Curious about what Minnesota looked like in pre-settlement times?
Then spend the day hiking through Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park, a botanical reserve for the temperate hardwood forest that once covered much of central Minnesota. Located 45 miles south of Minneapolis, the park offers the opportunity to hike along 11 miles of trails running through one of the last remnants of Big Woods vegetation left in the state.
For an easy 5-mile loop that highlights some of the park’s best features, start at the visitor center located near the main entrance along County Highway 29. Purchase a vehicle pass ($5 daily, $25 annual) and park in the main lot. Cut through the picnic area and pick up the Hidden Falls Trail. Walk a half-mile north to the trail’s namesake attraction. Hidden Falls gives you a rare glimpse of the Platteville Limestone that forms the foundation of the park. Elsewhere, it’s covered by a thick layer of glacier drift.
Leave the crowd at the falls and follow the Fawn Trail, which loops through 1.5 miles of Big Woods. You’ll see over 50 varieties of wildflowers in the spring, including a remnant population of the Dwarf Trout Lily, an endangered plant found only in the park. Head southwest on Beaver Trail for 1 mile until you reach the Oak Bridge. Cross the bridge and trudge up the fairly sizable hill which leads directly into the smaller of the park’s two campgrounds. There are 4 beautiful walk-in sites, 3 spacious group sites and 2 convenient pit toilets. Wave to the friendly campers and continue east on White Oak Trail to return to your car at the park’s main entrance. It will take roughly two hours to complete this route, depending on how often you stop to admire the scenery and how many new friends you make passing through the campground.
The main campground, located on the park’s eastern side near Hidden Falls, has 51 drive-in sites, some with electrical hook-ups. For additional information regarding camping and reservations, go to: http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/nerstrand_big_woods/camping.html