Parkland from Golden Valley Road to 394, including two golf courses, Wirth Lake, and several gardens.
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6 am-10 pm in undeveloped areas
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Winter Recreation at Wirth Park offers several winter activities
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The park is located West of Downtown Minneapolis, technically in Golden Valley.
Parkway Use: You must obtain a permit for special use of the parkway including closures, and dumpsters, trucks, limousines or carriages on the parkway. View parkway permit details. Permit Application [PDF]
Name: The park was named Theodore Wirth Park on September 7, 1938. When the first 64 acres were acquired for the park in 1889 it was named Saratoga Park. The name was changed to Glenwood Park on December 27, 1890. When the park was expanded to include Keegan’s Lake in 1909, the board designated the name Glenwood Park for the new grounds and officially changed the name of the lake to Glenwood Lake. The park, parkway and lake were all renamed for Wirth in 1938.
Theodore Wirth was superintendent of Minneapolis parks from 1906 until 1935. Wirth immigrated to the United States from Switzerland at the age of 25 in 1888. After a series of jobs working for park systems and private estates, primarily as a gardener, he was hired to be the superintendent of parks in Hartford, Connecticut. Among his accomplishments in ten years as the head of Hartford parks, the oldest public park system in the country, was the creation of the first public rose garden in the U.S., a project he replicated in Minneapolis at Lyndale Park. While in Hartford, Wirth assumed the role of landscape architect for the parks, experience he put to use in shaping the parks of the rapidly growing park system in Minneapolis.
The man primarily responsible for Wirth’s hire by the Minneapolis park board in late 1905 was Charles Loring. Loring likely came to know Wirth, or at least know about him, through an early national park organization, the American Park and Outdoor Art Association, which was founded in the late 1890s in part through the efforts of the Minneapolis park board. (Loring was an early president of the organization, although he was not a Minneapolis park commissioner at the time.)
Wirth came to Minneapolis as the city’s park system was on the verge of rapid expansion after years of neglect due to economic depression. He also took over management of the park system as the need and demand for recreational facilities in parks was increasing. He, like Loring, was an advocate of playgrounds for children in parks and took the lead in creating the first playgrounds in Minneapolis parks shortly after he took the job.
Wirth is best known, however, for reshaping the city’s lakeshores and building its parkways. Wirth took a dim view of swampy land and shallow water, calling them “unsightly and unsanitary.” Through dredging and filling, massive projects, Wirth redefined the shorelines of nearly every city lake except Lake Harriet—and even there he proposed substantial redefinition of the lake shore by building a peninsula into the lake to add visual appeal. During his tenure, Minneapolis’s lakes and shores were converted to clear water and dry land—and some of the lakes were connected by navigable channels.
Wirth also managed the initial construction or improvement of most of today’s Grand Rounds parkways. In addition, the park board’s five golf courses were created under his supervision. He also supervised the creation and development of the Minneapolis airport into a world class facility. The airport was acquired and developed by the park board until it was turned over to the Metropolitan Airport Commission in the mid-1940s.
Wirth never lost his passion for gardening. He created the Rose Garden at Lyndale Park and the Armory or Kenwood Garden where the Sculpture Garden now stands. In addition, the park board planted up to 200,000 flowers and bedding plants some years in parks during his years as superintendent.
Perhaps most significant was that as the park system tripled in acreage while he was superintendent, he created the professional organization to manage the parks. In his first two years as superintendent, the park board agreed to his requests to hire a full-time bookkeeper, engineer, forester, florist, horticulturist and recreation director. When Wirth was finally required to retire in 1935 due to civil service age rules, he was succeeded as superintendent by Christian Bossen, who had been Wirth’s bookkeeper in Hartford, and came with him to Minneapolis in 1906 at Wirth’s insistence.
After his retirement Wirth remained involved in Minneapolis parks as superintendent emeritus and continued to live in the superintendent’s house at Lyndale Farmstead until 1945 when he moved to San Diego for health reasons. Three years after he retired, Minneapolis’s largest park was named for him—but it wasn’t the first time naming a park for him had been suggested. The dynamic and indefatigable Wirth had made such an impression on the city after only four years on the job that in 1909 when park commissioner Edmund Phelps suggested new names for Glenwood Park, one possibility he mentioned was “Wirthfield Park.” Twenty-five years later Wirth’s full name was given to the park.
Acquisition and Development
The park board voted to acquire the first 64 acres of what became Wirth Park in 1889, although the transaction was not completed until the following year. The park was named Saratoga Park after a nearby spring of that name. In the 1889 annual report park board president Charles Loring described the new park, the southeast corner of the present Wirth Park, in glowing terms. He wrote, “(It’s) ample size, beautiful scenery and proximity to a large residence portion of the city will cause Saratoga Park to be recognized as one of our most desirable acquisitions.” Loring also noted that the land “abounds in springs” and contained a “beautiful sheet of water” of about six acres, Birch Pond.
The acquisition came after four years of discussion of acquiring land in the region to serve as a parkway from the southwestern lakes into the northern neighborhoods of the city along the city’s western boundary. The board had held discussions in 1885 with William McNair who owned much of the land west of Cedar Lake and into north Minneapolis and was willing to donate land for a park and parkway along that route. But McNair’s death later that year and the board’s opinion that the land was too far from the city to be of much use, ended those discussions. The possibility of acquiring land along the western border of the city for a parkway, and the realization that the best route would require some land in Golden Valley, even led the park board to seek authority from the state legislature in 1885 to acquire land outside the city limits for an extension of parks and parkways, a power that the legislature granted and was used years later to expand the park into Golden Valley.
The issue of a park in the area was raised again in the summer of 1888 when residents near the Glenwood and Inglewood springs petitioned for a park. Loring wrote in the annual report of 1888 that the petitions came too late in the year for action at that time. But the next summer the board did act on many requests for a park in the area and in August 1889 voted to acquire the land and to assess the $100,000 cost over ten years on “benefited” property in the area.
In 1890 the first parkway was laid out through the park and the park was fenced with ribbon wire at a cost of $2,600. The new park was officially named Glenwood Park. The idea of a parkway connecting Glenwood Park to the lakes and eventually to a large park in northwest Minneapolis was revived by a special committee of the park board chaired by William Folwell in 1891. Folwell suggested that this system of connecting parkways could be called the Grand Rounds. Folwell gave the credit for the idea, “justly and gladly,” he said, to Horace Cleveland the landscape architect who had first proposed in 1883 that parks and features of natural interest in the city be connected by a system of parkways.
Over the next ten years, while president of the park board, Folwell would also champion the creation of a great “scenic” park, a large area of open, undeveloped land. Folwell’s hope for that wild and wooded park was realized when Glenwood (Wirth) Park was dramatically expanded in 1908.
Few improvements were made to the park in the first years after it was acquired, although in early 1893, the park board granted the State Fish Commission the right to use Birch Pond as a fish hatchery for 25 years. The year before, in response to a request from the park board, the commission had stocked fish in Lake Harriet, Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles. In its assessment of fishing in city lakes the commission had noted that Birch Pond was good for bass and perch fishing.
In 1893 the park board’s interest in improving the park was evident in its decision to negotiate with Horace Cleveland to create a plan for the park. Unfortunately by that time Cleveland’s age and ill health prevented him from working. Without Cleveland’s input the park board resolved later that year to begin improvements to the park, including the construction of “pools and channels” to carry the flowing water in the north end of the park. The reference was not to Bassett’s Creek but to springs within the park, as Bassett’s Creek flowed several blocks to the north of the original park.
By 1905, with the recovery of the Minneapolis economy and a decade of frugal management of the park system, significant demand arose for the expansion of Glenwood Park. One of the targets of that expansion was Keegan’s (Wirth) Lake north of the park. The goal was not only to make a park around the lake but to close down “resorts” of questionable character on the lake shore. The 1905 annual report reported the petitions for the expansion of the park in two contexts: one, to acquire a “great scenic park” and board president Fred Smith wrote that there was no better location for such a park; and, two, as a link in a parkway that encircled the city. “This project contemplates at some future time,” Smith wrote, “the building of a boulevard northward from Keegan’s Lake along the valley of Bassett’s Creek and across the city by some convenient route to Columbia Park, thus completing the grand project of that master in landscape architecture — the late HWS Cleveland—a boulevard encircling the entire city.”
The park board took no action to expand the park that year with the exception of adding a few lots to the park acquired at a tax sale. It was the first time the park board acquired land that had been seized by the state for failure to pay taxes, a method used to acquire several parks more than thirty years later in the wake of another major economic depression.
When Theodore Wirth was hired as the new park superintendent in 1906, one of the only additions he thought was necessary to the park system was the expansion of Glenwood Park. However he favored expanding the park not north toward Keegan’s Lake, but to the south and east over “useless land” that was “made to order for parks.”
One of his few recommendations for improving the park was to locate a flock of sheep in the park. There is “nothing prettier in landscape effect than a flock of sheep grazing on a meadow or hillside,” he wrote in the 1906 annual report. Wirth proposed sheep in the park several more times over the years, including a plan of where to put sheep barns in 1913, arguing that sheep would pay for themselves by mowing, fertilizing and providing wool and mutton that could be sold. Finally in 1921 he got the go-ahead from the park board to bring sheep into the park. A fire had destroyed many trees in the park that summer and Wirth argued that sheep grazing in the park would keep tall weeds down, thereby reducing the risk of more fires. The experiment lasted only a few months because the sheep grazed in parts of the park where they weren’t welcome. Other than his suggestion of sheep, Wirth recommended no extensive improvements to the park in 1906, suggesting instead that the board should “preserve nature’s own work as it exists today.”
Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden
As demand for the expansion of Glenwood Park grew, a new development gave the park one of its signature features, a unique wildflower garden that is cherished still. In early 1907 Eloise Butler, John Greer and others petitioned the park board for space in Glenwood Park to establish a botanical garden. The park board granted the request and set aside three acres of bog, meadow and hillside for the Wild Botanical Garden, the first public wildflower garden in the United States. The board also allocated a modest sum for paths and fencing of the area and on April 27, 1907 announced that the garden had opened.
The person who took charge of the garden as a volunteer was a retired botany teacher, Eloise Butler, who for years had taken her students to the park for botany lessons. Butler tended the garden for four years as a volunteer until in 1911 the Minneapolis Woman's Club petitioned the park board to appoint a full-time curator for the garden. The club offered to pay half a year’s salary for a curator. When that wasn’t enough to get the park board to act, the club increased the offer to a full year’s salary if the park board would retain the position and pay the salary after that. The park board agreed. The person the Woman's Club recommended to be the curator was Eloise Butler.
Eloise Butler created such a magnificent wild garden—collecting, protecting, preserving and cataloguing wild plants and offering free botany classes—that the park board named the garden in her honor in 1929. In 1933, at the age of 85, she died on her way to work. Her ashes were spread in her garden and the park board held a memorial service and planted a pin oak tree in the garden in her honor, noting that “Every plant in her garden was her living child, upon whom she bestowed her devotion and care.”
Butler was succeeded by her assistant, Martha Crone, who remained in charge of the garden until 1959. Upon Crone’s retirement, she was succeeded by Ken Avery. The shelter in the garden is named for Crone and the terrace is named for Avery.
An important addition to the park occurred in 1944, when Clinton O’Dell, a successful Minneapolis businessman—he created the Burma Shave rhymes seen along highways — and former botany student of Eloise Butler, contributed $3,000 to expand the garden to include ground for upland or prairie varieties of plants, rather than the primarily woodland plants that Butler’s original garden could accommodate. O’Dell also helped form in 1951 The Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, which has contributed time and money for the maintenance and improvement of the garden ever since.
The Great Scenic Park
In 1908 the park board rectified the criticism that it had created a “park system without a park” by setting in motion the expansion of Glenwood Park by nearly nine fold. By 1909 the park was enlarged to 560 acres, with nearly two-thirds of the park lying outside Minneapolis boundaries in Golden Valley. Minneapolis finally had its scenic park that it proudly compared in size with New York’s Central Park. The new park included Keegan’s Lake, Brownie Lake and a stretch of Bassett’s Creek. The addition of nearly 500 acres had cost the park board less than $200,000 largely because the land was considered to be unsuitable for farming due to its topography. About three-quarters of the cost was assessed on property in the area and the remainder was paid for by city bonds. In a bit of bookkeeping sleight-of-hand the city bond funds were applied only to the purchase of land within the city limits of Minneapolis at the request of the city council.
The expansion of Glenwood Park was viewed as one of the park board’s greatest achievements. Park Commissioner Edmund Phelps commented that it may be the “most important park in the system” noting that it was half as far from downtown as Lake Harriet and one-third as far as Minnehaha Park. With the acquisition of the park, which was two miles long and half-mile wide, park board president Jesse Northrup wrote in the 1908 annual report, “The future, so far as it seems prudent to now anticipate it, is secure.”
Even before the expansion of the park, everyone had ideas on how the land should be developed. In 1907 Northrup was the first to suggest that a large park could be home to a golf course, which many cities already operated, he said. He also suggested the park could be used for horse riding. Both suggestions were later implemented.
As soon as the lands were acquired Wirth announced that the park board’s nursery would be moved from Lyndale Farmstead to Glenwood Park in 1909. An old farm house that had been acquired with the land beside Keegan’s Lake became the residence of park horticulturist Louis Boeglin who lived there until his retirement in 1940. Boeglin’s successor, Greg Lucking, then lived in the former farm house until he retired in 1966.
Permission was also granted in the summer of 1909 to use part of the new park for a camp for crippled and tubercular children. (Charles Webber, who donated the pool and field house at Camden Park and later had that park named for him, donated money in 1910 to erect a windmill at the camp site, to draw water from a deep well for the children.) In December 1909, the park board asked Wirth to prepare plans for a parkway from the expanded Glenwood Park to the new Camden (Webber) Park farther north, which was also acquired in 1909.
In 1910 Wirth began construction of a parkway through the new park using a gang of forty Hungarian railroad workers. In 1909 several park improvements at North Commons and the East River Parkway had to be delayed a year due to a shortage of horse teams and labor for hire. To build a new parkway, however, Wirth imported labor. As the parkway was being constructed the park board designated land to be acquired for the Glenwood-Camden (Memorial) Parkway.
Amidst this flurry of activity, the park board and Wirth proposed in 1910 that the park be expanded by another 200-300 acres to the north and west to Twin Lake. The next year the park board did purchase another 25 acres for the park.
The work at Glenwood wasn’t the only major project of the park board at the time either. Dredging at Lake of the Isles was wrapping up and the dredges were moved to dig the channel that would link Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles. Work on Lake Calhoun in 1911 included groundbreaking for a new bathhouse on the north shore. The old temporary bathhouse at Lake Calhoun was split in two and one half went to Lake Nokomis and the other to Glenwood (Wirth) Lake.
Improvements and suggestions for the park continued. In 1912 bridle paths were built across the park and Wirth recommended that land be set aside for a zoo and sheep barns. In 1913 Eloise Butler recommended that a children’s museum be established in the park. “An early implanted knowledge and love of birds, flowers, insects, minerals and nature in general,” she wrote in her annual report, “are the most potent factors in nullifying degrading influences, in awakening and broadening the mind and giving joy to life.” Commissioner Edmund Phelps championed bridle paths and a golf course and his push for golf was seconded by Wirth, who suggested a 12-hole course and argued that it was “erroneous” to consider golf a game only for the rich.
Golf at Glenwood
A golf course at Glenwood was finally constructed in 1916, nine years after it had first been suggested in a park board report. The first course was only nine holes and featured clay tees and sand greens. An instructor was hired for the first summer and the popularity of the course exceeded expectations. Although Wirth recommended a charge of 25 cents to play the course, the board voted to make play free that year. More than 12,000 rounds were played the first season and an estimated 1,000 more rounds were played during an unseasonably warm November after the course had officially closed for the year. The course was created in what must still be record time: the park board approved creating the course at the end of April—Wirth estimated it could be done for $500—and it was opened for play in June. By that time the Glenwood-Camden Parkway had been completed north to Lowry Avenue.
The next season more than 50,000 rounds of golf were played on the course, prompting Wirth to call for a second golf course. Two years later, in 1919, the Glenwood course was extended to 18 holes and a second course of only six holes was opened at Columbia Park That year Wirth also proposed for the first time that the golf course needed a suitable club house instead of the two temporary shelters that had been constructed. The club house was built three years later in two stages, a second story was added in 1923. Wirth, who was a native of Switzerland, recommended the Swiss Chalet architecture for the club house. Ever the gardener, and a man who was meticulous about the appearance of the parks, Wirth persuaded the board in 1923 to ban the use of spiked shoes on the golf courses. It is not known when that decision was reversed.
Wirth wrote in the 1924 annual report that hundreds of golfers had been turned away from the Glenwood course and the expanded Columbia course. The inability of the two courses to accommodate all the golfers who wanted to play led that year to contracts to acquire Armour (Gross) Golf Course and Meadowbrook Golf Course. With the increased demand for golf and the higher standards set by the two new courses, Wirth suggested in 1925 that the greens at Glenwood be upgraded from sand to grass and that an irrigation system be installed on the fairways. The price tag of $25,000 he attached to those proposals must have been too much for the park board, however, because the greens weren’t converted to grass until 1935. By that time, during the Great Depression, the use of the golf courses had dropped dramatically. The improvements to the Glenwood course—as almost all park improvement projects in the 1930s—were done as federal work relief projects.
Despite hopes that golf course fees would pay not only for the maintenance of the golf course, but other improvements in the park, the Wirth golf course (renamed along with the rest of the park in 1938) operated at a loss through the 1950s. As golf’s popularity picked up again in the early 1960s, the park board added a par three course to Wirth Park in 1962 and hired a golf course architect to redesign the back nine of the larger course in 1968. At the same time the Columbia course was lengthened from 4,600 yards to 6,200 yards. The Chalet at Wirth Park was updated extensively in 1998 and in 2004 bronze statues of Theodore Wirth surrounded by playing children were installed between the parkway and the club house. The statues were a gift form the Minneapolis Parks Legacy Society.
A disc golf course was added to the Par 3 course in 2011.
Expanded Use—and Acreage
With nearly one-quarter of the park turned over to golf, the demand and need for more space at Glenwood continued. In 1917 another 93 acres were added to the park.
As the park was being enlarged it was also being improved. In 1916 Charles Loring offered to build an artificial waterfall into the hill beside Wirth Lake. The Loring Cascade was constructed of artificial boulders set into the hillside and the water running down the falls was pumped from the lake. The forty-foot waterfall, which Wirth said appeared to be “nature’s own creation,” was completed in 1917. Its waters plunged into a new lake as well. As the park board had done with most of the other city lakes, it dredged Wirth Lake to deepen it and better define its shore line. Part of the objective of dredging was to create a sand beach on the east shore of the lake across from the Loring Cascade. When no sand deposits were found on the lake bottom, the sand for the beach had to be hauled in. Not far from the lake a boulder with an inset plaque was installed to mark the location of the 45th parallel.
In 1919 a new bath house was constructed on the beach. In the same year Wirth first suggested that Bassett’s Creek in the park should also be dredged to improve its flow and appearance, an idea he repeated and refined in 1926. (The creek was finally dredged and shaped into pools in 1933 as a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) project. CCC projects were not allowed in cities, but because that part of Bassett’s Creek was not in Minneapolis, but Golden Valley, it qualified. Theodore Wirth’s son, Conrad, who later became director of the National Park Service, was one of the CCC administrators responsible for the project.)
With the clearing of additional land at the park for the golf course, skiing also increased in popularity. Although a ski jump in the park had been featured in photographs in the annual report as early as 1911, in 1921 Wirth recommended the construction of a new “ski slide” in advance of the 1922 National Ski Tournament held at the park. In 1924 the park hosted the trials for the U.S. Winter Olympic ski team. The success of that event led Wirth to comment in the 1924 annual report, “The prospects are that the Olympic winter sports games will be held in Minneapolis in 1928 or 1932.”
Throughout the 1920s the park board contemplated several additions to Glenwood Park especially to the north and west to Twin Lake and Sweeney Lake, land that Wirth said had little residential value. The park board also considered expanding the park to the southwest, an area that Wirth felt was an ideal spot for a zoo. The park board still maintained deer, elk and bear pens at Minnehaha Park in the early 1920s, remnants of the 1890s zoo at that park, but Wirth believed that portion of the lower glen was needed as a picnic ground. In 1927 the park board did acquire nearly twenty acres north of Glenwood Park, the first land acquired for Valley View Park. That acquisition in Golden Valley was, in Wirth’s words, “a beckoning finger” to Sweeney Lake and Twin Lake. They were “two jewels,” Wirth said, which must be acquired before their natural beauty was spoiled.
A new picnic ground and shelter were added to the park in 1930 near the lake and the park board also paid 40 percent of the cost of a new Plymouth Avenue bridge into the park over the railroad tracks.
Few improvements were made in the park for the next two decades through depression and World War II. In 1948 the park board authorized the purchase of 160 acres to the west of the park but the following year abandoned nearly eighty acres of that acquisition because Glenwood Hills Hospital wanted the land for expansion. (When the hospital closed in the 1990s, the land was sold for a residential development, which now borders the park on the west.) The park board did acquire the remaining 87 acres of its original planned acquisition in 1952. Another two-and-a-half acres were added to the park in 1956.
The park also lost a considerable chunk of land from the park in the 1950s. After considerable agonizing, and great reluctance, the park board sold thirty-two acres of the park on the west side of Brownie Lake to The Prudential Insurance Company in 1952. The company had stated its desire to build its regional headquarters in Minneapolis, only if it could build at that location. Citing the benefits to the Minneapolis economy and the jobs that would be gained, the park board agreed to sell the land for $200,000. The park board offered the additional explanation that with the growth of traffic on Highway 12 and the widening of the highway, the land beside Brownie Lake had already in effect been cut off from the remainder of the park.
The size and shape of the park have remained substantially the same since the 1950s with the exception of some loss of land for the widening of I-394 and Highway 55 through the park in the 1960s.
In the 1950s the hills of the golf course were converted into a more formal downhill ski area and in 1955 the park board granted a concession to operate two tow ropes for skiers. In the 1970s the park’s slopes gradually gave way to cross-country instead of downhill skiing. By the end of the 1970s the park had nearly four miles of cross country ski trails and in 1979 they were lighted for the first time. Those trails have since been extended to nearly twelve kilometers. The same year the nearly sixty-year-old ski jump was condemned as unsafe and, despite efforts by local ski jump enthusiasts to save the venerable jump, it was demolished.
The appetite for snow sports witnessed another shift in the early 2000s, when the park board installed its first snowboard park, complete with rails and jumps. New snowmaking equipment was purchased for the park in 2008
The 1970s witnessed a rising awareness of environmental issues, which had an impact on Wirth Park. In 1959 the park board treated many city lakes, including Wirth Lake, with sodium arsenite to control weed growth that was caused in part by low water levels in the lakes. By the 1970s, however, the greater concern with lakes was with the quality of the water. Considerable work was done at Wirth Lake in 1977 to restore water quality.
In 1981 another new attraction was created at the park, the J.D. Rivers Garden. The garden was created to help teach young people about growing food crops, but evolved into a broader program of gardening and environmental education under the new name of the J.D. Rivers Outdoor Discovery Center.
In the 1980s the park board also began efforts to restore the unique five-acre Quaking Bog in the park and to eradicate invasive species of plants that had taken hold in Wirth Park as well as many other parks. Extensive efforts to control those species were targeted especially at the bog and the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden.
Recent additions to the park were made to accommodate cyclists. In 2002 the Luce Line bicycle trail was constructed through Wirth Park, Bassett’s Creek Valley Park and Bryn Mawr Park to connect with the Cedar Lake Trail to downtown Minneapolis. Trails were made for off-road cyclists in 2004. A demonstration project, since officially sanctioned, was begun then with the creation of a four-mile off-road trail through the hilly section of the park west of the golf course.
In 2010-2011 many improvements were made near Wirth Lake. A new playground, as well as volleyball and basketball courts, were installed near the beach and new trails were built around the lake, including boardwalks around the north edge of the lake and across the wetland near the beach. New paths also improved accessibility to the beach and picnic pavilion. In addition the entrance to the park was improved with new landscaping.
The public boat launch at Wirth Lake was closed in 2012 to help protect the lake from aquatic invasive species. Also that year the park board began using scuba divers to remove invasive aquatic vegetation near Wirth Beach.
The pavilion was renovated in 2013. The project upgraded its kitchen, bathrooms, wiring and HVAC systems. Now it is available for year-round use.
In 2014, a Nice Ride bicycle rental kiosk was installed at Wirth Beach and a multiyear project to control buckthorn and other invasive shrubs in the southern and western portions of the park began in 2015.
History through 2008 written by David C. Smith, with updates from 2009 to present written by MPRB.