Richard T. Anderson Conservation Area Puts the ‘Eden’ in the Prairie

Fall colors on full display in the Richard T. Anderson Conservation Area. From atop the overlook is a stunning view of the Minnesota River Valley.

Sonja Anderson enjoys hiking the natural wonderland in southwestern Eden Prairie that honors her late husband’s land preservation efforts.

As she grows older, these journeys to the Richard T. Anderson Conservation Area are less frequent—seesawing through the 130 acres of woodlands and prairies can be challenging, especially the steep trek to its peak, overlooking the Minnesota River Valley. “He would have loved that area,” says Anderson, of Eden Prairie. “I go there with friends who want to see it. It’s a big hike but well worth it. It’s fine going down. At the top, there’s a bench to sit on, and you can look at the river and the trees.”

As a plaque adorning a stone in the parking lot off Flying Cloud Drive states, Richard T. Anderson, who died at age 60 in 1994, was a leading voice in the preservation of Eden Prairie’s parks and open spaces. He did so first on the Parks Commission, then on the City Council.

“It was an area he showed me maybe two months before he died,” Anderson remembers. “I know he was excited about [saving it from development]. At the time, they didn’t have much money for that, but it was kind of a priority.”

The city did save it after voters approved a bond referendum in 1994. It was dedicated in 2003.
 
All these years later, the land remains a sheltered pocket of wilderness on the edge of suburbia. From about May to October, it’s a pastoral respite for hiking, taking nature trips, birding, trail running and dog-walking. “You definitely get the feeling of being secluded and outside the city when you’re in the park,” says Matt Bourne, Eden Prairie’s parks and natural resources manager.

For Bourne, the conservation area’s three miles of mostly natural woodland trails is one of its best attributes. A lone paved trail—also used as a service road for park vehicles—connects the main parking lot to a smaller one above in the Settlers Ridge subdivision. “There’s such variety there,” he says. “Anywhere from easy [trails], going through the lower area, to some pretty tough and challenging hiking trails that bring you up on top of the bluffs.”

Stan Tekiela, supervisor of the Eden Prairie Outdoor Center and noted wildlife photographer, says it offers a picturesque setting in the spring to view wild flowers. “There’s a nice little prairie up on top, which has a number of pretty good native prairie plants,” he says.

Besides its rustic landscape, the area boasts a flowing natural spring in the parking lot, not far from a picnic pavilion. It is also home to the Elizabeth Fries Ellet Interpretive Trail. A local group, Writers Rising Up, spearheaded the idea. The trail’s seven signs offer details on plants and animals living in the river valley, as well as passages from author Ellet’s 1853 book, Summer Rambles in the West. Ellet, credited with naming Eden Prairie, wrote the book after visiting the valley.

Wildlife is plentiful, but not always in plain sight. Deer, foxes, raccoons, turkeys and skunks call it home. Bald eagles, owls, osprey and hawks can be seen overhead. “At the top in the spring, it’s a great place to see migrating raptors going up and down the river,” Tekiela says.

 Anderson is proud that the area bears her husband’s name. She thinks he would be, too. “Nature is important to our family,” she says. “We did lots of camping and lots of hiking. And my [three adult sons] still do a lot of it. I’m old now, so I can’t do as much. But it’s very meaningful.”