Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge is an urban oasis

  • Article by: TORI J. MCCORMICK , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 16, 2013 - 11:51 AM

Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge is a getaway for all seasons. To get up close and personal, bring a spotting scope or a good pair of binoculars. You won’t be sorry.

view larger photos



The broad-shouldered fish — a carp of considerable vintage — didn’t inhale my fly as much as he rolled it around his mouth, a midmorning inspection that, in fly-fishing time, played out far too long.

“Eat it,” I said softly under my breath, my feet wedged between the riprap anchoring the west face of Jabs Dike, less than a half-mile as the crow flies from the Minnesota River between Jordan and Chaska.

What I remember most about that morning a year ago was not my line going taut or the Achilles of freshwater fish schooling me and finally breaking me off. It was that I was completely alone and fully immersed in nature, in one of the metro area’s fastest-growing regions. Civilization seemed very, very far away.

Welcome to the 2,600-acre Louisville Swamp Unit of the 14,000-acre Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, an outdoor oasis within a larger outdoor oasis. Hugging the Minnesota River across several counties, cities and townships, Minnesota Valley meanders roughly 70 miles — from Henderson to Bloomington — and is an urban getaway for hikers, bikers, wildlife-watchers, photographers, cross-country skiers, hunters and big-fish-obsessed fly fishers. Simply put, it’s a refuge for all seasons.

Established in 1976 to provide habitat for migratory waterfowl and one of the country’s largest urban refuges (the visitor center in Bloomington sits in the shadow of the Mall of America and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport), Minnesota Valley is also interspersed with additional “conservation” lands (mostly state and private), forming a near-contiguous “green corridor” of managed landscapes: tall grass prairie, oak savanna and flood plain forest, with various wetlands and fens sprinkled throughout.

“The refuge is respite for people who want to get away from the hustle and bustle of urban life,” said Beth Ullenberg, visitor services manager with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Minnesota Valley. “It’s a truly wild place surrounded by urban and suburban development, which makes it rare. For most people, the refuge is place to find solitude and reconnect with nature.”

I grew up in Shakopee, along the Minnesota River, my home waters, and have spent countless hours exploring the refuge, especially its Louisville Swamp Unit. On a recent late-afternoon hike there, beneath a blanket of blue ski and temperatures hovering near 75 degrees, the gravel parking lot was lonesome (one car) as I hit the trailhead on what turned out to be a two-hour hike. I wanted to get beyond the pavement, and badly, and the unit’s 13 miles of trail allows for just that. In fact, for the uninitiated, you may even get lost. Been there, done that.

A mile into my hike, and to illustrate that everything in nature is constantly becoming, I came to the aforementioned Jabs Dike, which was (shockingly) impassable, thanks to a steady torrent of spring and early-summer rains. No matter. A wader-clad fisherman stood in thigh-high flood water and cast for fish as birds by the hundreds — on the water and in the air — paid him no mind and coexisted peacefully, nature’s version of détente.

It’s still summer, but shorebirds are already starting to flock up for their mass exodus south. In fact, in the coming weeks, The Swamp will transform into a birder’s paradise, with thousands upon thousands (songbirds, raptors, waterfowl, including tundra and trumpeter swans and sandhill cranes, if you like the big birds) resting and feeding before winging south to balmier climes.

My advice: To get up close and personal, bring a spotting scope (which I prefer) or a good pair of binoculars. You won’t be sorry.

Minnesota Valley has eight “developed” management units (with trails, parking lots and other infrastructure) and two smaller undeveloped units. Some, but not all, allow for hunting; check Minnesota Valley’s website for details: www.fws.gov/refuge/Minnesota_Valley/.

For many, the refuge is a godsend because it provides hunting access for white-tailed deer, turkeys, waterfowl and small game, in a congested and growing region where open space is limited and shrinking rapidly. “The refuge is always open, and that’s important for guys like me who don’t have access to private land,” an archery hunter told me last year, a portable deer stand strapped to his back. “I’m grateful I have a place so close to home.”

In high school, my friends and I would occasionally forgo our liberal arts education and hunt ducks on the refuge between Shakopee and Bloomington. We called Minnesota Valley our “open-air classroom,” a living museum to learn the ways and means of waterfowling. Believe me. We spent many mornings there and learned plenty.

But if I had my druthers, there’s no other wild place in the metro area (or perhaps anywhere) I’d rather spend a day — spring, summer, winter or fall — than Louisville Swamp, hiking amid the oak savanna, a rare ecosystem of scattered oaks above a lush layer of prairie grasses and wildflowers.

If you have freedom on your mind and a need to find solitude in the extreme, a hike through The Swamp will clear your head and reconnect you to nature. And it won’t cost you a dime.

Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer living in Prior Lake. Contact him at torimccormick33@gmail.com.


  • related content

  • Running at a glacial place: Wisconsin's Ice Age Trail

    Friday August 16, 2013

    Not unlike the Appalachian Trail, this partly finished public greenway follows the terminal moraine of the last glacier, showcasing the incredible landscapes left behind.

  • Cabin Country: The Otter Tail mail

    Friday August 16, 2013

    When I was 2 weeks old, my parents brought me to Otter Tail Lake for the first time. My grandfather owned a cabin there, and my parents had already spent...

  • Todd Shanafelt and his children, Audrey and Sidney, looked out from the observation deck at the Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge.

  • Flowers along the State Trail Access Trail at the Louisville Swamp Unit, Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge.

  • Flowers bloomed in the rainwater gardens infront of the Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge.

  • Interior of the Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge.

  • Flowers bloomed in the butterfly gardens in front of the Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge.

  • Flowers bloomed in the rainwater gardens in front of the Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge, not far from office building and hotels in Bloomington.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

Click here to send us your hunting or fishing photos – and to see what others are showing off from around the region.


Oakland - J. Lester 7:07 PM
Kansas City - J. Shields
New England 14 FINAL
Kansas City 41
Minnesota 10/2/14 7:25 PM
Green Bay
Buffalo 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Chicago 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Cleveland 10/5/14 12:00 PM
St. Louis 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Atlanta 10/5/14 12:00 PM
NY Giants
Tampa Bay 10/5/14 12:00 PM
New Orleans
Houston 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Baltimore 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Pittsburgh 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Arizona 10/5/14 3:05 PM
Kansas City 10/5/14 3:25 PM
San Francisco
NY Jets 10/5/14 3:25 PM
San Diego
Cincinnati 10/5/14 7:30 PM
New England
NY Islanders 6:00 PM
NY Rangers 6:00 PM
Ottawa 7:00 PM
Carolina 7:00 PM
St. Louis
Tampa Bay 7:30 PM
Colorado 8:00 PM
Los Angeles 9:30 PM
San Jose
Fla Atlantic 10/2/14 6:00 PM
UCF 10/2/14 6:00 PM
Arizona 10/2/14 9:30 PM
(2) Oregon
Louisville 10/3/14 6:00 PM
San Diego St 10/3/14 9:00 PM
Fresno State
Utah State 10/3/14 9:15 PM
(18) BYU
(6) Texas A&M 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(12) Miss State
Ball State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Iowa State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(21) Oklahoma State
Marshall 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Old Dominion
Southern Miss 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Middle Tennessee
(20) Ohio State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Purdue 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Florida 10/4/14 11:00 AM
SMU 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(22) East Carolina
Virginia Tech 10/4/14 11:30 AM
North Carolina
Eastern Mich 10/4/14 1:00 PM
North Texas 10/4/14 1:30 PM
Massachusetts 10/4/14 1:30 PM
Tulsa 10/4/14 2:00 PM
Colorado State
New Mexico 10/4/14 2:30 PM
TX-San Antonio
(3) Alabama 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(11) Ole Miss
(14) Stanford 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(9) Notre Dame
(17) Wisconsin 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Navy 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Air Force
(7) Baylor 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(4) Oklahoma 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(25) TCU
Wake Forest 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(1) Florida State
NC State 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Buffalo 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Bowling Green
Ohio U 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Central Mich
Oregon State 10/4/14 3:00 PM
Vanderbilt 10/4/14 3:00 PM
(13) Georgia
Kansas 10/4/14 3:00 PM
West Virginia
Kent State 10/4/14 4:00 PM
Northern Ill
South Alabama 10/4/14 5:00 PM
Appalachian St
Texas-El Paso 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Louisiana Tech
(15) LSU 10/4/14 6:00 PM
(5) Auburn
UAB 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Western Ky
Texas Tech 10/4/14 6:00 PM
(23) Kansas State
Michigan 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Hawaii 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Toledo 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Western Mich
ULM 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Arkansas State
Georgia State 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Idaho 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Texas State
Memphis 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Arizona State 10/4/14 6:30 PM
(16) USC
So Carolina 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Pittsburgh 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Miami-Florida 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Georgia Tech
(19) Nebraska 10/4/14 7:00 PM
(10) Michigan State
UNLV 10/4/14 7:00 PM
San Jose St
Ga Southern 10/4/14 7:00 PM
New Mexico St
California 10/4/14 9:30 PM
Washington St
Utah 10/4/14 9:30 PM
(8) UCLA
Boise State 10/4/14 9:30 PM
Winnipeg 10/3/14 6:00 PM
Calgary 10/3/14 9:00 PM
Edmonton 10/4/14 3:00 PM
Brt Columbia 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters





question of the day

Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?

Weekly Question