Uncas Dunes

Sand Dunes State Forest, Minnesota

Trip Date: Saturday, June 3rd, 2017
Last Updated: Monday, August 3rd, 2020
By Ricky Holzer

Hike Information

Rating ★★☆☆☆(2/5)
Overall Difficulty Easy
Navigation Difficulty     Easy
Distance 3.5 miles roundtrip
Time 1.5 hours
Terrain Mostly flat
Best Seasons Spring, Fall
Family Friendly No
Dog Friendly Yes
Accessible No


Hike Summary

I'll be frank here, if you drive to this trail hoping to see towering mounds of sand like the Sahara, you will be extremely disappointed (you'll need to drive to Indiana or Michigan if you crave something closer to the real thing). However, if you arrive with a desire to see a different landscape that you wouldn't expect in this part of Minnesota, you will leave satisfied.

The trail begins just beyond the sign and gate restricting vehicular access, just follow the sandy tracks into the forest. Once the car is out of sight, you'll take a look around you and realize that this sandy forest is what they meant when they named it "dunes". Eventually on your right you will see the results of clearcutting -- what many people don't realize is that the main purpose of state forests is preserving and maintaining land for logging and not recreation. This was truly an alien sight to me in this part of Minnesota. The bare dirt littered with tree branches and pine needles resulting from logging looked more like a scene in the mountains in the Southwest.

The sandy trail and pine forest of Uncas Dunes

The sandy trail and pine forest of Uncas Dunes

You will circle the boundary of Uncas Dunes Scientific and Natural Area for a while, and then veer inside the "dunes". This area was named for the Uncas Skipper, a butterfly listed as endangered in Minnesota found only in Sherburne County (though it has extensive range throughout the western states and Canada). Much like shown in the landscape in the picture below, the pine trees make the area seem more like the northern portion of the state, but the whole environment seems out of place when paired with the sandy soils.

The typical landscape within Uncas Dunes Scientific and Natural Area.

The typical landscape within Uncas Dunes Scientific and Natural Area.

Turn left at the T intersection. In this section, you will see dense pine forest, completely devoid of vegetation growing underneath the canopy, with a floor littered in dead pine needles. Again, this is a sight I never expected to see in Minnesota.

A pine forest that feels much more like the mountains in the Southwestern U.S.

A pine forest that feels much more like the mountains in the Southwestern U.S.

When the trail meets with the road, go left and continue along the side of the road until you reach the parking area. If you are feeling hot and sweaty after finishing, head over to the Bob Dunn Recreation Area within Sand Dunes State Forest by heading west on County Road 10, turning right onto County Road 5, then turning right on North Sand Dunes Forest Road (there should be a brown sign telling you to turn right here). Follow the signs for the beach and enjoy! Connect with me using the social media links below and share your adventures!

Important Information

This trail is definitely off the beaten path, even though it is not remote -- there are houses across the street from the trailhead. Even on a Saturday, there wasn't a single soul on the trail. Routefinding is easy since the trail is technically a road. Feel free to bring your dog; I couldn't find any rules on the official State Forest site (see link at bottom) about dogs, but State Forests are generally less restrictive than most public lands.


From the Twin Cities, take Interstate 94 north towards St. Cloud, and take the exit for Minnesota Highway 101 towards Elk River. Then, take the exit for U.S. Highway 10 going north. Continue on U.S. 10, then turn right at County Road 15. Turn left at County Road 10 (also called 237th Ave). Watch for a sign for 176th St. on the left side of the road and turn right onto a short dirt road, which is a continuation of 176th St. You are likely to miss this if you don't pay attention (I missed it myself)! Park off to the side where the road ends.

Google Maps Directions

Parking, Fees, and Facilities

Free parking, located in a tiny, overgrown dirt lot just off County Road 10. Although you may likely be the only one parked here and it may not look like somewhere you are allowed to park, this is indeed indicated as a parking area on the official State Forest map

Nearby Hikes

The stunning wetlands of Maria Lake.
Bjorkland Trail
Lake Maria State Park, Minnesota
Oxbow and Heron Trail Loop
Elm Creek Park Reserve, Minnesota
The grasslands of Elm Creek Park Reserve on a sunny day in March.
Goose Lake to Dog Park Loop
Elm Creek Park Reserve, Minnesota
The most scenic bench in the park overlooking a lake
Independence Lake Regional Trail Loop
Baker Park Reserve, Minnesota

External Links