By Mpls.St.Paul Magazine / Inspired by Craig Minowa's My North
When Craig Minowa, frontman of the alternative rock band Cloud Cult, wants to write music and be inspired, he doesn’t seek the bustle and bright lights of the city, he retreats to the woods. In the woods—whether they’re around his family’s home in the Driftless region of southeast Minnesota, or the local parkland in his hometown of Owatonna—the true beauty of the world and man’s tiny place in it is unlocked for Minowa, and he can see and think clearly. From Minowa’s boyhood woods to one of the oldest woods in the state, here are five Minnesota forests worth a jaunt.
Thanks to Paul Bunyan, almost all of northern Minnesota’s original forests were felled by the axes and saws of loggers in the 1800s. But thanks to good, old fashioned human error, 40 acres were spared when a surveyor mistakenly plotted them on an 1882 map as wetland instead of forest. Today, the Lost 40 is a collection of downright prehistoric looking, 300-plus year old red pine, white spruce and balsam fir that will give you a whole new perspective on what the Northwoods really was.
Formerly a state forest, this 225-acre municipal park is where Craig Minowa’s love affair with the woods all began. With more than six miles of trails with uses from biking (mountain and regular), to hiking, to cross-country skiing amidst the backdrop of a dense green canopy, Kaplan Woods doubles down by even having its own lake—Kohlmier—within the park proper.
When it comes to Twin Cities naturescapes, Wolsfeld Woods just west of town in Orono might be the metro’s best-kept secret. Even from the mouth of the woods—an anonymous-looking trailhead that shares a parking lot with a church off of Highway 6—you’d have a hard time believing that what lies ahead is 185 acres of deep, dark, old-growth woods. Sadly, Wolsfeld is among the last of the state’s Big Woods, which stretched from Mankato to St. Cloud before being slowly dismantled by progress. While most people hike or mountain bike through the red oaks, sugar maples and American elms, some choose to trek through Wolsfeld on horseback.
When you think of Minnesota forests, sandy swaths of oak savannah intermixed with prairie isn’t typically what comes to mind, but that’s precisely what you get in Sand Dunes State Forest. Five miles outside of Zimmerman, Sand Dunes also has a 2,500-acre pine plantation for the Minnesota forest traditionalist, but if you’re camping at Ann Lake, you’ll feel like you’re in a different world. And, more bonus horse stuff, Sand Dunes even has horse campsites, so you can bed down for the night next to your trusty mare.
Maybe the most complete woodlands in the Twin Cities metro area, Eagan’s Lebanon Hills is known these days for its 10-plus miles of challenging mountain biking trails – but bikers aren’t the only ones who love Leb. Weighing in at nearly 2,000 acres, the heavily wooded park includes eight lakes (and two ponds), 10 miles of horse trails, 19 miles of hiking trails, a nearly 3 mile canoe route and campsites galore.