Whether wandering through colorful flowers and tall prairie grasses at the height of summer, or snowshoeing across the open snow-covered landscape in winter, one of Grey Cloud Dunes’ most remarkable natural offerings remains unchanged: the view.
Along the edge of the tall prairie ridge, visitors stand hundreds of feet above the Mississippi and are treated to a stunning view of the landscape west of the river.
“You can look out and you can look down on the river, and there are some areas with Grey Cloud Island that aren’t developed,” said John Moriarty, senior manager of wildlife with Three Rivers Park District. It’s a “neat viewpoint,” he said, and the vastness makes it different than what many people associate with a prairie.
But this picturesque view is not the only reason Moriarty highlights Grey Cloud Dunes in his book, A Field Guide to the Natural World of the Twin Cities. The site - protected under the Minnesota DNR’s Scientific and Natural Areas (SNAs) program - stands tall as one of the metro area’s unique natural spaces.
“I think Grey Cloud Dunes is really special,” said Alex Roth, an ecologist with Friends of the Mississippi River, a nonprofit that helps do work on the site, “because it is one of the few true riverside natural areas that is open to complete passive recreation and to protect a rare community.”
Grey Cloud Dunes SNA comprises about 237 acres of land nestled up against Mooers Lake and the Mississippi River in Cottage Grove. Agricultural crops, small businesses and residential neighborhoods surround the site otherwise, with little identifying signage outside of two nondescript parking areas at the northwest and southeast corners.
The property’s defining feature, its open prairie, is evident just steps from those small lots.
“Starting even just with the land out there, that prairie is a very rare resource,” explained Kelly Randall, outreach coordinator for the SNA program.
Part of that is simply because Minnesota’s prairie habitat - which covered 18 million acres just over a century ago - has been decimated. About 1% exists today.
But the prairie at Grey Cloud Dunes is particularly notable for two additional reasons.
First, the habitat covering the west-facing hillside and down near the railroad tracks is a remnant prairie, Moriarty said. This means it is native prairie that was not destroyed or disrupted, then later replanted. Instead, it has remained intact even through European settlement.
Second, much of Grey Cloud Dunes is a rare dry sand prairie. The grasses and flowers sprout not from soil, but from inactive sand dunes. These flora are distinctly adapted to this environment.
“We’ve got these pretty conservative sandy species that, without the protection of [Grey Cloud Dunes], would really not exist elsewhere in the Twin CIties,” said Roth.
One of the rarest is sea beach needle grass, also known as seaside three-awn, which is considered threatened in Minnesota, said Randall.
“You go out there in May and it is just purple from violets,” said Moriarty. “It’s just an amazing sight.
As the year goes on, the hue of the landscape changes as flowers such as birdfoot violets, hoary puccoon, dotted and rough blazing star, or goldenrod begin to bloom.
“It’s a place where you can show up and it looks different every time you go, which is a pretty cool phenomenon,” said Roth.
The site provides habitat for some harder-to-find wildlife as well. Moriarty pointed to occasional sightings of blue racer, a snake species that generally sticks to southern Minnesota counties. Bird species that rely on prairie habitat, including the lark bunting, bobolink and Henslow’s sparrow, visit the site. During migration, raptors and waterfowl soar overhead.
“It has become a pretty amazing site for folks who love to botanize or who love to go out and bird,” said Roth. “This is one of those premier sites where you feel connected to nature.”
Getting the property to this point required significant work.
The Marathon Ashland Petroleum company gave the land to the state in 1998. It was part of a settlement for environmental violations in Minnesota, Kentucky and Ohio, according to the DNR.
While the remnant hillside prairie was intact, farm crops covered much of the eastern half of the property.
Years of reconstruction work followed, with experts collecting native prairie seed and slowly transforming rows of crops into the planted prairie visitors see today. (Google Maps satellite view offers clues as to where those agricultural tracts used to exist.)
“Prairie is something that’s hard to actually make, right?” said Randall. “It’s a lot of plant-animal interaction with the environment.”
The DNR does occasional prescribed burns to manage the site, and has also partnered with outside organizations in its restorations and ongoing maintenance efforts. Friends of the Mississippi River, for example, assisted in restoring the woodland area near the southern parking, said Roth. (The DNR is now doing similar work on the north side.)
Friends of the Mississippi River also hosts regular sumac lops, with volunteers helping to cut back the shrub. Not only does this encourage stewardship of the site, explained Roth, it also prevents the aggressive sumac from “outcompeting a lot of the more conservative prairie species that make that site so special.”
Importantly, Grey Cloud Dunes - just like the other 160-plus SNAs in the state - is public land. While these sites are designated to preserve things of scientific and educational value, they remain completely open to visitors who want to explore some of Minnesota’s more remarkable natural occurrences.
“I like the fact that you can look across … from that north parking lot and see our urban landscape,” Randall said of Grey Cloud Dunes, “and yet, walk a few hundred yards and sit down in a prairie that feels like you’re hundreds of miles from an urban area.”
Keep in mind Grey Cloud Dunes has no facilities. There are no bathrooms on site, no garbage cans or vending machines. The DNR does not maintain trails. While visitors have carved out unofficial pathways, there is no requirement a person remains on them.
There is an expectation, however, visitors conduct themselves responsibly.
“If you’re going there, be prepared,” said Randall.
This means adhering to the DNR’s strict guidelines, and ensuring their visit has no impact on the species that rely on Grey Cloud Dunes to survive. If it is nesting season, Moriarty said, don’t go “stomping out through the middle of the prairie.”
Do not pick or collect anything, even if it seems innocuous. Don’t litter. Absolutely no pets are allowed. Be mindful of the rare plants and animals, and know how to avoid disturbing them. And remember, no camping, hunting or cycling.
Simply put: “Just be respectful of the natural area,” Moriarty said.