One sunny day last summer, I slipped on my running shoes and headed down the trail leading from Cottage Grove City Hall to Ravine Regional Park. It was midday on a weekday, and the picnic pavilion and playground in the park were quiet. Two boys had ridden in on their bikes and were fishing from the southern shore of the lake along the entrance road. I waved with a smile as I ran past, and then headed up the hill west of the park entrance, quickly reaching a dead-end parking lot surrounded by tangled woods at what appeared to have once been an overlook. The whole park exuded a sleepy charm, like a roadside attraction now forgotten, or perhaps a treasure yet to be discovered.
Cottage Grove Ravine Park occupies 515 acres of wooded hills and ravines in southeastern Cottage Grove along Hwy 61/10. Though the park includes many amenities – a fishing pier, playground and picnic area, plus hilly hiking and skiing trails – it is easy to miss the entrance if you don’t already know it is there. When I led nature events there in the past, people often commented that it was their first time visiting, despite living nearby in town. In recent years, new development has grown to meet the northern edge of the park, and the Washington County South Service Center and Cottage Grove City Hall now perch at the top of the ravine.
This year, Cottage Grove Ravine Park will undergo a massive transformation as Washington County Parks and the South Washington Watershed District work together to create new visitor facilities, improve habitat within the park, and protect against flooding and erosion from upstream development. The park will close on March 1 and is expected to re-open by March of 2018. The project will begin with a new, easier-to-access entrance off of Keats Ave. (Hwy19), as well as a new picnic area and playground near the entrance, and upgraded facilities near the lake. Meanwhile, the Watershed District will work with the county to realign the entrance road around the southern end of the lake so that a larger outlet pipe can be installed, and create a stable drainageway along the north-south length of the ravine so that future floods don’t wash away trees, trails and sediment.
Already this winter, crews have been hard at work clearing 61 acres of invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle within the park. The goal is to create better habitat for pollinators, birds and other wildlife, and to establish native grasses that will better hold the soil in place during heavy rainstorms. Earlier, during fall of 2016, County Parks also used goats in a smaller three-acre area as an experimental strategy to clear buckthorn without chemicals or cutting. Staff concluded that goats could be used in the future to control re-growth, but that they wouldn’t able to tackle taller, mature buckthorn shrubs that can be 8-10 inches in diameter.
The Ravine Park Project is an important component of the South Washington Watershed District’s multiphase Central Draw Overflow project, which will create an outlet for rainwater from Woodbury and Cottage Grove to reach the Mississippi River during 100-year storm events. Other elements of the project include an infiltration basin situation on 250 acres of public land along the border of Woodbury and Cottage Grove, underground pipes beneath neighborhoods in northern Cottage Grove, and stabilization of an intermittent stream that runs south across 3M land from Ravine Park to the Mississippi River. Within the park, the watershed district will be widening the existing natural ravine and creating a giant dry stream with boulders and check dams along the way to slow the water down and prevent it from causing massive erosion. The channel will also be lined with erosion control blankets and planted with native grasses to help hold the soil in place. Most years, the drainageway will remain dry throughout the year, but the project will help to ensure that flooding from occasional 100-year storms will not cause catastrophic erosion in the future.
Come 2018, I have a feeling that Cottage Grove Ravine Regional Park will no longer be a well-kept secret. The new entrance, trails and recreational facilities will help to make the park more accessible to new families moving to the area and may attract visitors from Wisconsin and Hastings area as well. At the same time, I hope that the park will retain its existing charms as well – a tranquil lake where kids can still ride their bikes to go fishing in the summer, and wooded trails that beckon to hikers and skiers throughout the year.
Read the Cottage Grove Ravine Park Master Plan.
Learn more about South Washington Watershed District’s Central Draw Overflow Project.