Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota

Nerstrand Big Woods State Park

By Jim Umhoefer
The mature, dense hardwood forest at Nerstrand 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. This park is the only place where you can find the endangered Dwarf Trout Lily in the wild.
Nerstrand Big Woods State Park is located about 11 miles southeast of Northfield in Minnesota’s Rice Count

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The Big Woods once covered much south central Minnesota. Today, only pockets remain at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park

The Big Woods once covered much south central Minnesota. Today, only pockets remain

A hike to Hidden Falls makes for a great family outing at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park

A hike to Hidden Falls makes for a great family outing

The Dwarf Trout Lily is one of Minnesota's rarest native plants at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park

The Dwarf Trout Lily is one of Minnesota’s rarest native plants

 

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Trails
The park’s 11 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 and campground area. If you prefer more solitary walking, come back in midweek or explore the less-used trails across County Road 29.

A tranquil Hidden Falls on a quiet day at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park

A tranquil Hidden Falls on a quiet day

The hike down to Hidden Falls along 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 footbridge behind the falls, notice how pitch and tone shift with your position. The air feels warmer as you climb up the valley trail, and the sounds merge from waterfall to wind and back to picnic area.

Soft Sandstone is worn away by water over time and the remaining hard limestone overhangs sometimes collapse into Prairie Creek at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park

Soft Sandstone is worn away by water over time and the remaining hard limestone overhangs sometimes collapse into Prairie Creek

Camping
The park’s 51-site campground is just south of the Hidden Falls on the eastern edge of the park. Three group camps have room for a total of 72 campers and the park also maintains four rustic walk-in campsites.
Wildflowers
Nerstrand is home to a wide variety of spring-blooming wildflowers, including Dutchman’s Breeches, Marsh Marigold, Sharp-Lobed Hepatica, Virginia Spring Beauty and the White Trout Lily. However, the real attraction is the Dwarf Trout Lily, a variant of the White Trout Lily. It only grows here and is on the federal endangered species list.

Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra Cucullaria) at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park

Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra Cucullaria)

White Trout Lily (Erythronium Albidum) at Nerstrand Big Wood State Park

White Trout Lily (Erythronium Albidum)

Virginia Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) at NErstrand Big Woods State Park

Virginia Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)

Sharp-Lobed Hepatica (Anemone Acutiloba) at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park

Sharp-Lobed Hepatica (Anemone Acutiloba)

Marsh Marigold (Caltha Palustris) at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park

Marsh Marigold (Caltha Palustris)

The Dwarf Trout Lily is one of Minnesota's rarest native plants at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park

The Dwarf Trout Lily is one of Minnesota’s rarest native plants

Winter
The park’s thick forest provides a scenic backdrop for winter hikers, who enjoy tromping through snowy valleys and up the steep hillside. Skiers like the woodsy winter scenery, too, and can explore the park’s south side on six miles of trails. Snowshoeing is allowed throughout the park.
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