On a recent sun-splashed morning, the parking lot at Whitetail Woods Regional Park in Farmington was all but deserted — and I couldn’t have been more pleased.
I had three hours to kill before an appointment, and I was badly in need of an audience-free nature fix. Confession: If I had my druthers, I would have picked a different destination, like a North Shore state park or a bluff in southeastern Minnesota along the Mississippi River. But given my time constraints, I felt lucky to have a relatively new metro-area park to hike and explore. Besides, I basically had the place to myself, in one of the state’s fastest-growing regions. Not a bad deal at all, I thought, and only 32 minutes away from my front door in Prior Lake.
Opened last September, the 456-acre Whitetail Woods is in Empire Township in the center of Dakota County, one mile north of the Vermillion River. The park’s land, previously farmed and hunted, was bought in 2008 for about $12 million and will be developed during the next few years. Whitetail Woods is the county’s first new park in nearly 30 years.
“The park fills a gap in service for the growing communities of Rosemount, Lakeville and Farmington,” said Beth Landahl, visitor services manager for Dakota County Parks. “It was determined we needed another regional park to serve the county’s growing population base. That said, it’s obviously open to everyone. We hope to attract park enthusiasts from across the state.”
Dakota County has six park units, which includes three regional parks, two park reserves, one county park and three regional trails. “Our entire system gets just over a million visitors annually,” said Landahl, citing 2013 numbers from the Metropolitan Council. “We won’t have specific visitation numbers for Whitetail Woods until 2016, but traffic so far this spring has been pretty heavy, especially on the weekends.”
The first thing that grabs your attention is Whitetail Woods’ topography. The park itself is a diverse matrix of woods, wetlands and prairie that unravels across gently rolling hills. The entire unit feels bigger than it is, in large part because sight lines aren’t always restricted.
“I was surprised by the vantage points — by how open it is,” said Jymie Anderson, an avid hiker from Minneapolis, who visited with her husband earlier this spring. “There are some really lovely views when you’re up higher. We really enjoyed the experience. They’re obviously still doing a lot of work to the property, but it still feels very welcoming. We’ll be back.”
Landahl said 327 acres will be restored to their natural state. That includes removing invasive woody plants and planting trees to fortify the park’s deciduous and coniferous woodlands. Roughly 100 acres of former tallgrass prairie and oak savanna will either be replanted or restored. An $800,000 state grant is paying for the entire restoration, which started this spring.
“For being a relatively small regional park, you can experience a real diversity of ecosystem types,” said Landahl. “It’s a very unique place.”
The park has several features and modern amenities, including 10 miles of hiking trails (with several different and well-marked loops), a large picnic shelter, a nature play area and three, 227-square-foot camper cabins. Resting on elevated concrete stilts, the cabins have the look of modern tree houses. Each unit has full-sized bunk beds, a dining room and an open-air deck, as well as an outside concrete patio, picnic table and fire ring.
“The cabins are extremely, extremely popular,” Landahl said. “It’s hard to get a reservation right now.”
In winter, the trail system will be open for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. There’s also a 53-foot hill for sledding.
From the parking lot, I took the winding and descending paved trail to the base of Empire Lake, which connects to land trails in three directions. I took the wooded loop that skirts the lake, which, on its south end, is connected to a large permanent wetland complex.
The cool, breezy morning kept the gnats at bay, and the bright sunshine felt good on my shoulders. The small, shallow lake is intriguing, not as a fishery (there’s no access to the water) but as a place to spy water birds. As I reached the lake, I wasn’t disappointed. I could hear the telltale call of a hen wood duck — a sure sign of spring. Seconds later, a great blue heron startled me as it took off from the water. Another duck, perhaps a mallard or another wood duck (I only caught a glimpse of it, and it didn’t make a sound) winged by.
The trail, which goes around most of the lake, was muddy and slippery. After 20 minutes, I relented. I turned around and began to hike back to the trailhead. The muddy path, however, provided the perfect canvas on which to inventory the park’s wildlife: I spied the footprints of numerous critters, including deer, turkey, raccoons and squirrels.
Somewhere along the way, I got what I came for: My nature fix. And only 32 minutes from my front door.
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer from Prior Lake. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.