Special Places: Local prairie wonderlands

Blazing star with monarch at Hastings Sand Coulee SNA

The contrasting colors or purple blazing star and yellow goldenrod are eye-candy for both humans and bees.

Every summer month brings a different array of wildflowers to local prairies, each with its own spectacular combination of flowers and colors.

In early summer, we enjoy showy purple penstemon and orange puccoon. In July, purple bergamot and bright yellow black-eyed Susans. Blazing star takes center stage in August, with its tall stalks lined with bursts of purple blossoms.

Paired with yellow flowers such as goldenrods and yellow coneflower and white flowers such as sweet everlasting, such color combinations are very pleasing to our eyes. Turns out, this visual feast isn't really for us.

In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer explains why goldenrods and purple asters look so amazing together. What may seem like a whimsical question turns out to have a solid biological basis. The gold and purple are complementary, each making the other appear more vibrant. Bees are attracted to this vibrancy, making flowers with these colors more likely to be pollinated.

This month, venture along with FMR's ecologists to enjoy the popping colors and buzzing pollinators in a few of our favorite metro prairies. Spanning from Elk River to North Minneapolis to Hastings, they're also located in many of our favorite parks and natural areas.

As an FMR supporter, you can feel especially proud of these prairies. FMR helped protect many of these special places and are actively restoring habitat in each. (If you'd like to receive emails about future restoration outings to tend any of these prairies, let us know! Email volunteer@fmr.org.)

Grey Cloud Dunes SNA, Cottage Grove

Grey Cloud Dunes Scientific and Natural Area is a 220-acre highly protected riverfront stretch in Cottage Grove. Here, the dry sand-gravel prairie supports an immense diversity of wildflowers and grasses.  No matter when you visit during the growing season, you’re bound to see something that catches your eye.

Being a highly protected area, the site offers no facilities or official trails, but it does offer two parking areas.

Hoary puccoon against a stormy June sky at Grey Cloud Dunes.

Bird's foot violet is one of the first flowers to grace prairie hillsides in spring.

Sand Coulee SNA, Hastings

The Hastings Sand Coulee Scientific and Natural Area harbors the largest native prairie remnant in Dakota County — about 110 acres – along with an outstanding diversity of plants and animals, including 14 rare species.

Since its establishment in 2007, FMR has worked to manage the prairie and expand the protected area with the addition of about 90 more acres.

The array of flowers is a delight almost any time of the growing season. August, however, is one of the best months to find an abundance of blazing star, the monarch magnet plant. Seeing the two together – orange on purple – is worth the visit alone.

There are no trails or facilities in this highly protected natural area, so this is just a meander walk. There is a parking area at the Hwy. 316 entrance, or street parking at the Tuttle Drive entrance. The latter unit has an informal walking trail. FMR often hosts a weed-pulling volunteer event at the Coulee in June, and a fall seed collection. See our events calendar for dates.

Large-flowered penstemon and hairy puccoon at the Hastings Sand Coulee attract bees and color-deprived humans after a long winter.

Eye-popping blazing star contrasts with goldenrod in August.

Ole Olson Park, North Minneapolis

Orvin "Ole" Olson Park is the site of a newly installed 2-acre native dry prairie along the river in north Minneapolis. Although small compared to other FMR restoration sites, this is one prairie patch that's sure to leave a big impression. 

Just north of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board headquarters (where you can stop to use the restroom or fill a water bottle), the restoration boasts dense blooms of coneflower, butterfly weed, black-eyed Susans, purple and white prairie clovers, and five native grass species. All of this splendor not only has immense benefits for pollinators, birds, wildlife and water quality but also beautifully frames the downtown Minneapolis skyline.

Ole Olson

A splash of prairie at Ole Olson against the downtown Minneapolis skyline.

To learn more, check out this Facebook video of FMR ecologist Alex giving a tour of the prescribed burn’s yield at Ole Olson. Spoiler alert: this patch of prairie is abloom with more native prairie plants producing more seed and harboring more pollinators.

Pine Bend Bluffs SNA, Inver Grove Heights

Pine Bend Bluffs Scientific and Natural Area in Inver Grove Heights has easy access, with a trailhead (including restrooms) and a paved trail to walk or bike through the prairie.

The 17-acre prairie north of the trailhead was restored in 2007 from an old field of mostly non-native plants. Look for the white spiky blooms of rattlesnake master and the tall yellow flowers of compass plant (below), whose leaves will help you if you are lost, as they align north-south!

The bluff prairies are more challenging to get to but will reward you with views of the river and a better understanding of what an original remnant dry prairie would look like, with sparse, low plants and a different variety of species. Volunteers help every year in July to remove invasive weeds from these bluff prairies.

The unique leaves of the compass plant orient north-south, an adaptation that helps the plant avoid drying out in the bright sun.

The trail at Pine Bend Bluffs invites exploration of the lovely prairie there. 

River Oaks Park, Cottage Grove

River Oaks Park is truly a hidden gem. The 2.1-acre site in Cottage Grove has no facilities; instead, a narrow trail accessible from the end of a cul-de-sac parking area winds through forest and savanna at the site before terminating in a remnant bluff prairie overlooking the expansive Mississippi River.

Visit this site in August to see the purple from hundreds of blazing star that provide important nectar and habitat for monarchs and other pollinators as they move along the river corridor.

Expansive views of the Mississippi River from one of the tiniest parks along its banks, the 2-acre River Oaks Park in Cottage Grove.

Small but impressive, River Oaks Park harbors a very nice variety of native dry prairie plants.

Spring Lake Park Reserve – Archery Trail, Rosemount

The shorter vegetation of this restored, 35-acre dry prairie at Spring Lake Park (the Archery Trail section) makes it easy to see the different kinds of flowers here. 

Half of the prairie was restored by FMR in 2014 and half in 2017, so this site is still maturing. Nevertheless, in August you'll find mounds of bergamot and yellow coneflower, with goldenrods, blazing star and asters coming in. Another wonderful time to see this site is early June when you’ll find wild lupine, hairy puccoon, large-flowered penstemon and prairie phlox in bloom.

The lovely lupine is a delight Spring Lake Park in late-May/early-June.

A Candyland of flowers, including bergamot in the foreground, at Spring Lake Park in July.

Houlton Conservation Area, Elk River

One of our more recent prairie restoration projects, the William H. Houlton Conservation Area in Elk River is also one of our largest.

The site boasts roughly 180 acres of restored prairie habitat and has a porta potty and ample parking.

The prairie is in its first years of growth, but with up to 70 species seeded in parts of the site, plus the installation of wetland basins for aquatic habitat, the site will provide a rich tapestry of colors and textures in the years to come. 

See the original soybean fields at Houlton Conservation Area in this drone video by FMR volunteer Tom Reiter.

Nearly 300 acres along the Mississippi River, the prairie restoration at Houlton will be a significant prairie addition to the landscape.


Zoom in and click on the orange stars for the locations profiled in this article (click the arrow in the pop-up window for directions) or check out the whole Special Places map so far in full-screen via the squarish icon top right.

25 Special Places

This profile is part of FMR's 25 Special Places project, which we undertook to celebrate our silver anniversary year and the metro Mississippi River in 2018. We've compiled all these places into our Explore the River page, an interactive Google map and set of guides to help you get to know the river that shapes our metro area.