About 45 minutes south of the Twin Cities and nestled in the nook of the Mississippi River is Spring Lake Park Reserve. Incorporated in the Dakota County Park System, this small park offers hikers picturesque views of the Mississippi River Valley. Also known by locals as a “hidden jewel,” this park surprisingly offers very rustic, natural settings similar to Minnesota’s northern woods. With 3 miles of hiking trails, including the Minnesota River Regional Trail, this park is perfect for a quick hike along its bluff-line trails.
What Makes It Great
From the Schaar’s Bluff Gathering Center, there are two loop options to choose from. The south loop is 1.5 miles long and weaves in and out of hardwood forest. Since you are in a river valley, you are traversing above bluffs, which results in occasional step changes in elevation. In this section, the trail stays relatively flat, but there are moments where you will break sweat. Since this trail leads away from the great views of the river, most people don’t hike this portion of the park. So, take advantage of the quiet and appreciate the nature that surrounds you. During the fall and spring migrations, look for yellow-rumped warblers, purple marlins, and robins scavenging for seeds.
To the east of the gathering center, there are 1.5 miles of either paved or dirt trails. There is the Minnesota River Regional Trail, which is a paved multi-purpose trail that bisects the reserve. The MRRT is half a mile and takes you directly to the 1-mile loop that takes you down to the Mississippi River. If you desire a more rugged experience, there is a dirt trail that leads you to the same place. During this portion of the park, a thick stand of maple and oak surround you. Though you lose sight of the river at times, this gives you a great opportunity to see some of Spring Lake’s woodland wildlife, such as white-tailed deer, badger, and red fox. While along the bluffs, look for soaring bald eagles or the elusive red-shouldered hawk.
When you reach the T-intersection, take a left to the northernmost loop trail. This 1-mile loop meanders through hickory and basswood forest, but the more north you go, the more elevation you lose. As you reach the bluffs bordering the Mississippi, the trail parallels the ridgeline. If you want to get a really good view of the Mississippi and Lower Grey Cloud Island, there is a narrow trail that leads down to the river from the northernmost point of the loop. From here one can see the most picturesque views of the river valley and one of the only ways to see Grey Cloud Island, which hosts families of double-crested cormorants.
Who is Going to Love It
Spring Lake Park Reserve is perfect for those hikers looking for a park off the beaten path.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
From April 1st to Oct 31st, Spring Lake Park Reserve is open daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. From November 1st till March 31st, the park is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The park itself is split into two sections: the Schaar’s Bluff Trailhead and the Retreat Center Trailhead. To the east is the Spring Lake Retreat Center and offers a secluded environment, shrouded in red, white, and jack pine. There is also 2.5 miles of hiking trails, 2 of which are within the designated archery area.
If you were looking to hike, it would be wise to focus your efforts on the eastern side of the park at Schaar’s Bluffs. This area has a gathering center with interpretive exhibits that explains what plant and wildlife you may encounter on the trails. The views of the Mississippi from the gathering room are the best in the park. There is also 3 miles of hiking trails that take you through a forest dominated in red oak, sugar maple, basswood, and hickory.