A Minnesota Beach Where There is No Water

A Minnesota Beach Where There is No Water

As school children, most of us learned about the last ice age, in the Pleistocene Epoch, during which the Laurentide Ice Sheet covered more than half of North America. Between 13,000 and 8,500 years ago, the ice sheet went through multiple melt phases in which the ice sheet created a giant glacial lake–Lake Agassiz, named for Swiss-American Geologist Louis Agassiz, one of the first to postulate about our past ice ages.

Lake Agassiz was a massive body of fresh water in the middle of North America, larger than all of the Great Lakes combined. As the ice sheet retreated, ice dams held back the meltwater to create glacial Lake Agassiz. As the lake drained, sometimes slowly, other times in sudden, catastrophic outflows, the lake shrank and changed, leaving behind a table-flat landscape with some of the richest farmland in the world, and even sandy beaches from it’s ever-shifting shoreline. To the geologically educated, the signs of Lake Agassiz are everywhere, but even to those like myself, without a geologic eye, there are places where you can see the remains of this monster lake. In late May of 2017, I visited one of those places, outside Fertile, Minnesota. It’s a Minnesota beach where there is no water.

Lake Agassiz Dunes
An early 19th Century map of Lake Agassiz by Warren Upham. Today, Lake Agassiz is believed to have been even larger than what is represented on this map.

Not having ever been to this fascinating place, I initially had some trouble finding my way in. There’s a separate attraction, the Agassiz Dunes Natural Area, a wildlife observation preserve, just to the south, but there is a tract of privately owned land that separates it from the actual dunes I had come to see. After some searching, I discovered the Agassiz Dunes are accessible via a series of horse and snowmobile trails just west of the golf course on the southwest edge of Fertile.

Lake Agassiz Dunes

Above: Standing at the top of the dune on the north edge of the site, looking south. Interestingly, if you turn around and look north, the view from this spot looks down into a ravine that looks much more typical of Minnesota (below). These dunes were formed as the ice sheet retreated and the weather became dry and hot. In wetter times, foliage appears and covers the dunes, and in dry periods, the growth retreats and the sand becomes more visible.

Lake Agassiz Dunes

Lake Agassiz Dunes

The sand feels just like beach sand. It’s a soft, fine grain sand that shifts beneath your feet when you walk on it.

Lake Agassiz Dunes

Lake Agassiz Dunes

There were deer tracks in the sand in a number of places, but this area is owned by the city of Fertile and there is no hunting allowed.

Lake Agassiz Dunes

Above: The sign once bore the name of this particular dune. “Death Valley,” an active, unstable dune.

Lake Agassiz Dunes

Above: Looking north. The path to the left leads to the Death Valley dune.

Lake Agassiz Dunes

As I stood looking at the scene shown above, it occurred to me that when you grow up in a place, you just get used to certain things and don’t give much thought to them. Like, why there are businesses dedicated to sand and gravel all over the area, or why places are named the way they are, like the Sandhill River or the Sandhill River Golf Course. Sometimes there are interesting stories behind those places.

Lake Agassiz Dunes

Walk a quarter mile in another direction, and you wouldn’t know you’re in a geologically unique area… it just looks like Minnesota.

Lake Agassiz Dunes

About a half-mile to the south is the Agassiz Dunes Natural area. There’s a small parking area just off the road where you can get out and enjoy nature, watch birds, etc…

Lake Agassiz Dunes

Above: The tire tracks from my vehicle show how sandy the soil is.

Lake Agassiz Dunes

Lake Agassiz Dunes

What do you know about Glacial Lake Agassiz and the Agassiz Dunes? Please leave a comment below.

Photos by Troy Larson, copyright © 2017 Sonic Tremor Media



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8 thoughts on “A Minnesota Beach Where There is No Water

  1. I lived very close to there in Sioux City, Iowa for nearly 50 years and never knew it existed.. I am now wondering if a suburb of Sioux City, Dakota Dunes, So Dakota is part of this sandy land.

  2. I grew up near Dahlen, ND where the best example of “eskers” is found. It is an upside down river bed on the shores of Lake Agassiz. Google “Dahlen Eskers” to find more about it. I didn’t know what it was as I was growing up. It looks like a miniature mountain range and is very interesting. Many Indian artifacts have been found within miles of the eskers. Lots of history there!

  3. I visited this area last summer thanks for making more people aware of how our grand world has functioned for so many thousands of years

  4. In the winter, I groom ski trails in this beautiful 640 acre natural area open to the public. Also has the Sand Hill River flowing through which is getting to be a popular kayak trip. Prairie flowers now blooming around the site. Thank you glacial Lake Agassiz!

  5. I grew up in Fergus Falls. Go west of town about 8 miles and you can see almost the same thing. As the lake levels dropped, the beach line moved with it. I’m glad my science teacher had the knowledge to teach us about this interesting feature. Definitely want to check this out now!

  6. I grew up on the “first”, or the lowest of the 7 beaches of lake Agassiz, the last towards crookston on hiway 102. Gravel pits galore! Horseback riding, fourwheeling, you name it! It was fun learning about this history all on my own, even though I went to school at fertile-beltrami. It was a great location to grow up and hope to move back there.

  7. Remember visiting these dunes when in High School in Fertile, before it was declared a wilderness area. There was one big bowl we used to have a lot of fun in ….. wonder if it’s still there !!

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