Minnesotans barreled into the outdoors in spring and summer during the throes of COVID-19. Don't expect that to slow in autumn, with its inviting weather and scene.
Below, then, are several ideas as fall unfurls, with an introduction to some outdoors ambassadors who are trying to maintain some normalcy when nothing is normal but the constant of a natural world and its abundant possibilities:
Roll on trails
North Star Mountain Bike Guides has hosted a series of skills programs at Carver Lake, a Woodbury park with a popular trail network in any season. An introduction for families — ages 7 and older — is Oct. 3. The group will be limited to six or seven people because of COVID-19 restrictions. North Star is hoping to add more sessions into October.
Between skills programs at Carver and Salem Hills Park in Inver Grove Heights and private instruction, North Star is busy rolling, said co-owner Tara Reddinger-Adams. The skills programs, which also accommodate skilled mountain bikers, began in early June with strict protocols and haven't let up.
Reddinger-Adams, who also leads rides in Arizona and Utah different times of the year, said the interest in private lessons is unprecedented and hasn't slowed. Reddinger-Adams said she gets five or six inquiries a week. And the interested parties run the gamut: Adults register their kids; road cyclists look for something different; and people return to mountain biking after many years off.
Hike the summits
Guided hikes and volunteer events on the Superior Hiking Trail have been done in, too, by COVID-19. Still, its association has come up with a novel way to keep hikers of all sorts engaged. The 2020 Summit Challenge encourages people to hike, walk or run to at least seven trail summits by Oct. 31. Those inclined can snap a photo and share on social media platforms with #SHTSummitChallenge. People who complete the challenge (and a short survey) receive a button as a memento.
"We've started to hear from folks taking part who've really enjoyed the 'excuse' to get out to lesser traveled sections," said Jaron Cramer, association development and communication director.
The summits are listed on the association's site (south to north along the 310-mile path), from Railroad Vista between the Wild Valley Road and Jay Cooke State Park trailheads to the northernmost 270 Degree Overlook (north of the Otter Lake Road trailhead).
Watch for raptors
The International Owl Center will host nighttime "owl prowl" programs, getting people outdoors in areas near the center in the bluff country of Houston, Minn., to listen and watch for activity. The program is limited to 20 people. Slots fill quickly. The Oct. 3 and Oct. 31 gatherings are sold out. Openings remain for the programs Nov. 28 and New Year's Eve.
The event begins at 5:30 p.m. and starts at the center. Participants drive their own vehicles and follow center staff to about three locations. Cost is $10 for center members, $15 for nonmembers (details at internationalowlcenter.org).
"I have been doing owl prowls [starting with New Year's Eve owl prowls] since I was at the Houston Nature Center — probably at least 15 years," executive director Karla Bloem said in an e-mail. "Normally we hear owls, and if we are super lucky we get to see one. The best owl prowls are usually when it is super cold, clear, and no wind."
Be there for birds
Crex Meadows Wildlife Area in Grantsburg, Wis., is a public lands jewel and a popular, accessible spot for birders and photographers morning and evening, by car and by foot. Amid 30,000 acres of wetland, brushed prairie and woodland is a 2,000-acre refuge.
"We have many ducks migrating through," Lauren Finch said. "Cranes are beginning to congregate in the area [though the largest crane numbers won't be seen until late October], and some of our songbirds and shorebirds are still around."
Finch is an educator with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources at Crex. Its education and visitor center is closed indefinitely owing to the pandemic but is reachable with questions. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 715-641-0406. Camping at the rest area opened Sept. 1 and is first-come, first-served. Fees are waived this fall, but look for the donation box at the rest area. (Restrooms are open.)
Into the open
What are your plans on the third Saturday the next few months — or, really, any day? Belwin Conservancy, a nature preserve spread over 1,300 acres in Afton, has its center and other parts of its natural world open to the public. There are a few options to investigate. The hilly bluff and prairie of Belwin's Stagecoach Prairie area (825 Stagecoach Trail S) has 4½ miles of hiking trails. There also are several miles of trail in an area bordering the Lucy Winton Bell athletics fields. Park at Lucy Winton Bell south of the fields at the bison viewing lot (15555 Division St.) — the bison are on the grounds until the end of September. Like Stagecoach, the trails are open dawn until dusk (keep in mind: dogs on leashes, no public restrooms). On the third Saturdays of the month, Belwin's education center and its trail system are open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Interestingly, the area contains all four of Minnesota's biomes within its boundaries, from tallgrass prairie to deciduous forest, said program director Susan Haugh.
Haugh said the Belwin preserve has seen three times its usual number of visitors since the pandemic began. And now is an ideal time to visit — the fall colors only will intensify as October settles in.
"Everyone relishes being able to get away and be in such beauty and such wild. It's really a stunning place," Haugh said.
The Wild Duluth trail races are back. Well, half of them. In normal years, there is a 100-kilometer beast and 50K race. The Terribly Tough 10K and Harder 'n Heck Half-Marathon would follow the next day. All provided a diet of the beautiful hills around Duluth.
This year, the 100K is canceled because state health guidelines don't allow, among other things, races that are out and back. The 10K also is canceled.
That leaves the 50K (Oct. 17) and half-marathon (Oct. 18). The 50K has filled (250 runners), said race director Andy Holak of Adventure Running, with some openings left in the half, also capped at 250.
It's been a tough year to operate a running business, too, said Holak, who owns Adventure Running with his wife, Kim. They've had to cancel multiple trail-running tours, too, which they've been leading for more than a decade. Normally, they'd have been in North Dakota this time of month on the Maah Daah Hey Trail. Like their race weekend, the Holaks are hoping to salvage one tour this year: to Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks in late October.
"We're having a tough time right now like everybody is," Holak said.
In spring, Adventure Running started day tours in the Duluth area to fill the void, and he is considering a shuttle service similar to what's seen for Superior Hiking Trail hikers to cater to runners.
"When it comes down to it, what's important to me is getting people out and showing them cool places and helping them lead an active lifestyle. We meet so many cool people through this process," he said.
St. Croix Running is staging another year of the Icebox 480 on Nov. 7 in River Falls. Trail runners have eight hours (480 minutes) to rack up as many miles as possible on the 7-mile wooded course.
Paddle for color
The Minnesota Canoe Association has its upcoming fall color outing on the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.
David Shanteau, education and safety director at the association, and his wife have been paddling the St. Croix since 1996. He recommends the riverway — with caution — for experienced paddlers.
"Keep in mind that some routes require precise boat maneuvers and are not passable when the river level is low or may be blocked by fallen trees," he said in an e-mail. "It is still a 'slough' of fun exploring the backwaters."
One top-of-mind trip: upriver from Franconia, Minn. "Paddle upriver along the Minnesota side using the eddies and slower current to where the rock cliffs start. Get out of the boat and follow the trail to the top of the cliffs for a beautiful view. You can then continue upstream above Rock Island and cross over to the Wisconsin side and up into the marsh area. [Then] back to Franconia."
Camping in fall can be so rich (transitioning landscapes) and comfortable (cool, bug-free). And if you go on the state park reservation system website, you'll realize a lot of people think that way — there is nary an availability on a Friday or Saturday. (A) Go midweek, or (B) consider a state forest campground alternative.
That's not to diminish, say, a private campground or a great regional spot in the Three Rivers Parks District, but the state forests fly under the radar and the possibilities are everywhere. There are more than 60 day-use areas and campgrounds. The grounds are a self-managed deal of sorts, with sites first-come, first-served and secured at a pay box. Some forests have multiple sites; some have a few. Most have just the basics (fire ring, picnic bench, vault toilet nearby). You might even have to haul out your trash, but the experience in Minnesota's outdoors is authentic as it comes. Read up online at bit.ly/stateforestcamp, where there are tools to investigate places across Minnesota.