Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Inside the colorful Big Woods of Minnesota October 5, 2011

EVERY TIME I HEAR the words “Big Woods,” author Laura Ingalls Wilder and her book, Little House in the Big Woods, pop into my mind. It’s a natural reflex given my deep love for the Little House books. Think grade school teacher reading the series to her students after lunch and me growing up about 20 miles from Walnut Grove, Wilder’s brief childhood home on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

That all said, Laura was born in 1867 in a log cabin in the Big Woods of Wisconsin some seven miles from Pepin.

I visited the Ingalls’ home site many years ago with my family, when my girls were elementary age and we were deep into reading the Little House series. The Big Woods and cabin are long gone, replaced now by open prairie and a replica cabin.

Yet, only a short drive east of my Faribault home, I can experience the Big Woods at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. I have no idea if these woods are anything like those in Wisconsin in the late 1800s. But I like to think they are.

An informational sign along a trail in Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.

Check out the history section of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website and you’ll find this information about the Nerstrand woods:

“When the first settlers arrived in 1854, they discovered an island of woods in the vast oak savanna prairie which now makes up Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. Sugar maple, basswood, oak, hickory, aspen, elm, ash, and ironwood trees shade the land.”

I spent half my time in the Big Woods looking, and aiming, my camera skyward.

The park boasts a lovely picnic grounds sheltered by trees like this one.

A close-up look at oak leaves changing color.

This time of year those trees flame in fiery hues, making Nerstrand a popular destination for viewing fall colors in Minnesota.

Sunday afternoon, following a fall color drive to the Sogn Valley area in northwestern Goodhue County, my husband and I stopped briefly at this state park just west of Nerstrand. We managed to find a space in a parking lot packed to overflowing in this park teeming with visitors.

If you’re seeking a quiet, people-free escape, you won’t find it here on a weekend.

But you will find a perfect fall experience complete with the earthy scent of decaying leaves; brilliant reds and yellows painted on the cobalt palette of sky; drifts of leaves to plow through; the crisp crunch of leaves beneath feet; a spirit of friendliness among visitors hiking into the Big Woods; a respite from the busyness of life; and an opportunity to savor the fleeting days of autumn in Minnesota.

Everywhere trees provided a colorful canopy of color.

Well-kept and well-traveled paths take hikers deep into the Big Woods.

Along the path, a bursting milkweed pod.

Follow this gravel road west of the park entrance for three miles to Caron Park.

BEYOND THE STATE PARK, there’s more to see at places probably known mostly to the locals:

Follow the gravel road (Rice County Road 88) west of the state park three miles to Caron Park, a 60-acre county park that is a remnant of the Big Woods. You’ll find 1.5 miles of hiking trails here, a lovely waterfall and few people. Late Sunday afternoon we saw a single truck parked in the parking lot.

Nerstrand Meats & Catering, a family-owned business since 1890.

To the east of the park lies the small town of Nerstrand, worth a stop to check out Nerstrand Meats (open 8 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. Monday – Friday and from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. Saturdays), the International Peace Garden at the local charter school, Nerstrand Elementary, and Main Street small-town Minnesota. (Watch for a future post on interesting signage in Nerstrand. Click here to read a previous post about the Peace Garden.)

A snippet of Nerstrand Elementary School and its International Peace Garden.

North of Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, along Rice County Road 30, sit the historic and picturesque 1862 and 1894 Valley Grove churches surrounded by 50 acres of rolling prairie grasses and trees. From high atop this hillside location, you’ll get a spectacular view of the fall colors. You can also hike a prairie path here. (Click here to read a previous post I wrote about Valley Grove’s annual fall country social.)

A view of the Valley Grove churches from the prairie that edges the churchyard.

To assure that you don’t miss out on these color viewing opportunities, I’d highly recommend hopping in your vehicle sooner than later. Leaves are changing and falling as I write and we all know these splendid days won’t last forever in Minnesota.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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