At one point, bison and prairie were abundant in Minnesota. These days both are a rare sight. But at two southern Minnesota state parks and the Minnesota Zoo, rare bison herds are being reintroduced to roam and graze on native tallgrass prairie—a time traveler's glimpse of what the state once looked like.
Blue Mounds State Park
Down at Blue Mounds State Park in far southwestern Minnesota, one of the world’s last remaining herds of purebred bison roams and grazes in the park’s vast, 1,500-acre tallgrass prairie. While most bison nationwide are descended from cattle/bison hybrids bred by ranchers after bison were hunted to near-extinction in the 19th century, this herd is one of the purest surviving strains of wild bison.
To see the bison, set out for a hike on the Western Loop Trail; visit the bison observation deck and use a spotting scope to view the herd; or, book a spot on the park’s Prairie and Bison Tour—a guided, 90-minute educational drive through the bison habitat.
About 5 miles west of Mankato, Minneopa State Park is home to Minnesota's other free-roaming bison herd. Established in 2015 with a group of 11 bison from Blue Mounds, the DNR estimates that eventually 30-40 bison will live and prosper in the Minneopa bison range. As of 2020, there are 20 bison in the park, including one adult bull (male) who came from Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.
The Minneopa bison herd ranges freely across 331 acres of unbroken prairie, so up-close viewing can be a mixed bag. Bring binoculars if you want to ensure a good look, and head to Bison Drive Road for your best chance to see the animals.
Minneopa is also home to southern Minnesota's largest waterfall, so be sure to check that out while you're here. Follow the trail down the nearby limestone stairway to view the falls from the valley, then make your way up the opposite staircase for an incredible, panoramic view of the whole area.
To see a bison herd without leaving the Twin Cities, head to the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley. The zoo is a key partner in growing the Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd, working with the DNR to manage and grow the state's herd of purebred bison in a controlled environment.
Like all the best things in life, this work is both critically important and extremely cute: The conservation effort includes breeding bison calves, which can often be viewed during the zoo's annual Farm Babies event. All bison calves born at the zoo are released into a Minnesota state park at the yearling age.
Brian Fanelli is a writer and editor for Explore Minnesota. When he isn't writing about life in The North, you'll find him browsing the sci-fi shelves in a local bookstore, biking one of Minnesota's spectacular trails or walking his Chihuahua around Minneapolis.
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