by CHRIS ROGERS
For thousands of local residents stuck at home amid the coronavirus outbreak, spending time outside is one of the few reprieves from being cooped up and going stir-crazy. But with so many people in the same boat, some of the most popular parks can be packed with people. Here are some recommendations for lesser-known spots to enjoy the outdoors while social distancing.
“Please remember that it’s important to maintain social distancing even while outside,” Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Commissioner Jan Malcolm cautioned. Both Minnesota and Wisconsin’s stay-at-home orders allow healthy people to leave the house to recreate outside, and Minnesota Governor Tim Walz has even encouraged it, but the orders require citizens to stay away from people other than their immediate household members. Because people may be infectious even before they feel sick, it is important to stay at least six feet away from other people, health experts advise.
“Going outside at this time is great for your physical health and mental health, but we have to follow the social distancing and physical distancing guidelines in order to keep the community safe,” Winona Park and Recreation Director Chad Ubl said.
It is also a good idea not to go too far from home. “It’s great to get outdoors, get some fresh air, get some exercise … but don’t go driving to Northern Minnesota and Western Minnesota,” Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Information Officer Harland Hiemstra advised. “Keep it closer to where you live and don’t go stopping at every gas station along the way,” he said.
Be sure to recreate safely, too. Bring water and appropriate clothing. Bring maps or use a GPS app. First responders have enough to worry about right now without having to rescue lost hikers.
With those precautions in mind, local outdoor educators and enthusiasts shared their recommendations.
1. Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood State Forest — Bronk Unit
There are over a million acres of the Doerr State Forest scattered across Southeast Minnesota, but one of the closest and most accessible spots is in the bluffs above Goodview. There are miles of hiking and mountain biking trails in the Bronk Unit.
To get there from Winona, travel north on Highway 61, turn left onto southbound County Road 23, and around 2.5 miles down the road, turn left onto Brook Drive — a gravel road directly across from Steinbauer Drive. Keep going straight across a bridge to a parking lot at the foot of the bluff. “You can park in the minimally maintained gravel lot down below off of County Road 23 and hike three trails,” Derek Barkeim of Seekers Wild suggested. “[The] one to the left is single-track-style and probably has the best view/vista up top. Straight is a gravel road with large water swales (bumps). The right [trail] is wide grassy path.”
Maps for the Bronk Unit are available on the DNR’s website, along with other, more out-of-the-way sections of the Dorer State Forest to check out. “You can find some off-the-beaten-track places there,” Hiemstra said.
2. Farmers Community Park/Garvin Brook
Farmers Community Park is a Winona County park just off Highway 14 between Stockton and Lewiston with lots of room for kids to play, spots to walk by the stream, and great trout fishing. Winona outdoor recreation enthusiast Eric Barnard and his three kids recently burned off some energy there. “It’s such a huge area,” he said.
In addition to the park proper, state forest land extends for about a mile downstream on Garvin Brook. Beyond that, fishing easements allow for public access to fish on private land further downstream — activities other than fishing are not allowed. “Garvin Brook is a trout stream with ample space for anglers to spread out,” Winonan Alicia Lano said. With a fishing license and trout stamp, it is currently catch-and-release-only season for trout. When trout season begins on April 18, there are special regulations for Garvin Brook; check the signs or DNR website.
To get there from Winona, head west on Highway 14, go through Stockton, and watch for signs.
3. Wildlife management areas and scientific natural areas
For people willing to venture off the trail and who are well-prepared — the DNR recommends bringing GPS — there are thousands of acres of wildlife management areas (WMAs) and scientific natural areas (SNAs) near Winona, including the Whitewater WMA and Kellogg-Weaver Dunes SNA.
“A lot of people don’t know what the heck they are,” Hiemstra said of SNAs. SNAs are primarily meant as preserves for pristine or unique ecosystems, but they are also open to the public for passive recreation. Similarly, he explained, “[WMAs] are set up mainly for hunting and for wildlife habitat, but you can go out and just wander around a bit.”
Neither WMAs or SNAs have maintained trails, and there generally are no bathrooms or drinking water, so be prepared. However, Hiemstra said, “This is a great time of year because you don’t have to worry that much about the undergrowth in the forest.”
For more information, including directions, visit the Kellogg-Weaver Dunes SNA and Whitewater WMA webpages or check the DNR’s WMA finder.
4. Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge
OK, this one is no secret, and parts of the park have been busy recently, but with so many different trails and entrances to choose from, there are still places to walk, bike, or even take a scenic drive.
“Miles of trails, wide gravel roads for people to spread out on (some are closed to traffic), birds are migrating right now, and the Great River State Trail (another trail you could highlight) runs through it,” Lano said of what makes the Trempealeau refuge a good spot to visit.
The refuge’s main office and visitor’s center is closed, but the trails are still open and — so far — the access roads have not flooded. Some areas have been busy, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Refuge Specialist Stephanie Edeler advised people, “If they see a full parking lot or something like that to move on and find a different spot.”
Check out the refuge’s ski and snowshoe trail maps, Edeler suggested. “Those trails actually go more into the woods and into areas where most people don’t actually hike … They’re mowed paths into the prairie or into the woods.”
There are three different entrances to the refuge. The Marshland entrance near Highway 35 and County Road P leads to gravel-paved dikes open to walkers and bikers. The River Bottoms entrance near Bluff Siding also has walking trails, and from the main entrance off West Prairie Road, people can drive to multiple trailheads or just enjoy the refuge from their cars. “People can bird from their car even,” Edeler suggested. “They don’t have to interact with people, but they can still enjoy the beautiful wildlife.”
Bonus destination: The Great River State Trail — a Wisconsin bike trail that extends through the refuge past Perrot State Park. Nora Woodworth of Happy Dancing Turtle suggested checking out the stretch between Trempealeau and Onalaska, Wis. “We love it for birdwatching (waterfowl have been busy in the rivers already and warblers will start arriving soon), walking, dog-walking, and biking,” she wrote. “It’s very quiet, very scenic, has diverse wildlife and landscapes, and goes over the bottom of the Van Loon Wildlife Area, so there are tons of bridges offering very pretty views of the wetlands,” she added.
5. Holzinger Trails
Winona’s Holzinger Trails has many different hiking and mountain biking routes and trailheads from which to choose. In addition to trails starting from Holzinger Lodge and Stone Circle, hikers and bikers can start out from a trailhead on the eastern cul-de-sac of Wincrest Drive. “The further back into the bluffs you get, the quieter it is, which also gives this beautiful sense of serenity that can be so rejuvenating at the moment,” said Alexa Shapiro of the Women of Winona Outdoor Collaborative.
Don’t hurt the dirt, though, cautioned Winonan Patrick Menton. After rains the trails take a while to dry out, especially on north-facing bluffs. “If you step in the mud and you leave a footprint or a bike tire, it channels the mud and over time it gets deeper and deeper,” he cautioned.
6. Find your own spot
To really get away, sometimes it takes some creative thinking. “You almost have to go one step deeper,” Barnard said. “Where is some place we have never even heard of before?” He suggested people use a gazetteer like the “Southern Minnesota All Outdoors Atlas” that list all kinds of public lands. “It’s been helpful for our family to use that as a tool: ‘OK, where is a new green area that has public access?’”
It doesn’t take a special destination to enjoy the outdoors. Just take a stroll or a bike ride around the neighborhood, Ubl suggested. “Instead of going to Lake Park, people are taking a walk around their neighborhood,” he said. “They are using their neighborhood parks.” He continued, “Find a place that you enjoy, but if there are other people nearby, practice that social, physical distancing.”
Don’t forget — playground equipment is closed to the public, so while people may still enjoy the great outdoors, children and adults should stay off playground equipment.