Elm Creek Park Reserve

The Pierre Bottineau House in Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove

Despite the fact that I spent every Saturday last summer working in Elm Creek Park Reserve, I didn't actually spend that much time exploring the place. The park is as large as many State Parks and offers just about any outdoor activity you can think of from archery, camping, and geocaching in the summer to cross-country skiing, tubing, and skijoring in the winter. My favorite part of the park and the part that makes this highly developed park an urban wilderness is the section and trails around Eastman Nature Center. These hiking/snowshoeing only trails feel deserted even on the busiest days of the summer.

The mushrooms were fantastic! 

The Eastman entrance is on the north side of the park (the main entrance is on the south) and the center itself is worth checking out. The trails do a great job of sampling different aspects of Minnesota ecosystems. You'll wind through dense forests, open glades, meandering streams, and wide upland prairies. There are a lot of wetlands along these trails which meant two things for me last summer - I went overboard on mushroom pictures and the mosquitoes were almost prohibitively painful. I did the trails one more time this last fall and they were much more pleasant, if less beautiful. Go in the early summer for woodland wildflowers and late summer for prairie wildflowers. Fall leaves the forests pretty barren, but the prairie grasses are at their peak color and just blaze in the afternoon light. And everything pretty much looks the same in winter.

Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge

Whether because of the foreword thinking of early Minnesota legislators or simply because of the inhospitality of nature, most of the riverfront on both the Minnesota and Mississippi river throughout the Twin Cities is undeveloped, protected for the survival and enjoyment of people and animals alike. The Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge covers 14,000 acres along 70 miles of the Minnesota River from Bloomington to Henderson. All of the pictures here are from the Bloomington stretch.

Largely inaccessible in the spring due to annual flooding, the refuge is a great escape the rest of the year. Like the other parks I've covered, this one is only about 20 minutes from downtown Minneapolis. The trailhead and visitor center is across the street from Mall of America, but the trail can be accessed as several point throughout Bloomington including the ends of Old Cedar Rd, Lyndale, Penn, Auto Club Rd, as well as Nine Mile Creek Trail.

The trail is well known by local off road bikers who use it year round and it's a great jumping off point for boating along the river. For me the most remarkable part of the refuge is that you can literally be walking underneath a major highway and it still feels like your a hundred miles away. I wouldn't necessarily categorize it as wilderness, but it definitely has a much more rural feel than most city parks and is definitely more remote feeling than the adjoining Mississippi National River & Recreation Area.

For some reason, most of these pictures are from winter, but early summer is my favorite time in the park because of the wildflowers that fill the riverbank and open spaces between the forests. While most of the summer, the refuge is fairly green, the rest of the year, it is a pretty barren, desolate place with little color or life. However, that kind of environment can offer its own beauty. It allows you to focus on features you might otherwise ignore - the shape of a tree branch or root, the way a stream erodes its banks, a stone ruin usually covered with undergrowth.

And of course this is a wildlife refuge, so expect to see animals or at least the signs of animals. I've seen deer, raccoons, coyotes, swans, woodpeckers, pelicans, muskrats, opossums, bald eagles, hawks, and shrews just to name a few. There are even records of cougars in the refuge from time to time. Beavers are illusive, but their marks are not. Beaver lodges, dams, and half-eaten trees abound. Keep your eyes open, walk quietly, and you never know what you might come across.

Richardson Nature Center

The Richardson Oak standing idyllically in the prairie in autumn.

Of all the different ecosystems in Minnesota, for me, prairies are the most inspiring. Coming from the state known for its 10,000 sparkling lakes, a state covered with deep forests, immense bogs, and craggy blufflands, choosing waterless expanses of rolling grassland may seem like an odd choice for inspiration. But there is something about the way the the sun sets fire to the afternoon grass, the beauty of a single tree or house or bison standing alone in an otherwise featureless landscape, the subtlety of the constantly shifting prairie colors - golds and reds and browns - a burst of purple wildflowers here and the flash of a red-winged blackbird there, and above all the possibility of uninterrupted vision reaching endlessly to the horizon.

The grass changes color seemingly on a weekly basis, but the forest surrounding the prairie is best in autumn.

The very nature of urbanity makes prairie like this very difficult to come by anywhere near a city. Most urban wildernesses are small, sheltered from the surrounding world by trees, the noise of water, or only your imagination. Fortunately for Minneapolitans, there are a few places around that, while not even close to the experience of being in the actual prairie of the western part of the state, give you a taste of openness, an escape from the walled confines of the city streets.

Richardson Nature Center in Bloomington's Highland Lake Park is one of those places. Just 20 minutes from downtown Minneapolis and literally across the street from a series of small skyscrapers on Normandale Lake, the prairie of Richardson is situated in a valley surrounded by forested hills just tall enough to hide the outside world. Although the park encompasses much more than just the oak savanna, the open spaces are my favorite part. I'd try to describe how it seems more beautiful in every season, but I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.

The wildflowers come in every color, but they don't last long.

The park entrance is off of East Bush Lake Road. There are several paths you can take from the visitor center. The prairie path will take you here, but it won't take more than twenty minutes to do, so spend some time explore the rest of the park. Not everyone loves grasslands as much as I do, but I guarantee that Richardson has something everyone can enjoy.

Nine Mile Creek

The pine trees make this feel more like a western National Park than a

suburban trail in Bloomington, MN. 

Since I am finally caught up on my state parks, I though I would spend the winter doing a series on Urban Wilderness. Until the spring hiking season starts up again (not that I can't hike in the winter, I would just prefer to see the parks in warmer weather), I'll take some time to highlight parks, trails, and natural areas in and around the Twin Cities. Although virtually all of these oases will be less than an hour from the downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul, when you're in them, it takes very little imagination to believe that you are in the most remote areas of the state. Like my state park blogs, these posts will be picture heavy - and since I've been to most of these places many time, just bear with me if I go a little crazy on the photos.

The trail is easy so their is not excuse not to check the park out even if

you're not generally a hiker. 

Nine Mile creek is actually 15 miles long running from Minnetonka (Lake Minnetoga) to the Minnesota River in Bloomington. Its name comes from the fact that the creek is nine miles from Fort Snelling. The story goes that since Fort Snelling was a dry fort, soldiers had to trek nine miles away to be able to drink. The creek was a good landmark for this distance. Except for recreation on Normandale Lake, through which the creek flows, most of the creek is pretty uninspiring and inaccessible, but the park I visit is at the very end of the creek as it tumbles down to the river from Moir Park in Bloomington. Draining a watershed of over 50 square miles, the creek by this point has created a sizable valley for itself. Either park at Moir Park on 104th St. or half way down the trail at the 106th St. lot. (Interesting note: I just found out that the north half of this trail is Bloomington's Central Park) From either place, you'll descend into the little valley. Near Moir, the creek is wide and meandering, but it quickly gains speed, cascading through a series of rapids until it hits the Minnesota River floodplains where is mellows out a bit and eventually finds its way to the riverbanks.

From the top of the valley on 106th St. Fall is another excellent time to visit for obvious reasons. 

The trail is flat, straight, and easy to hike at a fast pace, but take your time to enjoy the outdoors. The forest does a good job of muffling the sound of the city and by the time you hit the river, there is no sign that civilization is anywhere near except of the well-maintained trail itself. Because the valley keeps it cooler than the surrounding city, you'll see more evergreens and birch than in surrounding areas, which really gives it that wilderness feel. It is a great place to look for woodland wildflowers in the spring - rue, trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit, and violets are common sights. Keep your eye out for raccoons, beavers, pileated woodpeckers, deer, and even the occasional otter. Because the park is connected to the river greenway, you never know what might wander in.

The moving water makes it difficult for the creek to fully freeze. 

Make sure to take your headphones out once in a while and listen to the creek. There aren't many other places in the city that provide a babbling brook. Minnehaha is too developed and crowded and other rivers and streams are either too big or too small. Listening to it always reminds me of the streams in the remote areas of the Appalachian Mountains. It always astounds me that this natural treasure is just a couple miles from my house.

Crow-Hassan Park Reserve

The many prairies of Crow-Hassan Park Reserve 

I've spent time in previous posts extolling the virtues of the prairies, so I won't go into it again here, but the reason I decided to check out Crow-Hassan Park was because I heard it had some of the last virgin prairie in the Twin Cities metro area and I wanted to see it. Crow-Hassan is probably the least visited Three Rivers park, mostly because it is a little bit further away than most of their parks (meaning a 40 minute drive from downtown Minneapolis instead of a 20 minute drive like most of their parks). The dearth of visitors is definitely a boon to the wilderness feel of the park.

Although there are forests and wetlands as well in Crow-Hassan, a large portion of the park, located on the Crow River in Rogers, is indeed prairie. There is enough prairie that you can begin to get the sense of how diverse grasslands can be. In the photo above, I've placed three sections of the prairie next to each other to give you an idea of that. Native prairie like this can have hundreds of more species of grass, flowers, and shrubs than restored prairie can. I know they don't seem that diverse, but when you're dealing with grass, you take what diversity you can get.

Grasses towering high at Crow-Hassan in Rogers, MN 

Probably the best part of the Crow-Hassan prairie were the wildflowers. Parts of the hills were just overrun with yellows and purples and reds. I also must have hit frog season because there were sections in the woods where every step I took would result in literally dozens of frogs springing out of my way - the forest floor was alive with them.

This out of the way park is definitely worth a visit if you have an afternoon off. For prairie lovers like myself, the best time to see it is late summer when the wildflowers are in bloom and the grasses are just starting to tint autumnal.