GLYNDON, Minn. -- Boundless prairie often conjures ideas of a barren emptiness, a space overtaken by nothingness.
But below the wide open skies of Bluestem Prairie, located just outside of Moorhead, you’ll find, woven throughout the wildflowers and tall waving grasses, is a medley of life awaiting discovery.
Recognized as one of the largest and highest quality northern tallgrass prairies in the nation, the 1,310-acre Bluestem Prairie is home to more than 400 different kinds of plants and animals -- a smattering of which are rare and protected.
The prairie sits adjacent to Buffalo River State Park and lies within the Bluestem Preserve, a protected land spanning more than 6,500 acres that is managed by an environmental organization called The Nature Conservancy.
Bluestem is just one of a limited number of places in the state where an individual can witness the vast expanse of the native prairie, which, at one time, blanketed large chunks of western Minnesota and the Dakotas.
Just over a century ago, Minnesota had 18 million acres of prairie; but today, only a little over 1% of native prairie remains.
The site has no maintained trails, but nevertheless, I set out to explore Bluestem Prairie, an increasingly rare natural gem that has become a desirable spot for birding, environmental education, unique off-trail hiking and, of course, getting away from the hustle and bustle of daily life.
Protecting the prairie
Before the ecological value of Bluestem Preserve was recognized, much of the land was used for haying, as well as grazing cattle and horses, which, in turn, had an impact on parts of its vegetation. But in 1975, The Nature Conservancy acquired more than 1,000 acres south of the Buffalo River in an effort to preserve the native prairie.
Over the past 45 years, the organization has obtained additional parcels of prairie land. This move has allowed the group to enlarge the Bluestem Preserve and enhance the habitat for native species.
And although furrows are still apparent where plowing ensued, the conservancy has restored more than 677 acres of prairie that had formerly been ditched, farmed and used as a gravel pit.
According to its website, the conservancy manages the preserve through “prescribed burning, conducting biological inventories, and controlling non-native species by hand-cutting, mowing and localized spraying.”
Visiting the prairie
A gravel dirt road will lead you to the Bluestem Prairie, which at first glance, appears to be just continuous farmland stretching out toward the horizon.
But upon closer inspection, you’ll find an area of unrestrained wilderness, where more than 115 bird species -- including Wilson's phalarope, Henslow's sparrow, loggerhead shrike and marbled godwit -- may reveal themselves by adding their songs to the calm rustling of prairie grass.
However, perhaps the most notable highlight of the prairie occurs in the early spring.
“The sound of spring at Bluestem Prairie SNA is a low, thrumming boom resonating across the flatlands and shoreline ridges left by Glacial Lake Agassiz,” a report by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said.
The sound is that of prairie chickens "booming" while performing a mating dance. During their mating season, the Conservancy allows birders to reserve a spot in a blind for the rare opportunity to glimpse the unusual courtship behavior.
It harbors more than 313 plant species -- seven of which are designated by the state of Minnesota as species of special concern.
Additionally, some rare plant and animal species on the prairie to keep an eye out for include the small white lady's-slipper, regal fritillary butterfly, prairie vole and plains pocket mouse.
According to the Minnesota DNR, for those looking to explore the prairie’s vegetation, you can find Bluestem Prairie in bloom from “the first pasqueflower of April to the last gentian of September.”
Interested in visiting Bluestem Prairie SNA?
Here are some things to know before you go:
Wear comfortable footwear suitable for hiking.
To protect yourself from ticks, poison ivy or poison sumac; wear long pants, and tuck them into your socks.
To get the most from your visit, and to protect yourself from the elements, you may want to bring the following items: binoculars, a camera, a compass, field guides, insect repellent, rain gear, a first aid kit, snacks, sunscreen and water.
Bring a hat along to protect your head from the sun because there isn’t a lot of shade on the prairie.