A series exploring the best outdoor experiences in the Twin Cities

The Wild Life

Make tracks with the critters in one of Minnesota’s most active wildlife refuges, with great river views and in-the-city solitude.

The Hike

One of the cool things about a fresh quilt of snow in the woods is trackin’. I always like to find the wayward course of a free spirit chickadee, or tiny dots left behind by a mouse sprinting to the cover of a cattail clump, or so many tracks from deer on the exact same path it looks busy enough for stoplights. Those trails all tell a story, of a search for food, becoming food, building a home, leaving a home. Making my own footprints out there with the wild things is frosty icing on the snowball.

We are altogether a spoiled bunch here in the Twin Cities, with so many inspiring, peaceful, lively, soothing, teaching places to go in our hometown outdoors. The belle of my ball for winter hikes in the city is the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge and connecting network of trails along the Minnesota River in Bloomington. With about 15 miles of trail and hundreds of off-trail acres, this is a great place to play, and it’s a lock to spot all manner of year-round residents out there.

The MVNWR is one of only four urban wildlife refuges in the country, and this one is located along the Mississippi Flyway, attracting more than 200 bird species. Indeed, the refuge is arguably the premier birding destination in the state. Bring your binoculars. A rich mix of habitats from wetland and river, to oak savanna and hardwood forest, makes this area a prolific incubator of dozens of land and water-based wildlife as well.

With the long-awaited opening of the old Cedar Avenue bridge (I call it the New Old Bridge), the trailhead on the Bloomington side is the perfect launch pad for a day out. Pull on your boots or strap on snowshoes and go. Head east from here to the Bass Ponds loop for a 3-mile round trip. Hike west to dense, floodplain forest and rolling bluffland trails and creek crossings. It’s about 3 miles one way to the I35W bridge, and the surrounding woods and river channels are mystical and captivating in winter snow. Irresistible for explorers.

Go follow tracks. Make new ones. Write your own story.
Get there: From MN 77 (Cedar Ave., exit at E. Old Shakopee Rd. and go west to the first stoplight at Old Cedar Ave. Turn left and head downhill for .5 mile to the trailhead on the right.

By Steve Johnson