Big Woods forests have become increasingly hard to find in the developing metro region, but Wood-Rill Scientific and Natural Area in Orono delivers a storybook experience year round.
Beloved local Bruce Dayton donated three quarters of this 150-acre preserve to his northern Lake Minnetonka neighbors in the late ’90s. Yep, that Dayton — father of former governor Mark Dayton and one of five brothers who inherited the family’s namesake department stores and founded Target.
The old-growth forest is mostly dotted with sugar maples and basswood, though you can also find box elders, paper birch, Ohio buckeye, dogwood trees, and endangered butternut. It’s estimated to be between 120 and 400 years old; signs dotting its serpentine trails ask visitors to picture themselves as pioneers, hiking through these same woods 200 years ago. It’s a fun thought experiment, and yet another enchanting green space where you can escape overcrowded city lakes and parks.
In addition to the forest, the hilly St. Croix moraine is home to sedge meadows, a 1.27-acre tamarack swamp blanketed with peat moss, and two peaceful little ponds. It’s a good spot for bird watching, too: Yellow-throated vireo and indigo bunting are commonly seen here, and we spied a woodpecker with a red head tap-tap-tapping away.
Though we’re not plant-savvy enough to ID wildflowers as we walk, a greener thumb could have a heyday scouting for garlic mustard, wild leeks, cheerful bloodroot, beautiful Virginia bluebells, and the amusingly named Dutchman’s breeches. (If you don’t know that last one, Google it. The moniker is spot on.)
Wood-Rill Scientific and Natural Area
Old Long Lake Rd., Wayzata, MN; 651-259-5800.