When Minnesotans think of public lands, they’re apt to focus on state parks, state forests, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, other parts of the Superior National Forest, and the mighty Chippewa National Forest in the heart of the north country.

But all around the state in lesser-known pockets of the wild, nature is calling to hunters, anglers, trappers, hikers, birders, nature photographers and adventure-seekers.

Minnesota’s network of 1,400 separate Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) cover a combined 1.3 million acres. And even in an era when national public lands are threatened by attacks against preservation, the state is growing its mosaic of taxpayer-owned WMAs by an average of 7,000 acres a year.

The system has its well-known cornerstones like the Thief Lake WMA, where wild elk roam remnant forests in the far northwest. But many other gems are out there to beckon you. What follows are seven special WMAs identified by Outdoors Weekend with guidance from four regional managers inside Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources.

Sand Prairie

This 700 acres of land in Sherburne County is an excellent place for wildlife observation, nature study and hiking. Common wildlife include: wood ducks, great blue herons and whitetailed deer. Lucky visitors may also observe red-shouldered hawks, yellow rails, Blanding’s turtles, plains hognose snakes, and plains pocket mice. It’s an education-based WMA that features trails, a marsh boardwalk, and an elevated observation deck. Foot travel off the designated trails is encouraged. Unlike the vast majority of WMAs, this one is closed to trapping and hunting except for a special youth archery hunt.

McCarthy Lake

A unique and ecologically important mix of upland and lowland hardwoods, wetlands, brushlands and prairies tucked inside Hwy. 61 along the Mississippi River in Wabasha and Winona counties. These 3,130 acres include delta features left over from an era when the Zumbro River flowed here. Two trout streams empty into the main marsh, Gorman Creek and Snake Creek. The marsh is the most significant place in the world for the rare Blanding’s turtle. McCarthy Lake is part of a blufflands habitat conservation complex that includes four other tracts of huntable, fishable public land.

Dovray and Buffalo Lake Complex

 

Located in Murray County’s historic prairie pothole landscape, here are 1,527 acres of a grassland-wetland system hunted for waterfowl, deer and pheasants. Highlights include five large wetland basins and rolling grass-covered hillsides offering spectacular views of the surrounding landscape. The Dovray complex is a popular destination for bird-watchers and lies within one mile of the Slaughter Slough Waterfowl Production Area. It’s an oasis of nature surrounded by row crop agriculture.

Salt Lake

This 769-acre unit is located on the border of Minnesota and South Dakota in Lac qui Parle County and contains Minnesota’s only alkaline wetland. The water in Salt Lake is one-third as salty as seawater. Salt Lake is a refuge for waterbirds and is recognized as a site with outstanding biological diversity. During the spring and fall migration, large concentrations of waterfowl are present, especially canvasback, making it popular with duck hunters.

Hubbel Pond

Here’s a 3,500-acre preserve in Becker County featuring northern hardwoods, lowland hardwoods, lowland brush, open fields, wetlands, and riverine habitats. The main pool is a semi-permanent wetland of 600 acres with wild rice, 23 miles of shoreline, and eight additional marshes and potholes. This was home to the Hubbell Dam during the logging era when millions of board feet of pine logs were floated down the Ottertail River. Parts are open to hunting, trapping and compatible wildlife uses, but a portion has been designated as a wildlife refuge with restricted uses.

Red Lake

This is the largest WMA in the state with 324,000 acres within Beltrami Island State Forest. But it encompasses 450,000 acres when surrounding private lands, public lands and lakes are considered. This WMA touches Beltrami, Lake of the Woods and Roseau counties, providing an array of wildlife that includes grouse, woodcock, black bears, deer, pine marten, fisher, beaver and other furbearers.

Blackhoof River

Located near Wrenshall, south of Jay Cooke State Park, it is 4,000 acres of aspen and spruce forests dissected by steep river valleys and ravines. Scenic views are abundant, trout flourish in its rivers, and deer hunters converge here in the fall. This WMA has a campsite (by permit), and an extensive trail system with carry-in canoe access to the Blackhoof and Nemadji rivers. Explore remote areas on foot, including some old-growth forest.