Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Day hike prairie grasslands at Wild River

Trail loops head through restored meadow

The Northwoods is far more diverse than fragrant pine trees and picturesque lakes. At Wild River State Park, hikers can enjoy some of that variety by taking one of two loops through a restored prairie.

Wild River State Park rests upon the St. Croix River in Chisago County and features an all-season trail center. The Amador Prairie Loops start at the trail center.

Autumn wildflowers
A mild summer day is best for the hike because the trail is open to sun. A warm autumn day also is pleasant; in mid-September, asters and goldenrods usually peak, a pretty sight against the tall grasses’ reds.

To reach Wild River, from Amelund take Minn. Hwy. 12 (aka Park Road) east into the park. Past the service road, turn at the first left to the trail center.

Park at the center. At the trailhead, go clockwise, or left/north.

Either loop ranks easy on the difficulty level as they meander through open grassland of big bluestem and Indian grasses with islands of oak savannah. The smaller of the two loops runs for a mile and forms part of the longer trail, which is 2.1 miles long.

Almost extinct
From the trailhead, the path curves northwest for 0.2 miles, where it joins the route to the equestrian trailhead. At that intersection, turn right/north.

A few decades ago, this prairie area almost ceased to exist as farmer-introduced trees and thatch threatened to wipe out the grasses. Controlled burning and annual seed sowing, however, has helped rehabilitate the grassland.

After traveling north for 0.2 miles, hikers have the option of taking a short or a long trail. If you want to make small loop, turn right at the trail intersection and go 0.2 miles across the prairie restoration. At the next trail intersection, you’ll rejoin the larger loop; from there, go right/south for 0.7 miles and back to the trail center.

Along the way, there’s a very good chance that you’ll spot wildlife. Songbirds are prevalent on both prairie loops; May is an opportune time to witness the warbler migration. But white-tailed deer, coyotes, raccoons, squirrels and even black bears sometimes can be seen here as well.

Ancient river's edge
If taking the longer loop, don’t cut across prairie but continue north for another 0.7 miles to the next trail intersection and curve east. Even in a gentle breeze, prairie grass moves and sounds like sea waves as you walk.

The restored prairie, as with the rest of the park, sits upon basalt from 1.1 billion-year-old lava flows. Floodwaters from glacial lakes carved out what is now the St. Croix River Valley and much of the parkland. Look for the bluffs, now sitting far inland, that mark what was the river’s edge some 10,000 years ago.

The longer loop goes 0.5 miles southeast before connecting with Nevers Dam Trail. Continue heading south another 0.2 miles where the path meets the shorter loop’s cut across the prairie. From there, walk 0.7 miles back to trail center.

Dogs are allowed on the trails if on leashes of no more than six feet. Hikers share the loops with riders and as a courtesy should yield and let horses pass.

Read more about day hiking Northeast Minnesota in my Headin’ to the Cabin: Day Hiking Trails of Northeast Minnesota guidebook.