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.