Hiking Nerstrand Big Woods State Park

Nerstrand big woods
Hiking through the dappled sunshine of Nerstrand Big Woods.

It’s hard to imagine a more pleasant day hike on a hot summer’s day than the shady paths of Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. While it doesn’t afford a cool breeze off a nearby lake or river like some parks, it’s a darn close second. And, if you’re in the Twin Cities, like we are, it’s worth an hour’s drive to get to a shady and quiet spot.

Nerstrand big woods hidden falls
The Hidden Falls have been reduced to a Hidden Trickle by the lack of rain the past two months.

From the parking lot, the first trail will take you to Hidden Falls, which is a good place to start. The dearth of recent rain has reduced the falls considerably, but the trade off is all the children who were at the shady grotto were able to kick off their shoes and play in what was left of the shallow stream at the Falls’ base.

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From Hidden Falls, we continued to the north to the Fawn Trail for about a mile, and from there took the optional Hope Trail loop that takes you uphill a bit into a more remote area of the park. The trail is still nicely groomed through the Hope Trail area, but is obviously less used than the Hidden Falls and Beaver Trails that are the Hiking Club basic route.

Our route, including the Hidden Falls path to the Fawn Trail, the Hope Trail loop, and then back via the Beaver and White Oak trails to the parking lot, was about 6.4 miles (10.3 kilometers) and took us a bit short of three hours. We did stop for photos, water breaks, and a snack. The total elevation gain from going up to the Fawn Trail, and then back through the big ravine and back up to the parking lot was about 500 feet.

As I mentioned, it was a very warm day so we decided not to to the “prairie” portion of the park that is the south part of the trails. Those trails will take you through a section of restored prairie. We’ll save that sunnier part of the hike for a cooler day. Maybe this fall. If you include the southern trails, the park has a total of 11 miles of trails.

Nerstrand Big Woods, like most Minnesota State Parks, is busier on the weekends, but if you can manage a trip on a weekday, you might find yourself all alone on many of the park’s trails. In fact, once we got off the trail to the Hidden Falls, the only company we had on the trail were a couple of deer we saw on the Hope Trail in the northwest part of the park. We did hear, but not see, some woodpeckers as well, including one that was working on what was obviously a large hollow tree that yielded a loud deep drumming echo through the forest.

deer Nerstrand big woods
This fellow took a few minutes to get a good look at us on the Hope Trail. And vice versa.

Nerstrand Big Woods State Park is an island of tall trees in what once was the vast oak savanna prairie, and now, of course, is mostly corn and soybean fields. In the park, sugar maple, basswood, oak, hickory, aspen, elm, ash, and ironwood trees provide lots of cooling shade. According to the Minnesota DNR, more than 200 varieties of wildflowers, along with countless varieties of ferns and mushrooms grow in the Big Woods.

While you’re in the Nerstrand area, you should also visit the Carleton College Arboretum for more lovely hiking.
nerstrand big woods canopy
Oh yeah. Don’t forget to look up now and then.

More info from MNTrips

See the list of all Minnesota State Parks, including basic permit information. We also have a list of all Minnesota Historical Society sites. We’re adding our commentary for the park and historical sites as we visit them.

When you plan on hiking or biking the Minnesota State Parks, be sure to download the Avenza Maps app to your phone. The app allows you to download the trail maps for almost every state park, and they are invaluable for navigation, especially because many of the parks don’t have as many directional signs as they should.

Also, if you’re planning on camping at Minnesota State Parks, you’ll need a reservation. Here’s the online reservation form.

Check out our recommendations for what to carry in your hiking day pack when you check out the extensive Minnesota State Park and National Park system.

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Tom Bartel
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