3815 American Blvd E, Bloomington, MN 55425
For breadth of habitat and diversity of wildlife within arms reach of a major metropolitan area, you’d be hard-pressed to match the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, which covers a staggering 70 miles of preserved land held in trust for public use. Running along the Minnesota River from the very urban city of Twin Cities Metro area to the more rural Henderson, Minnesota. It’s so large, in fact that the refuge is broken into several units along the river. Far too large to cover in one article, we’ll be focusing on the most popular unit, the Long Meadow section in Bloomington, which is 2400 acres on the banks of the Minnesota River. How easy is it to get to? It’s right across from the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport on Interstate Highway 494, and a short drive, down the street from the Mall of America.
Once you arrive in the parking lot, you’ll see the large and robust visitor center for this portion of the Refuge, which has lots of information, both about the history of the park and current wildlife activity, as well as activities for families, including displays about the habitat, the flora and fauna that call the park home, and the trail system that runs through it. An active bird feeding station on top of the bluff is great entertainment and not only attracts chickadees, pileated woodpeckers and cardinals, but also brings flocks of wild turkeys who lazily browse on the seed, aware that the humans on the other side of the glass won’t bother them. Away from the feeds, there are also Bald eagles and red-tailed hawks that cruise the bluffs. If you have a pair of binoculars and keep your eyes peeled, you’ll be able to see some of the eagle nests down in the cottonwoods below the bluff. If you are wandering the trails at night you have a chance to hear coyotes and barred owls.
The Long Meadow Lake is a beautiful example of a floodplain forest and earns its name in the spring and fall as birds use the river as a migratory corridor. The region positively explodes with bird species using the area both as a birding highway and a spot to use as a temporary home on their journeys north and south. But the Refuge also has a wonderful diversity of habitat, including The wetlands and ponds that birders and other nature lovers enjoy to walk along, made simple with the elaborate network of trails. All in all, there are eleven miles of trails in this part of the Refuge. Make sure to consult a trail guide and posted signs while you’re out, as some trails are pedestrian only, but others are shared with bike riders, and during the time of year when foliage is in bloom, visibility around corners and over hills can be restricted.
A big highlight at this destination is the shared bike and pedestrian trail across the renovated Cedar Avenue Bridge, an absolutely gorgeous view which was recently reopened for public use. The bridge straddles a part of the river that’s otherwise untouched by civilization, and offers a wonderful vantage point for seeking waterfowl or simply drinking in the beautiful vistas. If you’re birding by bike, you can use it to cross the river and head into nearby Fort Snelling State Park. On foot? You can walk to look down into the refuge to spot waterfowl, herons, egrets and rails. In recent years, Sandhill cranes have been spotted, and have even attempted to nest in the area. Following the trail further will take you to the Bass Ponds, a site rich with breeding birds in the summer including warblers, orioles, grosbeaks, tanagers and vireos. During spring and fall migration you get all kinds of waterfowl, kingfishers, winter wrens and even shorebirds.
As most of the trails are dirt, accessibility can be limited due to weather conditions and flooding. Also keep in mind that the trails aren’t cleared in winter, and may be icy. The good news, though, is that once there is six inches of snow on the ground, the Visitor Center has snowshoes in both adult and child sizes that can be checked out, for free. Pets are allowed inside the refuge, but must stay on the trail and be leashed at all times.
The Visitor Center features a wealth of programs, including regular bird walks by Bass Pond, as well as photography workshops and guided family hikes. If you have children, they can check out a “Let’s Go Outside” backpack at the Visitor Center, free of charge, which includes kid-friendly tools to help them explore and enjoy nature, such as a magnifying glass, bug jars, and binoculars. The refuge’s website also features several activities for kids that you can download before you get to the park, including a trip journal, a guide for interpreting the different kinds of animal signs you might encounter, and a checklist for birdwatching.
The Visitor Center also participates in the Junior Duck Stamp Program with an educational course appropriate for all students, K-12. While learning about the wildlife in the habitat, students are guided to turn that knowledge into artwork, eventually becoming an entry in the Junior Duck Stamp Contest.
Access to the park is free of charge, however, they do issue passes at the Bloomington location, which can be used at other federal locations that do. If you’re planning on purchasing a pass, however, please be aware that they accept only cash or checks.
Wildlife to Watch
Muskrats, Beaver, River Otters, White-tailed Deer, Coyotes, Raccoons, Wild Turkey, Bald Eagles, Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Sandhill Cranes, Snapping Turtles, Indigo Buntigs, Scarlet Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Virginia Rail, Sora, Yellow Warbler, American Redstart, Common Yellowthroat, Belted Kingfisher, Great Horned Owl,
The refuge has several units and two visitor centers. The easiest one to get to the Bloomington location in the Twin Cities metro area and is even accessible by using the light rail transit system in the Twin Cities. If you have a long layover at the International Airport, it’s an easy visit using the light rail transit system.
Hours for both of the visitor centers shift throughout the year, make sure to call ahead to the refuge if you wish to go into the visitor center at 952-854-5900
Basic Written Directions
To the Bloomington Visitor Center
Use highway 494 and head towards the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport and take the 34th Street exit. Head south to American Boulevard and turn left. Follow American Boulevard to the entrance of the parking lot.
To the Rapids Lake Visitor Center
Take Highway 212 west to Jonathan Carver Parkway exit going south. Follow that to Rapids lake road and turn right. That will take you directly to the parking area.
United States Fish and Wildlife Service
Visitor center, Wheel-chair accessible, bathrooms, gift shop, picnic areas, trails, ranger programs,
Best Season for Viewing
Year-round, but spring and fall will be the birdiest.