Tucked into Schwarz Campground, just over 5 miles east of Cottage Grove, is a sweet little nature loop trail which I suspect few people know about. We discovered it ourselves quite by accident. Part of the trail is incorporated into the road system of the campground, it also follows along the base of Dorena Dam through Dorena Prairie, then has a nice jaunt through the woods. The whole way it is marked by small hiker markers.
The loop trail itself is 1.3 miles long, but if you aren’t staying at the campground, you’ll need to factor in additional distance and time to actually get to the trail.
When we visited last weekend, we parked at the gate to the campground, which is currently closed for the season (it opens again April 25). I love walking in this campground during the winter — as do many other people — it is open and sunny, with good access to the Row River. Follow the main road all the way until it ends in a T.
To the left, the road will go through a gate and then out to the spillway at the base of Dorena Dam. If you want to see the water spilling out of the dam, or monitor the construction that is currently happening there, this is a great place to do that. To the right, the road becomes a smaller service road and heads out of the park. We continued straight, through two large boulders, following an informal path through the grass. There use to be a wooden kiosk here, but that has recently been removed.
In no time, you’ll be at the base of the earthen dam, turn right and follow the gravel road. Keep your eyes open for a trail off to the right, there will be a post there marking it as a walking path. For the next .7 miles you’ll meaner through the woods. I was delighted to see that the spring wildflowers have started to bloom and there was a very nice selection along the trail. Eventually, you’ll come out at the paved service road you passed earlier, the trail continues on just a tad bit to the left. In another .2 miles the trail gets back to the campground near campsite 67.
As we did the trail this weekend, we logged a total of 2.1 miles (1.3 miles for the loop trail plus the .4 miles each way to get through the park). The trail does get muddy in spots and is signed for walking/hiking only, no bikes.
Getting there: Schwarz Campground is on Shoreview Drive just over 5 miles from downtown Cottage Grove. Follow Main Street east, turn left on the Currin Connector, then right on Row River Road. Travel for 4.2 miles, staying on Shoreview Drive when Row River Road turns off to the left. Schwarz Campground is on your left.
There are alternatives to getting to the trail, which are especially handy once the campground is open.
Option A: Drive past Schwarz Campground for half a mile and park at a small gate. This is the service road which goes into the park. The nature loop, as it passes across the service road is approximately half a mile down this road. I’ve checked with the Army Corp of Engineers, which runs this park, and have been told that using this service road is “not discouraged.”
Option B: Drive a mile past Schwarz Campground and park at Dorena Dam. Either scramble down the western, grassy slope of the dam or walk back down Shoreview Drive looking for a well-defined path on your right. Follow the gravel road and either do the loop counter clockwise, or keep your eyes open to the left for the trail marker.