An urban nature and wildlife retreat


Westwood Hills Nature Center, 8300 West Franklin Avenue, St. Louis Park (just off 394 and Louisiana)

Last weekend I was at Itasca State Park — one of my very favorite places in the state. We biked the 16-mile Wilderness Drive, saw the largest red and white pines in the park, and slept in a log building more than 100 years old. Though the trees and Mississippi’s headwaters were lovely, I didn’t see a single wild animal. This weekend I decided to test my animal luck at the closest nature center to Downtown Minneapolis.

Westwood Hills Nature Center is 6.5 miles straight west of the IDS Center; 7.4 miles if you bike the Cedar Lake Trail. You’ve probably driven by it a million times. You might have even bought your car at one of the many dealerships along the park’s lake shore, but you probably didn’t notice the park. It’s quiet entrance is hidden amidst the residential neighborhood. But Westwood Hills is a full-size nature retreat. Several walking trails crisscross through the 160 acres of parkland. Some are paved and some covered with wood chips; they wander through a marsh, woods, and restored prairie, then across a floating boardwalk between waving cattails.

From the parking lot, it’s just a short walk up a winding path to the Nature Center. Beams of sunlight shone through tall trees illuminating barely-yellow leaves on the day I was there. Then, right in front of me, as if they’d just walked out the Nature Center’s front door, were three wild turkeys! I was shocked — and thrilled. They didn’t care at all. They walked around me like pets and didn’t mind when I followed them taking pictures. The wildlife I had been seeking was so obviously placed they seemed like a hired welcome committee.

After a brief photo session I headed into the center to get my bearings. Exhibits showcased butterflies and insects in pull-out drawers; live snakes in recreated habitats; and a fox, badger, and woodchuck in taxidermy displays.

The large room overlooks a terrace garden and pond in front of the center. One side of the room was set up with chairs around a table with a big birthday cake. On the other side several children sat quietly and intently on the floor, gathered around a staff member as she showed a live skink. No one screamed. Yes, you too can hold your birthday party here. Canoes and fishing poles are also available for rent.

I found a little nature escape right in the city. Who knew it could be so close yet so removed from the city at the same time. It’s great to have places like these carved out of our manmade lives. I saw a three turkeys, a hairy woodpecker, and a fox. It was a good day in the city.

Trails and playground open daily, sunrise to sunset, year round. Nature Center building hours: Mon.–Fri., 8 a.m.–4:30 p.m.; Sat.–Sun., noon–5 p.m. (Dec.–Jan. hours: Mon.–Fri., 8 a.m.–4:30 p.m.). Closed for city holidays and Oct. 20 and Nov. 28–Dec. 1). Free admission. Visit city website for more information:

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