Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge

Quick Facts

Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge


(320) 273-2191

Map Directions

Things To Do


Straddling the headwaters of the Minnesota River in extreme west-central Minnesota, Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge is within the heart of the tallgrass prairie's historic range. Today, less than one-percent of tallgrass prairie remains. Big Stone Refuge serves as the "keeper of the prairie" by working to maintain and restore native prairie habitat while providing optimum nesting cover for waterfowl and other grassland nesting birds.

Big Stone Refuge is part of the Big Stone Lake-Whetstone River Project of Minnesota and South Dakota. The Project was authorized under the Flood Control Act of 1965. The lands were purchased in fee title by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1971 and transferred to the Service in 1975. Overlaying the Minnesota River Valley, the refuge contains 11,521 acres; 1,028 acres in Big Stone County and 10,493 acres in Lac Qui Parle County.

Unique refuge features include the lichen-covered granite outcrops for which the refuge was named and the nearly 2,000 acres of native tallgrass prairie. The primary refuge purposes are flood control, recreation, and fish and wildlife conservation. The refuge serves as a wintering area for white-tailed deer and has wintered as many as 1,200 animals. It is also a major migratory stopover for 21 species of waterfowl. It harbors the only population of ball cactus in Minnesota.

The refuge has been designated as a Globally Important Bird Area supporting Eastern Prairie Population Canada geese, high waterfowl numbers, and numbers of least sandpipers, pectoral sandpipers, and stilt sandpipers. The refuge is a candidate site of the Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network. A new management focus has also allowed summer visitors to view bison grazing on the prairie.

Map of Big Stone NWR

Latitude, Longitude: 45.241536, -96.380310



  • Boating

    The Minnesota River is one of the State's official canoe routes. The refuge offers canoe access areas and parking areas. Canoeing the refuge's section of the river can take from a half to a full day, depending on one's skill and the number of fallen trees or beaver dams encountered. The only official portage is a 150-yard portage at the low-flow water control structure. Canoeists must stay in the main river channel on a route marked with signs. Although the canoe trail is open from mid-April through September 30, canoeing is best in the spring during high water events. Use of non-motorized boats and boats equipped with electric motors is authorized only within the main channel of the Minnesota River. Boat travel within all other waterbodies or use of boats powered with gas engines on the refuge is prohibited.

  • Bird Watching

    Wildlife viewing opportunities abound at the refuge. During spring and fall migration, 17 species of ducks and 23 species of shorebirds can be seen in and around the refuge. Some of the most common waterfowl species to be seen include mallard, blue-winged teal, northern shoveler, and Canada geese. Abundant shorebirds include least and semipalmated sandpipers and lesser yellowlegs. Many birds breed and nest on the refuge throughout the summer. Secretive birds like the American bittern establish breeding territories within the refuge's wetland habitats. Other animals to look for include white-tailed deer, gray partridge, muskrats, beaver, and the playful otter. Wildlife viewing opportunities are better during the morning or evening hours, when animals are most active. A bird list is available at the refuge's headquarters.

  • Auto/Motorcycle

    A six-mile auto tour route traverses through upland and wetland habitat occurring on the refuge, offering visitors panoramic views of the Minnesota River Valley and northern tallgrass prairie habitats. The auto tour also winds through a system of granite outcrops located near the Minnesota River that may be one of the most interesting habitats on the refuge. These areas support the most diverse assemblage of native plants occurring on the refuge. The high outcrops provide excellent views of large portions of the refuge and its wildlife residents.

  • Fishing

    Fishing is a popular activity at the refuge and is allowed in accordance with State seasons and regulations. Some of the most popular places to fish are along reservoir levees and at spillways located within them. Fishing from the banks of the Minnesota and Yellowbank rivers is also often very productive for anglers. Fishing is permitted on all refuge waters except the abandoned quarries. These sites are fenced and posted with "No Trespassing" signs. Refuge waters are open to sport fishing in accordance with State fishing regulations.

  • Hiking

    A foot trail starts at the rest area near the interpretive shelter. An hour's walk will provide a close-up view of prairie plants, granite outcrops, river meanders, and wildlife. A special foot trail leaflet provides information keyed to the numbered stops. Pick up the leaflet at the start of the trail.

  • Historic Sites

    Although little is known about early native tribes that used the Minnesota River as their highway, the Dakotah Indians lived along the river banks at the time the earliest settlers arrived in western Minnesota. Some interesting Indian and early settler sites are still visible. A number of farms were present in the river bottomlands in 1971 when the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge was authorized. The refuge does not have any staff whose duties are specifically oriented towards providing environmental education. However, existing refuge staff periodically provide on-site environment educational seminars, workshops, etc. for school children and other groups upon request.

  • Hunting

    The refuge offers public hunting opportunities consistent with State-designated seasons and regulations for gray partridge, cottontail rabbit, jack rabbit, gray and fox squirrel, pheasant, turkey, and deer. The refuge serves as a sanctuary area for migratory birds and is closed to all types of migratory bird hunting, including waterfowl, snipe, and woodcock.

  • Winter Sports

    Big Stone is open to cross-country skiing and showshoeing. The easiest trail for beginners would be to follow the refuge roads. There are no trails maintained specifically for the purpose of cross-country skiing on the refuge.


The refuge is open and beautiful year-round, although spring and fall are especially pleasant times to visit for canoeing and birdwatching.



The refuge office and maintenance facility are located approximately eight miles east of Ortonville, MN (South Dakota border) and one-half mile west of Odessa, MN. From Highway 7/75, take Big Stone County Road #19 south approximately three-quarters of a mile.

Phone Numbers


(320) 273-2191