Although close to our capitol city, West St. Paul retains parts that seem quite rural. This creates an ideal home for the Dodge Nature Center (map). Its 320 acres of diverse terrain hold a popular preschool, a visitor center and an animal farm. Hikers will discover six miles of trails wandering through marshes, prairie and forest.
Two of the center's three sections are easily reached from the visitor center's main parking lot so begin your hike here. During weekdays, stop into the visitor center to register and grab a map (registration is requested since children are often present). Turn left out of the center and aim for the Boardwalk Trail. The path ducks into the trees, but quickly opens up to the marsh and steps onto the boardwalk. Your boots stay nice and dry as the boardwalk crosses the wetland before floating across the aptly-named Farm Pond. Once on dry ground, turn right towards the farm.
The farm buildings are usually not open to the public, but the animals are often out in enclosures. Feel free to roam. The hike resumes on the Arboretum Trail at the north end of the farm.
The trail wanders into a stand of pine trees bordered by a large fenced-in garden. It meanders north through the forest and skirts Overlook Pond where you'll likely find basking turtles and relaxing ducks. As the path eases west, it opens wide and looks more like a lawn than a trail. Keep going and the trail narrows and climbs a slight rise back into the woods. At the top the trail splits. Turn right for the more rustic option. This is the Elderberry Trail. It leaves the wide path for a narrower tread. Following the ridge along two ponds, it winds a half mile before ending at a gravel road. Cross the road and regain a wider path called the Lightner Trail. This is the home stretch. The Lightner Trail cruises through the forest (look for turkeys), then climbs out onto the prairie before returning to the parking lot and wrapping up the two-mile hike.
Ready for more? Walk past the parking lot and along the driveway to Marie Street (where you came in). Cross the street and go left or right to either trailhead. This is the Marie property and another couple of miles of rolling wooded trails await your exploration.
If time and energy allow, there is even more! Dodge's third property, the Lilly Savanna, lies a short drive away and offers another 170 acres to top off your hiking adventure. Whether you have an hour or all day, Dodge Nature Center is certainly worth a visit.