Prairie Autumn

Sherburne NWR
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A beautiful place to be at this time of year is Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota. It's an easy (and attractive) 60-minute drive from the twin cities of Minneapolis Saint Paul. It's rich in wildlife and fall beauty, and very accessible for visitors who want to explore on foot, with several loop trails of varying lengths to choose from. Between September and February, all refuge service roads are open to foot travel as well, offering even more opportunities for exploration, solitude, and memorable wildlife encounters.

It's been a dry year across much of the country, and Sherburne's normally vivid display of fall prairie wildflowers has been curtailed a bit. The many varieties of goldenrod that paint prairie openings and oak savannas a vivid yellow bloomed early and briefly this year. Still, visitors in October will encounter wild asters, among some other fall-blooming perennials, as well as the changing colors of the famous tall grasses that characterize native prairie. Luxurious stands of switchgrass, big bluestem, and Indian grass—which grow from three to six feet tall—flourish here, and in fall are transformed from their lively summer greens to waving stands of gold, russet, and reds against a bright blue sky. Native shrubs such as dogwood are changing color, and by the middle of the month the red oaks will be blazing. This, says a refuge official, is not to be missed.

October at Sherburne also features a magnificent wildlife event: the annual staging of thousands of sandhill cranes. Preparing for their autumn migration, these statuesque creatures gather, or “stage,” on a secluded piece of refuge ground that is off-limits to give them security. But from the north end of the refuge, a visitor can behold their daily morning departure to area croplands. More than one thousand cranes are part of this yearly event; the morning flights go on for as long as an hour, the enormous pewter-gray birds rising in graceful formations of eight to 18 or more, chattering as they go.

Another marvelous sight at Sherburne is its resident pair of bald eagles. Earlier this summer, a storm destroyed their massive nest. The couple is now actively engaged in reconstruction efforts, and visitors can monitor their progress from a vantage point along the refuge's wildlife drive.

Hiking at Sherburne
Sherburne is as visitor-friendly a refuge as can be found anywhere. Its well-developed network of hiking trails accommodate people seeking a short meander in scenic surroundings as well as more exploration-minded visitors who want a day hike of five miles. The Blue Hill Trail is beautiful at this time of year, looping through oak woodlands, sunlit prairie openings, and skirting the edge of Buck Lake. Rich in wild rice, the lake is a magnet for migratory waterfowl at this time of year.

There's a short loop of 2.5 miles, and a longer five-mile loop. Atop Blue Hill, visitors are treated to a scenic overview of the refuge and adjoining lands.

Along the 7.3-mile Wildlife Drive are three shorter hiking trails, which traverse oak savanna and tallgrass prairie openings. Spotting scopes are located at several points along the Drive, allowing visitors to scout for wildlife.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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