Photography by Luke Daniel Photo: http://lukedanielphoto.com/
We were looking for a Sunday afternoon getaway, but only had a few hours to spare. Luke suggested a hike through Grey Cloud Dunes Scientific and Natural Area located in Cottage Grove. He first came across it while trying to find a legal place to photograph a nearby oil refinery. Google Earth revealed a large patch of green and he decided to check it out. What he found was a sand and gravel prairie that swept up into 20-foot-tall sand dunes along the banks of the Mississippi River.
Despite our projected Laura Ingalls Wilder image, intact prairies are a rare thing to find in Minnesota today. Grey Cloud Dunes Scientific and Natural Area is not only a large, intact prairie system, it’s located within the Twin Cities metro. The arid soil is home to a number of unique plants and animals, including rare sea-beach needlegrass and the North American blue racer – a snake not commonly found in Minnesota.
The SNA has no marked or maintained trails, but there are a few well-worn footpaths to help guide you through the tall grass. We started out from the south parking lot and headed west toward the railroad tracks. These are active tracks and it’s considered trespassing to cross them. There’s a tunnel that runs underneath the tracks in the northwest corner of the SNA that takes you safely to the other side.
We spent some time in the wooded southwest corner of the SNA where tall grasses are replaced by tall oak trees. We followed another trail north along the banks of a little lake and found the tunnel running under the tracks. Once we crossed under, the trail turned north and took us back up into the dunes. The ascent is gentle – climbing 110 feet over a half mile – but sandy, so decent footwear is recommended. A little side trail took us to the very top of the bluff, where we found a wide utility road running alongside working farms. The view from here is incredible. You look out over the dunes, the tracks, the lake and the neighboring golf course. The refinery lines the horizon like the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. This road led us back to the parking lot, completing our loop of the SNA.
- Address: 7501 110th St S, Cottage Grove, MN 55016. About a 30-minute drive from South Minneapolis.
- Total distance: Approximately 3 miles.
- Cost: $0. No entrance or parking fees.
- Parking: There is a lot located on the northwest side of the park and one located on the southeast side.
- Gear: Good walking shoes – flip flops are not real footwear. Long pants – the tall grass can be sharp and full of ticks. Sun protection – there’s minimal coverage, so you will be exposed to the elements. Only you can prevent sunburns.