Grey Cloud Dunes Scientific and Natural Area

Volunteers walk up hill at Grey Cloud Dunes

A 220-acre protected riverfront stretch in Cottage Grove, Grey Cloud Dunes Scientific and Natural Area offers vast views of the river valley and is home to a rare dry prairie that supports an immense diversity of grasses, wildflowers, birds and other wildlife. (Photo by Paul Raymaker for FMR)

Where is Grey Cloud Dunes Scientific and Natural Area?

This spectacular Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) is located in Cottage Grove along Mooers Lake, a backwater channel of the Mississippi River.

It's one in a stretch of five FMR restoration sites right on the east side of the Mississippi, including River Oaks Park. Grey Cloud Dunes SNA is also just downstream from our work at Settler's Island and across the river from our trio of Pine Bend Bluffs restoration sites.

The public is welcome to visit Grey Cloud Dunes SNA, though there are no official trails or facilities beyond the parking lots, and bikes and dogs are not allowed due to the sensitivity of the habitat. (See the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website for more info and their official rules for visiting an SNA.)

Our work here takes place on Dakota homelands. Learn more.

What's special about Grey Cloud Dunes Scientific and Natural Area?

Visitors and volunteers can enjoy prairie and forest along the river valley. (Photo by Mike Durenberger for FMR)

The Mississippi River flows 100 feet below the ridge at Grey Cloud Dunes SNA, offering visitors a vast view of the river valley.

The SNA features both remnant prairie and rare dry sand-gravel prairie. If you visit, you might find plants like sea beach needle grass, hill’s thistle and long-bearded hawkweed — species that don't exist many other places in the Twin Cities. You'll also find other native prairie plants blooming throughout the growing season, like birdfoot violet, hoary puccoon and blazing star. Because of these unique habitats, this area is essential for native bees, butterflies and other wildlife.

Grey Cloud Dunes SNA is a great spot for birding during migration seasons since it's right on the Mississippi River flyway. Due to the presence of both prairie and woodlands, visitors can catch glimpses of numerous warbler species, bobolinks, dickcissels, indigo buntings and even Henslow’s sparrows.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources was able to protect this special place as a Scientific and Natural Area in 1998 — a protection designation for public areas with exceptional scientific and educational value.

Birdfoot violet, hoary puccoon and migrating birds all rely on places like Grey Cloud Dunes SNA. (Photos by Paul Raymaker for FMR)

Our work at Grey Cloud Dunes Scientific and Natural Area

FMR helped to write the natural resource management plan for the site in 2015, and in 2017 we secured a grant from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund to begin restoration on 40 acres of the site. This work focused on the southern half of the site, removing invasive shrubs from the riverside forest units, as well as enhancing both oak savanna and prairie. 

FMR’s restoration work dovetailed with the DNR’s restoration and enhancement of the prairies on the north and east sides of the site where former ag fields were restored to prairie using seed harvested on-site. 

While FMR’s subcontracted restoration work ended in 2019, we still conduct yearly public volunteer events at the site to assist the SNA's ongoing habitat management. Our tasks include sumac lopping and spotted knapweed removal in the prairies, garlic mustard and bittercress removal along the river, and occasional prairie seed collections. (Here's why we remove sumac, even though it's a native plant.)

Thank you to all the volunteers who help steward this special place!

Find out more and get involved

Partners and funders for our work at Grey Cloud Dunes Scientific and Natural Area

This work was made possible by 3M Foundation, BNSF Foundation, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, RBC Wealth Management, Xcel Energy, and by our generous volunteers and donors like you!

Upcoming Events

Wednesday, December 20, 2023 - 3:00pm to 11:00pm
Indeed Brewing Company, Minneapolis
January-February 2024
Multiple locations
Ole Olson prairie, Mississippi River, Minneapolis skyline

Celebrate 30 years of FMR!

For our 30th anniversary, our wish is for you to join us in restoring, protecting and enhancing the Mississippi River.