Monday, February 9, 2015

Day hikes lead to diverse array of sites in Sandstone, Minn., region

Big Spring Falls Trail, Banning State Park.
Photo courtesy of Minnesota DNR.
The remnant of a historic quarry site, a forgotten island and falls, and Northwoods wildlife await day hikers in the Sandstone, Minn., area.

The small town borders Banning State Park and is near several other public facilities, including state forests, multi-county hiking trails, and a national wildlife refuge.

Located about midway between the Minneapolis-St. Paul and the Duluth-Superior metro areas, Sandstone is easy to reach via Interstate 35.

Among the region’s top trails are:
g Audubon Center Tallgrass Prairie Trail – An unnamed mile-long trail skirts the edge of a tallgrass prairie then cuts through woods on the south side of the Audubon Center of the North Woods west of town. Park at the trailhead on the southside of Audubon Drive just west of the Fox Road intersection.
g Bean Dam WMA hunter walking trails – A 1.8-mile round trip unnamed trail leads to several other hunter walking trails off of 350th Avenue in the Bean Dam Wildlife Management Area west of town in neighboring Kanabec County. The trails offer the chance to see a variety of wildlife, including bear, forest game birds, turkeys, small game, waterfowl, and whitetail deer.
g Big Spring Falls Trail – An island and waterfalls in the Kettle River await hikers on the Big Spring Falls Trail in the section of Banning State Park located south of Sandstone. The sites on the 0.75-mile round trip trail only became visible after the Kettle Dam was removed in 1995.
g Gandy Dancer Trail segments – Day hikers can walk across an old railroad bridge over the St. Croix River at the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and St. Croix State Forest on the Wisconsin border. The Gandy Dancer Trail, which starts dozens of miles south of the state forest, crosses the border into Minnesota at Danbury, Wis., about a mile south of the river for a 0.8-mile round trip.
g Lower Tamarack River Trail – From County Road 173, take the Tamarack Forest Trail to the parking lot for the Hiking Trailhead in the St. Croix State Forest. Walk south, paralleling the Lower Tamarack River; at the second trail junction, turn back for a roughly 4-mile round trip.
g Matthew Lourey State Trail, Churchill Lake segment – From the same parking lot along County Road 173, head north past Churchill Lake for a 3-mile round trip. The trail north of the lake enters wetlands in the St. Croix State Forest.
g Matthew Lourey State Trail, County Road 173 to Campground segment – The Matthew Lourey runs north to south through St. Croix State Forest. Consider parking at the trailhead along County Road 173 and taking it southwest through wetlands to the campground for a 2-mile round trip.
g Quarry Loop Trail – Day hikers can explore the ruins of an old quarry site as walking along a picturesque whitewater river on the Quarry Loop Trail in Banning State Park. At 2.4 miles in length, the Quarry loop offers several historical and geological sites.
g Rice Lake Pool Trail – A variety of wildlife, from eagles and loons to black bear and sometimes even moose, can be seen on the Rice Lake Pool Trail in the Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge southeast of town. The 5-mile round trip trail connects to several other loops in the refuge.
g Willard Munger State Trail, Finlayson segment – In Finlayson, park on Finland Avenue (County Road 60) immediately west of Front Street. Going south on the trail heads past green farmland in summer.
g Willard Munger State Trail, Sandstone segment – West of Sandstone, park in a dirt pull-off along County Road 27 at the County Road 61 intersection. Either direction takes you through wooded areas and past bucolic farm fields.

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