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Experience Wild and Wonderful Minnesota

Minnesota has an untamed streak. Wolves, bears and moose live happily in its woods; birds arrive not in flocks but in masses. There are more bald eagles than in any other state except Alaska. And nature preserves pop up as frequently as lakes. It’s a state that protects and appreciates its wildlife.

Groups traveling in Minnesota can get close to some of the state’s amazing wildlife at these sites.

International Wolf Center


On a summer day, the four wolves that live as a pack at the International Wolf Center in Ely might kick back and enjoy a “wolf popsicle” or another cool treat. “When it’s hot, we like to freeze things for them in a bucket, like a beaver tail,” said Krista Harrington, interpretative manager.

Those popsicles do more than provide relief from the heat. They are one of the inventive ways staff keep wolves engaged in their wooded enclosure that measures just over an acre in northeast Minnesota’s Superior National Forest. “They have a pond, waterfall and woods. It’s really quite a lovely enclosure,” said Harrington. “In it, they get to act like wolves, but sometimes they are not so visible, which is why we do the popsicles and other enrichment activities to encourage them to be active.”

Visitors can watch the pack interact through windows in the visitor center that overlook the enclosure. It’s just one way the center teaches people about wolves. The staff also offers robust programming, with talks every hour throughout the day on topics as varied as wolves’ interactions with moose and research on wolf populations. Talks can also be tailored for specific groups with adequate notice.

This spring, the center will open its new Discovery Center, taking the in-depth and thorough information now presented in traditional museum fashion and making it more interactive. For example, today’s museum explains how radio telemetry is used to monitor wolves and displays the equipment; the redesigned Discovery Center will allow them to use the equipment so they can hear the pulses the transmitters emit and better understand how it is used to monitor wolves in the wild.

“The Discovery Center will have something educational and fun for everyone to experience,” said Harrington.

National Eagle Center


At most zoos and wildlife centers, a wall of glass or wire separates visitors from bald eagles and other birds of prey. Not so at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha. Five eagles — four bald eagles and one golden —  are tethered in their exhibit, just a few feet from visitors and separated by knee-high railings. Each bird has its own space, perch and water basin and is separated from other birds by several feet, since the birds are solitary by nature.

“As far as I know, this is the only facility in the country that presents eagles in this manner,” said marketing manager Ed Hahn. “That is the high point: to be that close to the birds.”

Perched on the banks of the Mississippi River, about 80 miles southeast of the Twin Cities, the eagle center is a must-see for some 80,000 bird enthusiasts each year. Walls of glass afford views of a stretch of the river long known for its bald eagle population.

“Our location is no accident,” said Hahn. “In the early to mid-’80s, eagle- and bird-watchers brought friends and family here. It was a bald eagle hot spot when bald eagles were at the height of endangerment.”

Although many visitors are happiest watching the eagle “ambassadors,” there is a lot to learn in interactive exhibits on two levels. For example, a full-scale model drives home just how massive a bald eagle’s nest is. Hahn has seen entire school classes fit inside it for photos.

The center has three scheduled programs a day and slots for three more that can be arranged for private groups. Many talks conclude with a visit from an eagle ambassador, who will eat its lunch as a naturalist answers questions. “It can be a little stomach-turning for some, but most people can’t get enough of it,” said Hahn.

In the next few years, the center will grow as it expands its exhibit space to allow for more eagle ambassadors and to display 25,000 eagle-related artifacts — the world’s largest private collection of eagle-related memorabilia, ephemera and art.

Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge


The landscape at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, east of St. Cloud, is an extreme makeover decades in the making. Its 30,700 acres today look as they did before farmers arrived and tried to convert a prairie punctuated by oak savannah and scattered wetlands into farmland. Thanks to conservation efforts, native grasses and flowers have returned, sheltered by sprawling canopies of bur oaks. Restored waterways feed the wetlands and provide trails for canoeists.

“It is quite a landscape, hard to capture in photography sometimes,” said Alaina Larkin, a visitor services specialist. “It is something to take in, especially with the way the prairie changes almost weekly.”

Although the refuge’s creation was a point of contention for landowners, many who sold their land seem glad they did. “They are thankful to have their family’s land restored and set aside to be a wild space,” said Larkin.

Sandhill cranes arrive each fall, and the refuge has been designated an important bird area by the National Audubon Society.

The best way for groups to see the birds and wildlife that thrive in the varied habitats is on a seven-mile auto tour. Pull-offs and lookout spots are positioned along the way, and with notice, a volunteer can serve as a step-on guide. “We have several who enjoy giving bus tours,” Larkin said. “They will hop on with you, give narration and select a few spots to hop out.” Tours are seasonal, as the road closes when winter snow arrives.

Under the same management as Sherburne, the Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge is 100 miles north of Sherburne. Along its 9.5-mile auto tour, the Rice Lake Observation Platform affords views of the 18,000-acre refuge. A prolific wild rice crop attracts red-ringed ducks: In October 2017, the lake set a new state record when almost a million of the ducks arrived, the most waterfowl of one species in one place at one time ever recorded in the state.

Minnesota Zoo

Apple Valley

The Minnesota Zoo has proved that it is not just a place for the pint-sized. Among its adults-only events is Adults Night Out, an evening that is sometimes themed —Oktoberfest or tropical beach party, for example —  and includes adult beverages, concessions and, often, live entertainment.

“It’s an opportunity for adults to experience the zoo after hours, without children around,” said Julie Bartkey, communications and media relations specialist, who recently left her kids at home for a night at the zoo. “It really is lovely, and people have a great time.”

The zoo, 10 minutes from Mall of America, is also experimenting with new special events such as a monthlong Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular launched in 2018 that will return in 2019.

“We had 5,000 regular jack-o’-lanterns and 120 80-to-100-pound carved pumpkins that were art,” said Bartkey. Lit with LED lights, the proliferation of pumpkins glowed along a quarter-mile path through the zoo.

The zoo also offers traditional group activities. During its one-hour walking tours, a naturalist supplies fun animal facts, tells stories about various inhabitants and goes behind the scenes to show zookeepers at work.

Those with a free Saturday can attend zoo camp and hear guest speakers, take behind-the-scenes tours and participate in projects. A recent camp focused on creating perfect animal environments.

For an unusual all-nighter, groups can spend the night at the zoo. Dinner is served, there’s a cash bar, and before bedtime, a late-night snack is served. Morning is signaled with the smells of coffee and breakfast and the sounds of lions, tigers and bears.

Pine to Prairie International Birding Trail

Fergus Falls to Warroad

Yellow-rumped warblers, black-crowned herons, red-breasted nuthatches, blue-winged teals and white-faced ibises are among the more than 250 brightly feathered and colorfully named birds that can be spotted along the 200-mile Pine to Prairie International Birding Trail.

Minnesota’s first birding trail is an alliance among nine northwestern communities, numerous natural resource organizations and a bevy of birding organizations. Informational signs and local visitors centers point travelers to 45 birding sites on the trail’s path from Fergus Falls in the south to Warroad in the north.

For groups traveling from the Twin Cities to Manitoba, a detour to the trail is an interesting aside, said Jean Bowman of the Fergus Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau. She’s delved into birding a bit herself, rising early to sit quietly in a viewing blind to watch male prairie chickens impress their female counterparts. “They show off in front of the hens; the sacks on their necks turn bright gold as they strut and show off.”

For groups willing to be early birds, a similar outing could be arranged, she said. Her city’s Prairie Wetlands Learning Center could also be a good stop, with its bird-viewing trails, exhibits and programs.

Other stops along the trail include the Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge, the state’s largest, where 280 species of birds have been spotted; Maplewood State Park, with 9,000 acres of wetlands and forest; and the Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge, a reliable spot for prairie chicken dances. Each May, Detroit Lakes’ Festival of Birds celebrates bird migration with field trips, presentations and other events.