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Sand Prairie Wildlife Management & Environmental Education Area
Around 80 years ago this extensive prairie-wetland complex—once a channel of the Mississippi River—was drained for cropland. In more recent years, native prairie plants recolonized its abandoned fields. Today, with hard work and dedication, more than 600 acres at this site offer a diverse landsca...
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Sand Dunes State Forest / Uncas Dunes Scientific & Natural Area
Description: This very unique site is part of the Anoka Sand Plain ecological subsection, a landscape characterized by broad, mostly flat outwash sands and numerous wetlands. In a few places on the Anoka Sand Plain, over 5,000 years ago the sand was shaped into dunes. The largest remaining area of dunes on the Anoka Sand Plain occurs in Sand Dunes State Forest (SF), Uncas Dunes Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) and adjacent private and federal lands.

Outside this area, the original dunes on the Anoka Sand Plain have been largely destroyed by reshaping and disturbance associated with housing development. The remaining dunes support a rich array of native plant communities, some of them unique to dune systems. In fact, the Sand Dunes SF supports three globally ranked native plant communities, including the Dry Barrens Oak Savanna – a vegetation community considered the most imperiled in the Midwest occupying only 0.02% of its former range. These dune system plant communities, in turn, provide critical habitat for a mosaic of rare native animal and plant species.

In 1961, the state endangered butterfly, the Uncas Skipper, was discovered in Sand Dunes SF. It was thought to be extirpated until it was relocated in 1983 in sand prairie openings on south facing slopes, but has not been encountered again since 1987. Biological surveys in the last 20 years have located ten additional rare animal species and eight rare plant species whose habitat needs are tied to the rare sand dunes ecosystem itself. Scientific surveys document that this site is an invaluable repository for Minnesota’s most unique and imperiled biological diversity.

Pines and other evergreens have been planted throughout the dunes in Sand Dunes SF since the 1930s, originally for the purpose of stabilizing the shifting dunes during a time of drought. These plantings have resulted in the conversion of portions of the site to forests that consist of a mix of large oak trees, pines, tall shrubs, and understory plants adapted to shady environments. However, there are savanna remnants throughout the site.

Sand Dunes State Forest (SF) Sand Dunes SF was created in 1943 starting with the area that is now Ann Lake Campground. The SF was enlarged in 1945 and was expanded in 1951. Currently 5675 acres are owned by the state. The SF consists of oak savanna, oak and other types of forest, prairie and 2700 acres of pine plantations. There are two segments to the state forest, separated by the St. Francis River, a leg of the Sherburne NWR and private acreage.

In addition to being a working forest producing wood products, Sand Dunes SF provides beautiful areas for a variety of recreational activities, such as nature appreciation, photography, horseback riding, swimming, fishing, camping, hiking and cross-country skiing. While visiting Sand Dunes SF you can explore one of the many trails to improve your chances of seeing wildlife. There are 18 miles of multi-use trails, as well as additional firebreak trails to hike.

Uncas Dunes Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) In 1989 and 1990, approximately 115 acres of Sand Dunes SF were established as Uncas Dunes SNA to protect some areas with important rare features. By 1996, an additional 29 acres of significant adjacent private lands were added. Then in 1997, The Nature Conservancy worked with the SF and SNA to protect an additional approximately 500 acres for SF lands. The approximately 650-acre SNA is being managed with logging of pines, thinning of other trees and brush, controlled burning, and reconstruction of savanna on former cropland to restore and protect dune ecosystems for the natural features they support, with an emphasis on habitat for the state-endangered Uncas skipper.

The north unit of the SNA is located west and south of Lake Ann and the south unit is located approximately two miles to the southeast across the St. Francis River. Both units contain relic dune fields associated with Glacial Lake Grantsburg.

The SNA features relic sand dunes, dry barrens oak savanna, oak woodlands and wetlands. Two rare plant species, sea-beach needlegrass and annual skeleton-weed, are found on this site. Active management includes prescribed burning and removal of planted pine trees to assist in restoration and enhancement of the sand prairie.

Admire the goldenrod, aster, puccoon, butterfly weed and leadplant, along with clusters of little bluestem and other grasses dotting the dunes. Watch out for patches of plentiful three-leafed poison ivy. And don’t be fooled by its pale green berries that cluster on woody stems in fall and spring—the oil can still irritate those susceptible.

Wildlife to Watch: While visiting Sand Dunes SF and Uncas Dunes SNA you just may spot rare wildlife such as a Blanding's turtle, bullsnake, northern barrens tiger beetle, Leonard’s skipper, or, if you look very closely, a state listed jumping spider. A total of 105 bird species have been recorded at Uncas Dunes SNA, with 12 species of warblers recorded. You might hear a whip-poor-will or barred owl calling at dusk or scare up a ruffed grouse or wild turkey as you hike. Listen for blue jays and chipping sparrows in the woodlands, lark sparrow or eastern towhee in the savanna and prairie, and ring-billed gulls and osprey soaring over Ann Lake. Watch for fox, coyotes and white-tailed deer roaming through the forest and keep your eyes open for signs of beaver and black bear.

Special Tips: Sand Dunes SF offers trails for hikers, skiers, horseback riders and snowmobilers. Ann Lake campground has spacious sites spread out among the oaks and pines.

As a working state forest, you may come across tree harvesting and other management activities taking place year round at Sand Dunes SF.

Consult the SF trail map for trails around and through the Uncas Dunes SNA. To protect the delicate Uncas Dunes SNA landscape there is not an extensive trail system within the SNA, but hikers who step gently may walk anywhere. Access to the South Unit is rated difficult due to lack of developed trails. Walking access to the South Unit is by way of two undeveloped paths from 233rd Ave.

Land Manager Contact:
MN DNR Forestry
12969 Fremont Avenue
Zimmerman MN 55398
(612) 856-4826

Uncas Dunes
Scientific & Natural Area Program
500 Lafayette Roa
St. Paul MN 55155
(612) 297-2357

Other Activities: Sand Dunes SF - canoeing, hiking, swimming, skiing, snowshoeing, camping, fishing, dock, horseback riding, mountain biking Attention Trail Users: This area is very sandy, which may make mountain biking difficult in places.

Ownership: MN DNR 
Size: State Forest 11,040 acres; SNA 644 Acres 
Closest Town: Zimmerman

RestroomsParkingTent CampingFishingCross Country SkiingHikingPicnic tablesBoat LaunchVisitor CenterHuntingHorse TrailsHandicap AccessibleLarge BoatsSmall BoatsTrailer CampingDrinking WaterSwimmingCamp FireBicycling

Best Seasons for Wildlife Viewing:

Sand Dunes SF - Photo by MN DNR
Please use Map Link below

Driving Directions:
Located west of Zimmerman and north of Big Lake, Sand Dunes State Forest and Uncas Dunes SNA may be reached by taking County Road 5 north from Big Lake, off of Highway 10 OR by following County Road 4 west from Zimmerman off of Highway 169.

Uncas Dunes SNA North Unit can be reached by taking County Road 4 west from Zimmerman 4 miles, then driving 1.5 miles south to Ann Lake Campground and parking in the lot at the interpretive sign near campsite 28. From here it is a short hike through the woods and up over a small hill before the path disappears into the dunes. From this entrance, there are no well developed trails, but you can hike on the firebreak trail around the edge of the SNA, or if you tread lightly, you can hike within the SNA. This unit can also be reached from the east side, from 245th Ave. along one of the two trails that cross the SNA.

Uncas Dunes SNA South Unit can be reached by way of two undeveloped paths from 233rd Ave.

Map Link

Sand Dunes State Forest / Uncas Dunes Scientific & Natural Area : Wildlife Viewing Area