Past an unassuming church parking lot in Long Lake lies an exquisitely picturesque slice of Minnesota wilderness that you might never see in a tourism booklet. Old-growth sugar maples with rings that predate European settlement stretch towards the sky, wildflowers bloom, brooks babble, and marsh grasses twist lazily in the prairie breeze. Further down the path lies a modest lake, twinkling like a sapphire in the sunlight. In the distance, a great egret gracefully pecks its way through the reeds, and a pair of trumpeter swans preen themselves.
This is Wolsfeld Woods, just one of the state’s more than 150 Scientific and Natural Areas, your ticket to beating cabin fever in our climate of social distancing.
Think of a Scientific and Natural Area (or an SNA) as a step between our rich state parks system and untamed wilderness. These areas were set up by the DNR to maintain nature purely for nature’s sake, often as a means of monitoring and rehabilitating rare or endangered flora and fauna. As a result, SNAs seldom feature visitor centers, bathrooms, water fountains, trash cans, or picnic tables. Many don’t even provide well-maintained trails. But with this lack of development comes another crucial element: a distinct lack of crowds. Wolsfeld Woods is one of the more well-known and well-maintained SNAs in the metro area, and even on a gorgeous day, it was exceedingly easy to create social-distancing space between other hikers.
Inner Child, Outer Wilds
Stroll just a couple miles down Wayzata Boulevard past some truly massive houses and you’ll find another SNA marked with even less fanfare, called Wood-Rill. Established in the mid-’90s as a gift from the Dayton family, the steeply rolling hills and ancient trees of Wood-Rill simmer with the kind of sun-dappled magic that transports you back to your first bout of forest exploration as a child.
Let that inner child be a guide as you explore SNAs, because making your own fun is going to be a lot more of a factor here than at the state parks you have visited. All SNAs are public land, but their purpose is not necessarily to entertain. If you’re envisioning hundred-foot waterfalls or glittering beaches, you might want to temper your expectations slightly.
Once adjusted, you’ll revel in a decidedly less goal-oriented experience of the outdoors. There’s no jockeying for the obvious photo op—it’s up to you to notice the splendor all around. Bring a pair of binoculars and scan the tree line for the chance to glimpse a rare and beautiful red-shouldered hawk. Stoop down to capture a photo of that gloriously purple pasqueflower. Find a place where a tree has fallen across a creek and take a seat for a few minutes. Slow your roll, take a deep breath, and let the pungently sweet funk of milkweed overwhelm your nostrils.
Don’t worry too much if you can’t tell your allium stellatum from your geum triflorum, because the DNR’s website contains detailed guides to each and every one of its SNAs. These guides include lists of flora and fauna native to the area, recommendations from the DNR about key features, maps, photos, and sometimes even video previews.
The DNR’s website is also a great place to familiarize yourself with the guidelines and best practices for visiting SNAs. Since many of these sites are home to protected plants and wildlife, etiquette goes far beyond “pack it out, pack it in.” To be as mindful as possible, wear clean hiking gear to prevent the spread of invasive species, and take note of dog or bike restrictions. If you’re visiting an SNA without a maintained trail, step carefully to avoid disturbing the habitat. Treat each SNA as you would a treasured park in your own neighborhood, because that’s essentially what SNAs are: Slices of uncommon natural beauty designated and preserved for all to enjoy.
They remind us that Minnesota is a stunningly pretty place to live and encourage us to slow our pace and examine the joys that are hiding in our own backyards. In a time when we’re all feeling the ache of distance from our loved ones, it can be incredibly therapeutic to rekindle friendship with the outdoors.
Visit Twin Cities Metro Area SNAs
About 25 minutes west of downtown Minneapolis lie two SNAs that are a treat for tree huggers. Both sites serve as excellent examples of the ancient “Big Woods” and feature sugar maples and basswood, some of which are up to 350 years old. Wolsfeld is the more developed and frequently visited of the two sites, but both have maintained hiking trails, and Wood-Rill also abuts the popular Luce Line bike trail.
Rolling prairie hills and scenic Mississippi River Valley views are the main attraction at Grey Cloud Dunes. Admire the plethora of wildflowers as you hike down to the nearly half-mile of river shoreline at the southernmost point of this picturesque SNA.
Just west of the St. Croix Bluffs Regional Park, Lost Valley Prairie features a wide swath of native grasses stretching up to 7 feet tall and wildflowers spread across a series of craggy limestone ridges.
Accessible via canoe and the Cannon Valley bike trail, this site features a gorgeous but ever-changing river environment, so check the water level and plan accordingly. Just remember to stay off of the sandbars, as that’s where the turtles lay their eggs.