Photo courtesy of Jim Dostal

Kayaking the designated canoe route at the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, located near Zimmerman.

During the spring and summer months, Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge provides a variety of ways to get out of the house and experience the wonder of the prairie, oak savanna and wetlands. The refuge is open a half hour before sunrise to a half hour after sunset daily for permitted activities, and there is no entrance fee or parking permit required. Restrooms are available at the Blue Hill, Mahnomen and Oak Savanna Learning Center trailheads year-round. Whether you enjoy walking your dog, taking a hike, riding your bike, fishing or paddling, the refuge bursts with opportunities.

That being said, spring and summer are also when wild animals are nesting and raising their young. Wildlife sanctuary is in effect from March 1 to Aug. 31 annually and was established in an effort to limit and lessen the stressors on these new parents. During this six-month time frame, recreation is allowed only in designated areas and those include the Oak Savanna Learning Center, Mahnomen and Blue Hill trails, Prairie’s Edge Wildlife Drive, fishing access points and designated canoe route. Service roads and the interior of the refuge are off limits to the public while wildlife sanctuary is in effect.

Hiking trails

Note that dogs must be on a leash and all waste, including pet waste, needs to be packed out. The trails are not wide enough to safely accommodate bikes and hikers, so they are open to foot travel only.

Oak Savanna Learning Center: Shorter, accessible loops that traverse open prairie, oak savanna, wetland and wooded areas and total about 2.5 miles. With a crushed granite trail surface, they provide better footing during the spring transition season and are wheelchair and stroller friendly. The sitting wall, floating dock and wildlife observation blind are favorite spots for a family or group to chat, take in the view or eat a picnic lunch.

Mahnomen: Oldest established hiking trail on the refuge, with the first loop constructed in 1968. The loops now total 3 miles and pass through wooded areas, prairie and along the shoreline of Round Lake.

Blue Hill: With mowed loops that total 5 miles, they pass through oak woodlands, prairie openings and skirts the shore of Buck Lake. Blue Hill, rising 90 feet above the surrounding area and one of the highest points in Sherburne County, is accessed via a spur trail and provides a great overlook.

Prairie’s Edge Wildlife Drive

The wildlife drive will open to vehicles once the frost goes out of the road and the surface firms up. There’s often a delay between spring-like weather and the drive officially opening. As Minnesotans, we’re eager to pull out our shorts and sandals the moment temperatures reach 50 degrees, but the road can’t flip that same switch. Patience pays off – waiting lessens the amount of wash-boarding, potholes and soft shoulders, conditions. Keep an eye on the refuge website and Friends of Sherburne Facebook page for updates on the status.

In the meantime, the wildlife drive is open to hiking and biking. Note that the restrooms are not yet open for the season and, when parking, don’t block access to the gate. You’re welcome to park on the approach to the gate or on the shoulder of County Road 5 to access the wildlife drive.

Fishing access points

If you’re looking to fish locally, there are five locations along the St. Francis River. The river is closest to the parking area at the Brande Bridge off of County Road 3 and behind Refuge Headquarters. Bank fishing is allowed year-round within 100 yards up or down stream from the designated fishing access point. As well, you can fish from non-motorized boats on the designated canoe route.

Designated canoe route

Looking to see the refuge from a different perspective? Canoes, kayaks and rowboats are permitted only on the designated canoe route year-round and on Long Pool from Sept. 1 to winter closure. The designated canoe route starts at Battle Brook, south of Little Elk Lake, and continues on the St. Francis River, south of Battle Brook. Other sections of the river are not open to paddling, for reasons relating to both safety and preventing the disturbance of wildlife that are nesting, feeding or resting in the wetlands. Additionally, note that motorized boats are prohibited, including electric trolling motors.

There are two access points on the refuge, off of County Road 1 and County Road 4. They both require a bit of a trek from the parking lot to the river, giving it more of a sense of adventure. A common take out point is the boat launch at Sand Dunes State Forest that’s located right off of County Road 15. The river is not maintained as a navigable channel, so you might encounter a section or two that requires you to portage.

More on the refuge

For more information and refuge regulations, visit the refuge website at or reference the Public Use Regulations and Map brochure. Want to chat with a refuge ranger? While Refuge Headquarters remains closed to the public, you can call or text 763-260-3078 or message the Friends of Sherburne Facebook page. The phone number is monitored Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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