day rental and that should give you plenty of time.

Highlights of the Paddle Route

Here’s the route we did (the red pin is our launch point):

map of kayak route on mpls chain of lakes
This is the water we covered on our first trip on the Chain—we were out just under 2 hours

Kathy and I kayaked from the launch at Cedar up into Brownie, then back to Cedar, through the canal to Isles and just into Maka Ska and back. It took us just under 2 hours of leisurely paddling.

Here’s what we liked best:

The Unique Character of Each Lake

Each of the four lakes has its own unique character:

  • Brownie Lake is the smallest and quietest of the four. Lots of lily pads and water lilies with just a tunnel-like channel into Cedar Lake.
  • Cedar Lake is residential and also on the quiet side, with quite a few enjoying the three beaches the day we were out.
  • Lake of the Isles is super scenic with beautiful bridges on each end of the waterway, its two islands, and a clear view of the Minneapolis skyline towards the northeast.
  • Bde Maka Ska is the busiest of the four and has the most urban feel. We didn’t paddle out too far on it, but you’ll also have a nice view of the city’s skyline once you’ve paddled out far enough to see it above the trees.
kayaking lake of the isles with minneapolis skyline behind
There are nice views of the Minneapolis skyline from Lake of the Isles

The Bridges

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I have a thing for bridges. It’s fun for me to paddle under them, whether they’re for vehicles or foot/bike traffic.

kayaking under a bridge lake of the isles
There are two beautiful bridges like this on Lake of the Isles

There are several bridges on this route of different character and function—even one old rickety wooden one that’s in the middle of being replaced.

kayaking under the wooden bridge
I wonder when this wooden bridge was built? A little sketchy but we made it through—twice!

The Canal between Cedar and Isles

One of my favorite parts to paddle was the canal that connects Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles. It’s quite long and very scenic.

kayaking into Cedar Lake mpls chain of lakes
Kayaking the channel from Lake of the Isles back into Cedar Lake

There are several very nice homes along the channel that are fun to see, as well as lots of trees, ducks, lily pads and plenty of other paddlers enjoying the water trail, too.

kayaking mpls chain of lakes
We admired several beautiful homes while kayaking along the channel

Seeing So Many People Enjoying the Lakes

I loved seeing so many folks out enjoying the beautiful weather and taking advantage of these lakes.

Even on a Monday afternoon, no holiday in sight, there were many families, couples, friend groups and singles paddling canoes, kayaks and SUP boards.

Wrapping It Up

If you’re a kayaker, canoeist or SUPer and haven’t been on these lakes you’re missing out!

Even if you mostly love more quiet and even wilderness paddling (which I do), it’s a fun change to get into the city once in awhile and see it from a different perspective. The lakes are a great way to do that.

kayaking mpls chain of lakes
A beautiful day for a kayak trip!

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Sharon Brodin
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