Nerstrand Big Woods State Park offers a secluded forest for hiking and camping just an hour from the Twin Cities

Images by Lianna Matt

By Lianna Matt

Sometimes it takes the beauty of a place like Nerstrand Big Woods State Park to make you stop and wonder what Minnesota looked like 500 or even 100 years ago. As you hike along, you’re in constant, emerald shade as the trees stretch into dappled canopies above you. Ferns and underbrush cover the ground, only breaking for the gravel-lined hiking path and the creek that leads to a hidden waterfall. Children and adults alike walk on the waterfall’s flat top, looking out to the forest as the water flows smoothly across the stone into a gentle curtain and down to a basin where more families play.

Families play at the bottom of the waterfall while two men look at the view from on top of it in Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.Nerstrand State Park is located just under an hour south of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the perfect distance for a day trip or a weekend camping excursion. The park has open picnic and camping grounds, and the nearby city of Northfield can rescue any first-time and forgetful campers.

While less known around the metro than parks such as Minnehaha Regional Park or Taylors Falls, this gem is one of the last remnants of a forest that grew tall amid the oak and savanna prairies. Nestled within the park’s 2,884 acres are more than 200 varieties of wildflowers, including the endangered dwarf trout lily, that bloom in the spring underneath sugar maples, basswood, oak, elm, ironwood, ash, hickory and aspen trees. With such a protected and secluded area, a variety of birds including seven species of woodpeckers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, indigo buntings and meadowlarks can be seen flitting around, and raccoon, fox and deer are some of the forest residents.

The paths are designed in easy-to-plan loops, and a clearly labeled map is at every crossroad, making hiking or biking easily navigable. In the winter, when snow covers up the gravel and weaves in and out of the tree trunks, most of the summer paths are open for snowmobiling and cross country skiing, too.

Insider's Tip

This park is perfect for hiking with your dog. With the hiking-exclusive trails that stay away from any of the steeper slopes, you can let your dog zig zag its way across the path to explore without any worries. Make sure to bring some water, though. There is a public restroom, pavilion and water fountain in the picnic area and similar amenities in the camping area, but once you hit the trail, you’re in nature!


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