Need a place to go and get away from it all? Grey Cloud Dunes Scientific and Natural Area in South Washington County is one option, but don’t discount the Hastings Sand Coulee Scientific and …
Need a place to go and get away from it all?
Grey Cloud Dunes Scientific and Natural Area in South Washington County is one option, but don’t discount the Hastings Sand Coulee Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) just across the river in north Dakota County, Minnesota either.
Similar to Grey Cloud in that it consists of “a dry barrens prairie with sections of oak woodland and savanna” according to the Friends of the Mississippi website at fmr.org, the Hastings Sand Coulee Scientific and Natural Area is like stepping back into the distant Minnesota past, before widespread settlement and urbanization made the landscape otherwise unrecognizable, itself a former glacial stream valley at the head of the world-famous Driftless Area, so named because it is believed the area was surrounded by glaciers, without being plowed low by these. Just to the north, the windblown sands of the Hastings Sand Coulee vulnerable to erosion showcase a past gone by. Whiel parts of the prairie have survived intact from the 1800s, the local restoration magic really began in 2001 after Friends of the Mississippi “began working with the DNR and private landowners in the coulee to manage the prairie,” billed as one of “the most biologically important sites in Dakota County, but not for that given away to reckless development.
Located directly adjacent to the city limits of Hastings with access off Red Wing Boulevard on Tuttle Drive, Hastings Sand Coulee SNA is home to 263.4 acres of what the local Hastings area used to be, complete with Oak Savanna among its other charms.
Speaking of which, there are many, balanced in part with “abundant poison ivy” that one should be aware of, and wash promptly if exposed. Nevertheless, there is more than poison ivy at the Hastings Sand Coulee.
Among the local plant residnets are the Ox-eye (heliopsis helianthoides) flower, along with James’ polanisia (Polanisia jamesii) and narrow- leaved pinweed (Lechea tenuifolia).
Sun-loving and also drought tolerant, the heliopsis helianthoides belongs to the same plant family (Asteracae) as the common daisy and is sometimes called the “False Sunflower,” with the appearance strikingly similar for the unaided amateur. James’ Polanisia, meanwhile, is rare in the Upper Midwest, and places like the Hastings Sand Coulee are its ideal habitat to see and be seen. But for the endangered narrow-leaved pinweed, the charm is multi-stalked, with flowers along branching stems and with a fruit consisting of a globular, three sided capsule of small proportions.
Did we mention that only four sites in the entire state of Minnesota have this rare flowering plant, declared endangered in 1996?
Hastings Sand Coulee Scientific and Natural Area is one of them. But that’s not all the Sand Coulee has to offer!
With winter snowmobiling on designated trail 123, more contemporary summer uses of the area located in north Dakota County include hiking and photography, along with bird and wildlife watching, per the Minnesota DNR website. But if you see a blue streak snaking it’s way through the prairie, take heart!—it’s not poisonous.
Rather, it’s the blue racer snake, named for its speed and blue color and growing up to four-and-a-half feet long—hence the fright!—but prefer to feed on crickets, beetles and grasshoppers when still young, graduating to rodents, frogs, and small birds (the snake form of chicken), along with other snakes. Their predators include large meat-eating birds, racoon, fox, and coyote. Right about now, they’re laying their eggs, and also endangered.
Snakes and other fright aside, the Hastings Sand Coulee Scientific and Natural Area offers an opportunity to experience Minnesota as it once was, before farm fields, highways, and general settlement took away the magic, replacing it with rush hour—unless you’re a fan of that.