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101 Things To Do: Cowling Arboretum at Carleton College

At several points, the trails in Cowling Arboretum give visitors good views of the Cannon River in Northfield, Minn. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 3
This bridge leads to trails wandering through the Lower Arboretum at Carleton College in Northfield. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 3
A sandy trail leads through a forested section of Cowling Arboretum. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia 3 / 3

Editor's note: This is the latest stop in the series 101 Things To Do. Each week through December 2020, we will select one place or activity around the region to highlight. The stories are compiled at www.rivertown101.com. 

The Cowling Arboretum gives visitors the chance to see Minnesota forests and prairies in the natural state they were in before European settlement.

That's the mission that drives Nancy Braker, arboretum director, and her staff as they work to develop the arboretum's resources.

"It's not that it is any more special than any other time," Braker said. "It's just that when we think of trying to provide a natural experience, it's what was here before we started plowing things up."

Braker noted that there was a large population of Native people living in this region. "They were very active managers of the landscape, but they weren't changing it in a way that altered it forever, which is what we do when we plow or build subdivisions."

To find that natural balance, the Cowling Arboretum has restored prairies and forests on lands that were degraded by past uses. Much of the 800 acres of land adjacent to Carleton College has been restored, and work continues each year.

One ongoing problem is invasive plant species, Braker said. "One of the things we spend the most time on is removing invasive species including European buckthorn and the bush honeysuckles, which are all Asian. We still have many acres that have dense infestations of those plants. We will continue working to remove those and either planting prairie or forest, depending on what is appropriate."

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The arboretum has 15 miles of trails marked with 49 signs to help visitors understand the trees, plants, birds, and animals they are seeing. The Cowling Arboretum's trails are ranked as one of the best places to run in Minnesota. In the winter, the trails are groomed for both classic and skate skiing.

Many classes at Carleton College use the Cowling Arboretum as part of their curriculum. Science classes use it as an outdoor laboratory, and art and writing classes use it for inspiration.

Braker said that in the summer, the restored prairies "are very flower-rich, so there are a lot of beautiful wildflowers in the prairies and a lot of monarchs. Sometimes in the early spring, the forest wildflowers are beautiful, and there are a lot more birds, because they are migrating through. Every time of year is different."

If you go...

Name: Cowling Arboretum at Carleton College

Address: One North College Street, Northfield, Minn.

Phone: 507-222-4543 or 222-4513

Website: https://apps.carleton.edu/campus/arb

Hours: Daylight hours

Admission: Free

Note: The Cowling Arboretum has limited restroom facilities, so visitors are encouraged to plan ahead.

Steve Gardiner

Steve Gardiner taught high school English and journalism for 38 years in Montana and Wyoming.  He started working at the Republican Eagle in May 2018.  He focuses on features and outdoor stories.  

(651) 301-7872
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