Refuge in the Wild

All you need for a day of summer fun is this wildlife refuge’s sprawling natural landscape.

Image by Tony Cheng/flickr

Choosing my favorite Twin Cities park to spend a beautiful spring day is akin to asking me which of my children I love best. Indeed, it’s near impossible to choose, but since I have to for the purposes of this itinerary I’m going to go with the one closest to home—geographically speaking. I recall my first trip to the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge several years ago. With two youngsters in tow, we embarked on what was to be an adventure-filled geocaching day. New to that stretch of Bloomington (a southwestern Twin Cities suburb), we followed the telltale brown trailhead signs down a steep hill smack dab in the middle of our neighborhood. Little did we know, we were descending into the river valley, and one of the most amazing refuges I have ever encountered. Established in 1976 to provide habitat for migratory waterfowl, fish and other wildlife species threatened by constant development, the refuge is part of a corridor of land and water stretching nearly 70 miles along the Minnesota River, from Bloomington to Henderson, Minn. Imagine: more than 14,000 acres of outdoor playground. It’s well worth a day and then some.

Starting Spot:
For sheer ease of navigation on your first trip, it’s best to start at the refuge headquarters located at 3815 American Blvd., in Bloomington. Ample parking along with an amazing visitor and education center will greet you. Chart your course with the available maps and download GPS instructions to use along the way. Then start walking. If you’re on the western side of Bloomington, you can find my favorite trailhead at 11255 Bloomington Ferry Road (yes, all of the refuge’s parking lots have addresses to assist visitors). Simply park, and if you are on two feet, take the pedestrian bridge directly across the Minnesota River to the trail. If on two wheels (mountain or fat tire), take a left just before the bridge and you’ll find amazing biking trails that could, if followed for about 15 or so miles, lead you east to the refuge headquarters. Hiking is also permitted on that segment of the trail.

All-Weather Activities:
Hiking and biking are the obvious transportation modes of choice for meandering throughout the refuge, which is made up of several “units” that crisscross the 14 counties it calls home. The refuge ranges from urban to rural, dirt trails hugging the edge of the riverbed to paved or concrete stretches ideal for inline skating or biking. Canoeing, boating, snowmobiling, hunting and fishing are all available, depending upon the season. In winter, put your cross-country skis on or pick up a pair of free snowshoes at the visitor center and see parts of the refuge that are inaccessible throughout most of the year.

The refuge is a place where coyotes, bald eagles, warblers and trout live next door to more than 3 million people. So take a break from the concrete jungle on your next visit to the Twin Cities. You won’t be disappointed.

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