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


9 Responses to “Inside the colorful Big Woods of Minnesota”

  1. Sheila Morris Says:

    Yes, Nerstrand Woods is a wonderful example of what’s left of the Big Woods of Minnesota. Fortunately, we have another smaller example on the edge of Clear Lake in Waseca, MN–Maplewood Park. Residents enjoy the tall, cool forest for walks, and observing birds and plant life. Our Waseca County Historical Society presents the Chautauqua every year in Maplewood Park to draw people in to appreciate our “Big Woods”. If we are successful, this park (and Nerstrand’s) will continue to keep these woods to enjoy what is best about the natural life in Minnesota.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I did not know that about Maplewood Park in Waseca, so thank you for sharing that bit of information, Sheila. Also, although I have not yet attended the Chautauqua event there, it is on my to-do list. That event is typically held around/on July 4.

  2. Emily Says:

    Such great photos, Audrey. Particularly I love the one of the tree-covered lane. I’m a sucker for those kind of shots. Thanks for sharing!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      That tree-lined path was among my favorite images, too. Something romantic about a shot like that.

      I see we were featured co-photographers on Minnesota Blog Cabin this weekend. Good to be in your company with those delightful nature images of yours.

  3. Hi! I recently discovered your blog, and just have to say that your pictures here are wonderful! There is beauty in MN…and not sure in the northern regions! I’m in Worthington, MN – though I did not grow up here. (Why on earth would a person move to Worthington? Only intense and loyal love for a certain fellow!) I am excited to connect with other Minnesota bloggers and I look forward to reading more of your posts!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Gretchen, thank you for stopping by. Did you read my “About” page? I grew up in southwestern Minnesota, thus my blog name, Minnesota Prairie Roots. I love that region of the state, of wide open space and big sky and endless fields and small towns.

      I just gave your blog a quick read and will certainly read it more in-depth. I like your content and writing style. Readers, I would urge you to check out Gretchen’s blog, A Fine Day for an Epiphany.

      • You are so dear! Thanks tons for your recommendation. I did read your “about” and saw that you understand this part of the state! Yes, there is beauty to find here…you just have to look harder than I was used to, growing up in WA / OR as I did, where the beauty jumps out at you. Here it’s more subtle. My husband says that I have to learn to find beauty in shades of brown. I think I’m learning that…but it’s taking me awhile! I’m glad to be in MN…to challenge my senses and find beauty in unobvious places. Probably I ought to blog about that!

        By the way, how embarrassing that I had a typo in the above message I left you. Obviously, you know that I meant, “not JUST in the northern regions”. Good grief!

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        We’re good, Gretchen. As far as southwestern Minnesota, I truly believe that growing up there shaped me as a writer. Because it’s so stark on the prairie, you notice the details in life, in your environment, etc. Just look and you will see the nuances, as I’m certain you are discovering. So glad to have you here in this strong Minnesota writing community, Gretchen.

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