Located about an hour south of the Twin Cities, Nerstrand Big Woods State Park features one of the last remnants of Minnesota’s Big Woods, preserving the ancient maple-basswood forests that are characteristic of pre-settlement Minnesota.
With its historic landscape, picturesque waterfalls, stunning spring wildflowers, and miles of trails for year-round recreation, Nerstrand Big Woods State Park has something to attract every type of visitor. Hikers will enjoy exploring the park’s 11 miles of hiking trails. Wildflower enthusiasts will revel in the spring blooms from over 50 varieties of wildflowers, including those of the endangered dwarf trout lily. Birders will appreciate trying to spot some of the many migratory and nesting birds in the park. Visitors of all ages will love gazing at the Hidden Falls Waterfall that is located just a short hike from the park’s Visitor Center. In the snowy winter months, winter adventurers can hop on skis, snowshoes, or snowmobiles to traverse the park’s many miles of snow-covered woods.
Guests who plan to stay overnight at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park can take advantage of the park’s campground which offers a mix of electric and non-electric sites. Be aware that the park experiences the cold and snowy winters that are typical of Minnesota, so the campground is open only from April until mid-October. However, the park remains open for day-use recreation year-round.
Located about an hour south of Minneapolis and several miles off the highway, Nerstrand Big Woods State Park is a fairly quiet and secluded park. Many of the roads approaching the park are dirt and gravel, so visitors should be prepared to go slow and navigate some tricky conditions to reach the park in a rig.
Inside of the park, the roads continue to be challenging with some narrow interior roads having tight turns and possible scraping branches. While the campground can accommodate sites of up to 70 feet long, some of the sites are more difficult to back into. Visitors with larger rigs should be careful when making reservations and select the site that is best suited for their rig.
Guests can plan to park their rig at their campsite or in overflow parking areas within the campground, near the Visitor Center, and by the amphitheater and picnic areas.
Nerstrand Big Woods State Park has one main campground that offers 51 campsites. Most of the sites are back-in only, though one site is pull-through for easier access. The campsites are fairly close together and some of the back-in sites have a tighter fit. Campers will want to be sure to check the site description before making a reservation. Each of the campsites includes a picnic table, grill, and fire ring. Visitors should also be aware that only 27 of the campsites have electrical hookups. The rest are primitive campsites with no hookups of any kind. Most sites can fit rigs up 60 feet long, but a few have pads as long as 70 feet.
Guests can obtain water at any of the water spigots located throughout the campground. Other campground amenities include restrooms, showers, overflow parking, a playground, and a dump station located near the entrance of the campground. The campground is pet-friendly, but pets must be kept on a leash at all times. It is important to note that the campground is seasonal and closes in the winter. Likewise, the restrooms, showers, and dump station are only open for use during the summer season. Be aware that though the campground opens in April, showers and restrooms are not available until May.
In addition to the main campground, Nerstrand Big Woods State Park offers guests four walk-in campsites that are dedicated to tent-only camping. These primitive sites are located just a short walk from the parking lot and are inside of the forest, resulting in them being completely shaded. Campers can set up their tents on the wood chip pads and enjoy a relaxing night out under the stars. Each site includes a picnic table and fire ring. All of the walk-in sites are pet-friendly.
Not far from the walk-in campsites is a small campground with three different sites that are dedicated to group camping. These sites can accommodate 16, 24, and 32 people respectively. All of these sites are partially shaded by large trees and include a picnic table and fire ring. Campers who are staying at the group site are not permitted access to the main campground showers or restrooms. However, primitive toilets are provided inside of the campground. The campground is pet-friendly.
Visitors eager to stretch their legs and explore the “Big Woods” landscape at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park by foot will be happy to learn that the park features around 11 miles of hiking trails. For a mid-length, easy stroll, visitors can hop on the one-mile, one-way Big Woods Trail which takes hikers through the park’s tallest and straightest Big Woods trees. For a longer, more challenging trek, experienced hikers can check out Prairie Trail, a nearly five-mile loop that winds through the steep hills and features native flowers and grasses.
One of the most popular features at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park is Hidden Falls, a small waterfall along the Prairie Creek which flows throughout the park. The Hidden Falls Waterfall is located about halfway along the one-mile loop known as Hidden Falls Trail. This trail takes visitors through stunning vegetation that changes with each season. Guests will also pass by benches where they can rest for a moment and take in the beauty around them. Interpretive signs are posted along the trail and offer more information about the area.
Nerstrand Big Woods State Park is a wildflower enthusiast’s dream. The park is home to over 50 varieties of wildflowers. Visitors should definitely be on the lookout for the dwarf trout lily, a federally-listed endangered wildflower. Hepatica, bloodroots, and Dutchman’s breeches are all present as well. While these wildflowers can be spotted in many areas throughout the park, visitors can easily find incredible spring flowers on the Hidden Falls Trail where a boardwalk and stairs lead visitors through dwarf trout lily colonies.
Visitors who are brave enough to face the Minnesota winter and make a trip to Nerstrand Big Woods State Park in the off-season are in for a treat. Once snow hits the ground, the park becomes a haven for winter recreation. Snowshoeing is allowed in most areas of the park, except for designated sections and groomed trails, which are reserved for snowmobilers. To make this activity more accessible, the park offers snowshoe rentals at the park office so that even those who don’t bring their own snowshoes will be able to take advantage of the park’s many miles of snowy terrain that are just waiting to be explored.
A great way to explore Nerstrand Big Woods State Park in the winter is on a snowmobile. During the snowy winter season when many of the park's usual activities are not available, the park opens up four miles of trails to snowmobilers. These trails are reserved specifically for snowmobiling, so guests don't have to worry about running into any skiers or snowshoers on the trail. Eager visitors can take their snowmobile through this Minnesota park’s snow-covered sugar maple and elm forests for a cool, brisk tour. Plan to make it a winter visit and stay a while to enjoy the added tranquility of the off-season.
Birdwatching enthusiasts will be amazed at the number and variety of birds that can be spotted at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. The park provides plenty of woodland habitat for nesting birds who can be seen year-round as well as migratory species who are only in the park for a short season.
Visitors will definitely want to obtain a copy of the park's "Bird Checklist" from the Visitor Center. This checklist provides an extensive list of all the different bird species that can be found in the park and a classification of how often they can be seen during each season. Additionally, the park office provides binoculars and bird identification kits which visitors can check out before heading out onto one of the many park trails in search of elusive bird species.