Despite the seemingly endless sprawl of the metro area, it is possible to get lost in the woods in these parts. In our view, no place within easy striking distance beats the Mille Lacs Wildlife Management Area, a pristine 39,000-acre mix of swamp, woodland, and water just south of the lake from which it derives its name. Established from tax-forfeited lands in 1949, the WMA is too rocky and poorly drained for agricultural purposes, but its diverse blend of habitat suits a wide variety of wildlife just fine. Most seasons, hikers can have the place to themselves. Come fall you might want to wear hunter orange: Since the mid-Sixties, the University of Minnesota has been tweaking the forest with experimental plantings and clearings as part of a long-term research effort to boost the population of ruffed grouse, and success in that department has made the WMA one of the preferred grounds for aficionados of the popular game bird. Bonus: Because the WMA (unlike many state forests) is closed to snowmobiling and ATVs, by the time you find your way to the heart of the forest (amusingly named Devil's Hole Unit), you'll be hard-pressed to detect the rumble of the internal combustion engine--a woodsy virtue if there ever was one.


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