By Jim Umhoefer
Rice County. About 11 miles southeast of Northfield on Highway 246 (follow the signs to the park). Highway map index: K-19.
The mature, dense hardwood forest at Newstrand has always been a place of refuge. Dakota Indians lived and hunted here, and settlers depended on the trees for fuel and building material. Today, people come to the same forest for a different type of refuge. Nerstrand is the last sizable glimpse of the Big Woods, a deciduous forest that once spread over all south-central Minnesota. Growing towns and farms have nibbled at the woods so much that only scattered parcels remain.
The park's 13 miles of hiking trails are popular on weekends, especially when the trees ignite in the reds, oranges and yellows of fall. The busiest trails lead into the hills and valleys behind the picnic/campground area. If you prefer more solitary walking, come back in midweek or explore the less-used trails across County 40.
The hike down to Hidden Falls on Prairie Creek is a treat for the senses. Stop to smell the earthy aroma of moist vegetation. Feel the sponginess of the trail, blocked from the sun by the tall trees. As you descend into the valley, campground and picnic area noise melts into the sound of wind rustling through the leaves. Soon, what you thought was the wind turns into the rushing voice of the waterfall. As you cross the hickory footbridge behind the falls, notice how pitch and tone shift with your position. Close your eyes and let the soothing hypnotic music of the falls pour over you. The air feels warmer as you climb up the valley trail, and the sounds merge from waterfall to wind and back to picnic area.
The park's 56-sites semi-modern campground (28 electric) can be busy during summer, especially on weekends. Reservations are a good idea. Groups that want to reserve the primitive group camp should contact the park office. Nerstrand Big Woods also maintains 13 rustic walk-in campsites.
Winter camping at Nerstrand Big Woods becomes more popular each year. Check with the manager regarding water supplies and other details. The park's thick forest provides a scenic backdrop for winter hikers, who enjoy tromping through snowy valleys and up the steep hillside. Snowmobilers like the woodsy winter scenery, too, and can explore the park's south side on more than 6 miles of trails, some connecting with local branches.