Nestled between Duluth and the Iron Range, a wildlife winter wonderland sits unknown to most Minnesotans.
Each winter, Sax-Zim Bog hosts a wide array of species taking refuge from the colder climes of our neighbors to the north. Elusive birds like the northern hawk owl and evening grosbeak flock to the bog to join year-round residents like pine marten, black bears, and moose. The chance at once-in-a-lifetime sightings is enough to draw ardent nature enthusiasts from around the world to tiny Meadowlands, Minnesota.
Yet, even with its cult status as a wildlife mecca, the site only sees about 2,000 visitors per season. With more than 300 square miles of fields, spruce forests, aspen uplands, and lakes, Sax-Zim promises the dearth of visitors snowy solitude.
Many of those who do make the trek come for the opportunity to see a great gray owl, often called the Phantom of the North. The great gray is the largest American owl, with a wingspan that can stretch over five feet. It is truly a sight to behold. Able to fly in complete silence, these massive predators navigate the landscape at dusk and dawn, plunging into deep snow to pick off unwary prey.
It’d be easy to spend an entire afternoon watching these majestic birds hunt, but Sax-Zim offers many other opportunities. Moose lumber through frosty meadows, porcupines curl up in treetops, pine marten scurry through dense brush, and wolves criss-cross county roads. Encounters with any of these animals should make the trip worthwhile.
What to do
Sax-Zim’s size can seem daunting, but the welcome center is a great jumping-off point. On a recent day, the helpful board outside of the building chronicled sightings of wolves, great gray owls, snowy owls, hawk owls, evening grosbeaks, Canada jays, porcupines, and countless others, providing visitors with a greater chance of finding certain species that are itinerant or well-camouflaged.
Free public programming -- ranging from naturalist-led hikes, to courses on animal tracking, to lichen identification -- are tailored to suit all levels of experience. Nearby trails and boardwalks provide great places to go snowshoeing; you can bring your own gear or borrow some from the welcome center.
What you might see
Sax-Zim is home to diverse mammal species, such as ermine, fishers, foxes, coyotes, pine marten, black bears, wolves, moose, deer and snowshoe hares.
Around 250 bird species zip around the bog, and highlights include: Northern shrikes, boreal owls, black-backed woodpeckers, pine grosbeaks, evening grosbeaks, snow buntings, redpolls, magpies, bald eagles, northern saw-whet owls, grouse, and northern goshawks.
During the summer, Sax-Zim is also an excellent place to find some of Minnesota’s most interesting plant species, including carnivorous pitcher plants and round-leaved sundew, orchids, lady’s slippers, and leatherleaf.
What to bring
Snacks, a camera, binoculars, warm clothes, snowshoes, water, and anything else you’d take on a typical winter excursion. A map, provided by Sax-Zim’s website or available at the welcome center, could expedite your trip. Gas stations are few and far between, so make sure your car has a full tank.
When to go
Mid-December through March offers the best opportunity at seeing winter wildlife and Sax-Zim’s stark beauty. A particularly popular time to visit is during the Winter Festival from February 15-17. The most beautiful time, though, is after a fresh snowfall (just wait for the plows to pass through).
All photos by Andy Witchger