Big Woods State Park is one of the last remaining nature areas that has been left untouched from the first settlers, which has afforded hikers and backpackers the opportunity to explore this pristine “Big Woods” landscape.
Just south of the sleepy college town of Northfield, there are 1,280 acres of rolling hills, wildflower-filled prairie, and untouched stands of sugar maples, basswood, elm, and ironwood. Nerstrand Big Woods State Park gives backpackers the rare opportunity to explore an environment that was never logged by pioneers. It is also a chance to relive what the landscape was like for the local Native American tribes that once lived in the area.
The park is named “Big Woods” because before the first settlers arrived, there was 5000-acres of century old hardwood forest. After the pioneers settled in the area, trees were harvested and eventually the ancient forest was almost completely stripped away. Luckily, the loggers had the foresight to set-up areas of land that would remain unlogged. It wasn’t until the 1940’s that Nerstrand Big Woods State Park was established so to conserve the century old hardwoods. Now, there are 11-miles of hiking trails that showcase only the best parts of Big Woods State Park.
What Makes It Great
The popular Hidden Falls Trail is a merely .4-miles, but the small waterfall is a must see. It is also the only place in the park where you can see exposed limestone; so make sure to look for straw-yellow lines in the rocks along the creek bed. It is also a good stop-off point because there are 3 different trails that connect from the falls. Cross Prairie Creek Bridge and head west following signs for the Beaver Trail. The trail inclines gradually and the elm and basswood that grow along Prairie Creek radiate an orange-yellow glow. During the spring, look for white dwarf-trout lilies along the creek bed. These rare flowers are only found in three Minnesota counties.
After a mile, take a left at Fawn Trail and you will find yourself in the vibrant red-orange sugar maple forest. With no understory, the carpet of red and yellow leaves below your feet guide you through the most beautiful part of the park. Photos do not do justice to the contrast between the dark-colored maple trunks, which are highlighted by the vibrant leaf canopy. Be mindful that exposed roots and rocks may be hidden under the thick layer of leaf litter below.
From here you have a myriad of options. The Hope Trail takes you through 1.2 miles of prairie that is picturesque during the spring months, the Fawn Trail continues for 1.2 miles back to the falls, and there are even 6 more miles of trails south of the camping area.
Who is Going to Love It
You can choose your adventure at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, which is why this park is perfect for a weekend getaway from the Twin Cities.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
On weekends, the park office is open from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. and the time varies on the weekdays. If the park office is closed, use the honor-system fee box near the entrance to pay for daily or annual permits.
The best time to hit the trails is in early to late October. During this time, the park bursts with color. The sugar maples transition from yellow to a saturated red-orange and the elms turn into a lovely orange-yellow. From the parking lot, there are a myriad of signs pointing you to the many trails available in the park. If you’re planning to backpack, follow the signs going west to the rustic walk-in campsites.