By Jim Umhoefer
Hennepin, Dakota, Carver, Scott, Sibley and Le Sueur counties. About 75 miles, between Fort Snelling and Le Sueur.
The big reason that people are "discovering" the lower Minnesota River Valley is the network of national, state and local recreation lands that extends up the valley from Fort Snelling State Park to the city of Le Sueur. The Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, a 34-mile urban greenbelt from Fort Snelling to Jordan, and the Minnesota Valley State Trail form the bulk of this complex.
The Minnesota Valley Trail, when completed, will link a series of national wildlife refuge units, local recreation areas, and state park units stretched along 75 miles of the lower Minnesota River. Only the portion of the trail system from Belle Plaine to Chaska and Shakopee (20 miles) is currently completed. Eventually 24,000 acres of flood-plain marsh, grassland and woodland will be included within the refuge, recreation area and state trail.
The refuge portion of the area is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with two main objectives: to provide habitat for a diversity of plants and animals, and to provide opportunities for people to observe and learn about the valley's wildlife. The recreation area is managed by local and county governments and by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The Minnesota Valley State Trail is also managed by the state DNR.
The river valley was carved over 11,000 years ago by the torrential waters of Glacial River Warren. At the close of the ice age, the glacial river receded, leaving a broad valley and the much smaller, meandering Minnesota River. The lower portion of the river and valley contains seeps, springs and creeks. These emerge from the bluffs to be impounded by natural levees along the river channel, creating fertile marshes that have attracted wildlife and people for centuries.
Muskrat and beaver inhabit the valley lowlands, and thousands of songbirds and waterfowl rest here on their annual migrations. About 250 bird species have been sighted in the Minnesota River Valley. More than 150 species nest here, including owls and wood ducks, which live in the cavities woodpeckers have drilled out of dead trees. Warblers, common egrets, and double-crested cormorants are a few of the other birds you might observe.
The hillside and bluffs support oak groves and prairie remnants. Trails that hug these hills provide hikers with sweeping views of the river valley. Other trails parallel the riverbanks, shaded by giant cottonwoods, basswoods, and silver maples. Beaver cuttings can be seen from the river trails, and soft-footed visitors might spot deer browsing in the bottomlands.
The Minnesota River is a state-designated canoe and boating route. Accesses and campsites abound between Le Sueur and Fort Snelling State Park, where the river meets the Mississippi. The safest and most interesting stretch of river to canoe is from Le Sueur to Shakopee (commercial barges navigate the river below Shakopee). Fishing is popular on the river, but anglers should consult Health Department guidelines before eating any of their catch. Although walleye, northern and smallmouth bass are sometimes taken, carp and other rough fish are more common.
From horseback riding to cross-country skiing, the outdoor fun in the Minnesota River valley lasts all year. The varied units of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Recreation Area and State Trail feature multi-use trails and facilities, reflecting the changing nature of the river corridor. As you head upstream from Fort Snelling, the valley changes from urban to rural landscapes with the federal state and local units interspersed between the river communities.
The seven management units that form the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge are spaced along the Minnesota River between Fort Snelling and Jordan. Make the distinctive visitor center your first stop (4101 E. 80th St. in Bloomington; follow the refuge signs off of Highway 494). Outside, walk to the end of the deck for a scenic view of Long Meadow Lake.
The Long Meadow Lake unit includes 2,200 acres of marshes, fields, hardwood forested bluffs, and bottomlands. Black Dog Lake is owned by the Northern States Power Company but is leased by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Cooperatively managed by NSP and the refuge, this area is a good place to observe migrating waterfowl and native prairie.
Bloomington Ferry was the site of one of the first Minnesota River crossings. This unit's 380 acres contain lush flood-plain forests and wetlands between the river and the nearby bluffs.
The newest unit of the wildlife refuge, Wilkie-Rice Lake, contains exceptional wetlands. Part of it is closed seasonally to protect a great blue heron nesting area.
Upgrala derives its name from Upper Grass Lake, one of two lakes in the unit. Upgrala's 2,400 acres of lake, marsh, fields and forested riverbanks lie below the Eden Prairie bluffs and can be seen from Highway 169.
Chaska Lake nestles in the flood plain between the river towns of Chaska and Carver. The 580-acre unit consists of an open-water, marsh-edged lake surrounded by farmland and flood-plain forest.
Louisville Swamp is a 2,400-acre mix of marsh, bottomland hardwoods and oak savannah with an 8-mile network of hiking and cross-country ski trails.
The Minnesota DNR also maintains seven management units in the Minnesota Valley. Fort Snelling State Park, located at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, maintains extensive recreational facilities (including a swimming beach on Snelling Lake), as well as interpretive programs at the park's Pike Island Interpretive Center. Pick up park maps at the contact station.
The Gifford and Nyssen Lakes units contain a bottomland forest, meadows, marshlands and shallow lakes. Trail access and parking is provided for hiking, horseback riding and snowmobiling. A trail crosses the Minnesota River on a historic railroad swing bridge. At Carver Rapids, you can see a prairie restoration project as well as bottomland forest and wetland areas. Water, shelter, picnic area and primitive campsites are provided. Trails connect with the neighboring Louisville Swamp Unit (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), passing historic sites such as the Jabs Farm. Thompson Ferry is a day-use area for picnicking and fishing. Visitors also have access to the river and the river trail.
Headquarters for the Minnesota Valley State Trail is in the Lawrence Unit, between Jordan and Belle Plaine on County 57, just north of Highway 169. Camping facilities include a secluded 25-site rustic campground (no showers or hookups), eight walk-in campsites, a canoe campsite, an equestrian campground and a primitive group camp (call headquarters for reservations). From the trail center, you can explore the river valley on 22 miles of marked trails for horseback riding, mountain biking, and hiking. The Lawrence Unit contains the only remaining building from the 1850s town of St. Lawrence. Try fishing at Beason Lake near the Quarry Campground or on the Minnesota River (public access is 2 miles north of Jordan on County 9).
The Rush River Unit is a favorite spot for family picnics and outings. This 300-acre wooded site with rolling hills next to the Rush River is one of the most scenic locations in the Minnesota Valley.
There is so much to see and do in the Minnesota Valley region that several seasons may pass before you've sampled most of its units and attractions. No rush, though. The Minnesota River keeps a slow, steady pace, and it will still be there for you when you return.