Trail through Henry’s Woods Park
When settlers started arriving in south-central Minnesota in the 1800’s, they encountered a large stretch of forest about 100 miles long and 40 miles wide, basically from what is now Mankato to Monticello. The predominant mix of trees was elm, sugar maple, basswood, and oak, which contrasted with the surrounding prairies, savannas, and brushier oak and aspen woodlands. In the 1700’s, French explorers called this region bois grand, which translates to the commonly used English name – Big Woods. There is a similar region in western Wisconsin, and part of this area near Lake Pepin is the setting for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s first book, Little House in the Big Woods. Over the years, the increase of farming and real estate development has reduced the Big Woods to scattered remnants and secondary stands that are mainly preserved in parks and other protected areas – about 2% of the original expanse. Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park is one of the most pristine fragments. Another well-preserved remnant is Henry’s Woods Park in Rogers, MN.
An article in the July-August 1998 edition of The Minnesota Volunteer talks more about the Big Woods and features the Henrys’ farm. Rising taxes and land values encouraged many land owners to sell their land to developers, but the Henrys instead wanted to preserve their 60-acre forest as a memorial to Lloyd’s grandparents who bought the farm shortly after the Civil War (it was Hassan Township at the time). Eventually, the current 52-acre site was gifted to Hassan Township (now Rogers), and it is permanently protected in conjunction with the Minnesota Land Trust. The main parking area is off Brockton Lane, and the first things you see are a circle garden in the middle of the parking area and a restored farm building near the trailhead by the woods. A large polished stone marker in the middle of the garden talks about the Henrys’ gift and the history of the woods. The Henrys not only farmed the area, they also had a sawmill and used the woods for lumber and firewood. In addition, they tapped the maple trees each spring and made maple syrup; the preserved building on site is the Henrys’ “sugar shack” where they made the syrup. When you enter the woods, the trail starts as minimally graveled, but then turns to bare earth as it loops through the woods. A bridge crosses over a small stream, and there are two small ponds with wood duck boxes. It’s a tranquil spot not far from a large commercial/retail area. A trip to Cabela’s could result in a purchase of hiking shoes and an opportunity to use them right away at Henry’s Woods.
Text and photo by Kirk Nelson
Designated on August 22, 2016, River Warren Outcrops SNA is one of Minnesota’s two newest SNAs. Its 89 acres include a prairie restoration, densely wooded bedrock outcrop, and floodplain forest along the east bank of the Minnesota River. Plains prickly pear and Kentucky coffee tree, two species of special concern in Minnesota, are found here.
Future management plans include the removal of buckthorn and redcedar from about 85% of the site, and continued restoration of a former agricultural field to prairie. An unusual feature of this SNA is 1.6 miles of horse trails. These trails were on the site when the land was purchased by the DNR, and they will continue to be maintained by the seller.
On rare occasions we come across a wild space so fragile or beautiful that we hesitate to publish it. We want to keep it to ourselves, to protect it and prevent it from being spoiled. The hidden cove at Crystal Spring Scientific and Natural Area, Minnesota’s newest SNA, is that kind of place. Crystal Spring SNA is near Taylor’s Falls in northern Washington County. Its 38 woodland acres are mostly red oak forest with small areas of black ash swamp.
A forest road and then a well-worn hiking trail lead from the northwest corner to the southeast corner of the SNA. The hiking trail eventually passes a set of winding steps that leads down a bluff and out of sight. The steps end at a sandstone cliff about 25 feet above a stream. A narrow trail at the base of the cliff but only halfway down the steep bluff leads to a hidden cove. The north wall of the cove is dry cliff exposing two bedrock layers, Jordan Sandstone and Saint Lawrence Shale. A spring at end of the cove bubbles into a “crystal” clear pool which overflows down the cliff to Zavoral’s Creek below. The steep walls of the gorge, the waterfall, and the lush vegetation join to create an alluring natural attraction.
Four species with conservation status in Minnesota have been seen here: butternut, an endangered species; and American ginseng, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Red-shouldered Hawk, all special concern species.
River Terrace Prairie SNA features a rare gravel prairie on a terrace above the Cannon River valley.
The northwest-facing slope of the terrace is the best place to view native wildflowers in the spring. Visit in early May to see blooming American pasqueflower, mid-May for prairie smoke and kittentails, and late May for fringed puccoon and prairie violet.
The old field below the terrace is a work in progress. Recent management activities in this area include cutting and stacking eastern redcedar and mowing down other woody species. A prescribed burn north and east of the terrace was conducted in the spring of 2017.
At 230 acres, Terrace Oaks West is the largest park in the City of Burnsville park system. The entire park is oak woodland. There are 3.8 miles of summer hiking trails, 2.5 miles of mountain bike trails, about 6.8 miles of winter ski trails, and about 1.7 miles of winter hiking trails.
With the help of Great River Greening, 19 acres at the northwest corner of the park are undergoing restoration to oak savanna. The project began in 2014 and is expected to be completed in 2017. Invasive woody species, including buckthorn and boxelder, have been cut, reduced to wood chips, and carted away. The area will undergo a controlled burn to stimulate the growth of understory vegetation. Following that, it will be seeded with 6 to 8 species of prairie grasses and 20 to 30 species of wildflowers.
Photo by Kirk Nelson
Pilot Knob is an historic site in Mendota Heights on the east bank of the Minnesota River. Two overlooks provide spectacular vistas of Fort Snelling, the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, and the Minneapolis skyline. A half-mile of paved and mowed trails include interpretive signs that describe the history of the site. The trail connects to Dakota County’s Big Rivers Regional Trail, a paved bike trail. Bald Eagles and migrating raptors are often seen flying overhead.
Pilot Knob is known to the Dakota as Oheyawahi, or “a hill much visited.” It served as a burial site for for Dakota Villages along the Minnesota River. It is here that the Dakota signed a treaty in 1851 that transferred millions of acres of land to the United States. The City of Mendota Heights acquired 25 acres on the hill in 2006. Overhead power lines were buried underground, brush was cut and removed, prairie was restored, and wildflowers and oak trees were planted.
Tamarack Nature Center in White Bear Township is one of three units that make up the 862-acre Bald Eagle-Otter Lakes Regional Park. Its 320 acres encompass oak-aspen woodland, restored prairie, and marsh and other wetlands. It has four miles of hiking trails that include an interpretive trail and boardwalks over wetlands. In the winter, some of the trails are groomed for cross-country skiing. Osprey and Bald Eagle have been seen flying overhead. For the kids it has Discovery Hollow Nature Play Area & Garden and many programs offering educational opportunities.
Leif Mountain is a The Nature Conservancy preserve in Kandiyohi County. Its 801 acres protect a diverse mix of habitats including wet, mesic, and dry prairies, oak forest, cattail marsh, and three lakes.
There are three parking areas on Leif Mountain (see map above) giving access to three very different areas, and visitors should consider exploring all three. The south parking area is on 47 acres that includes about 20 acres of wet and mesic prairie, a 1-acre pond and cattail marsh, and a 2-acre pond. The remainder of this section is cattail marsh. A narrow dry land bridge leads to a wooded peninsula jutting into the marsh south of Section Twelve Lake. Access from the south area to the rest of the preserve is blocked by the lake and by cattail marsh.
The southwest parking area is on 27 acres. It includes two native plant communities, 2½ acres of Dry Sand – Gravel Prairie (Southern) and 1½ acres of Mesic Prairie (Southern), and 5 acres of mixed woodland and wet and mesic prairies. The remainder of the area is cattail marsh.
The west parking area is on about 340 acres. It includes two unnamed lakes, 80 acres of Dry Sand – Gravel Prairie (Southern), 13½ acres of Basswood – Bur Oak – (Green Ash) Forest, and a mix of mesic prairie, wet prairie, and cattail marsh. The high quality forest has common and rare woodland species not found other places on the preserve.
Several species with conservation status in Minnesota have been seen on Leif Mountain, including American White Pelican, Bald Eagle, Red-shouldered Hawk, regal fritillary, and American ginseng.
Tympanuchus Prairie is a The Nature Conservancy preserve in Polk County. It was acquired with funds provided by the Outdoor Heritage Fund, which was created by the 2008 Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. Its 160 acres of mesic and wet prairie protect habitat for the Greater Prairie Chicken, a species of special concern in Minnesota. is bordered on the east and in part on the north by Tympanuchus Wildlife Management Area (WMA). The southeast corner is adjacent to Thorson Prairie WMA.
Visitors to Tympanuchus Prairie this week (8/28 to 9/3/2016) will see many prairie plants at or near their peak blooming time. These include flat-topped, New England, smooth blue, white heath, and white panicled asters; Maximillian and stiff sunflowers; bottle and lesser fringed gentians; and giant, grass-leaved, late, Riddel’s, and stiff goldenrods. If they are lucky, they may even see a Great Plains ladies’ tresses in full bloom.
Photo by Kirk Nelson
Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA) is a 72-mile, 53,775 acre corridor along the Mississippi River. It stretches in the north from Weigh Station Highway Park on US Highway 10 in Ramsey to the Dakota County/Goodhue County border in the south. MNRRA, pronounced “minnra”, is a partnership park, a new and unique kind of national park. Aside from the St. Anthony Falls Visitor Center, Coldwater Spring is the only parcel of land within the MNRRA owned by The National Park Service.
The site that is now Coldwater Springs was formerly owned by the Bureau of Mines. In 2011 and 2012 the buildings were demolished, invasive species were removed, trees were planted, and native plants were seeded. The goal was to restore the oak savanna, 12 acres of prairie, and one acre of wetland.