State Park Winter Trail Sampler
With 76 state parks and more than 1,000 miles of park trails, winter scenery and activities like skiing, snowmobiling, sledding and snowshoeing are always within reach. Many state parks offer snowshoe and ski rentals and heated picnic shelters, and some feature winter lodging. This list provides a taste of each region, and the DNR’s website has more park trail information and a winter activities guide. Before hitting the trails, check with the DNR on required vehicle and trail permits including Minnesota ski passes and snowmobile state trail stickers.
Mille Lacs Kathio State Park
Central Minnesota on Mille Lacs Lake
Mille Lacs Kathio State Park is known for some of the best cross-country ski trails in the park system, and it offers just about every other winter recreation experience imaginable. Located 80 miles north of the Twin Cities, this state park has 19 miles of cross-country ski trails, 19 miles of snowmobile trails, a sledding hill, and marked snowshoe trails that range from a half-mile to 4.5 miles. The park’s Shakopee Lake and Ogechie Lake offer ice fishing for northern pike, walleye, bass, and panfish.
Park amenities include snowshoe and cross-country ski rentals and a trail center/warming house with a view of the sledding hill. The park’s interpretive center presents the natural and cultural history of this National Historic Landmark District. Occasional candlelight ski and snowshoe events offer a unique way to experience the trails.
Play and Stay:
Mille Lacs Kathio State Park rents campsites and rustic camper cabins that sleep five or six, with heat and electricity but no indoor plumbing. Motels and resorts are available near Mille Lacs Lake.
Visit Grand Casino Mille Lacs and the Mille Lacs Indian Trading Post (open year-round except January). Rent a fish house on Mille Lacs Lake, which has more than 5,000 ice fishing houses each winter!
Wild River State Park
Northeast of the Twin Cities Metro Area
One hour from the Twin Cities, Wild River State Park lures cross-country skiers with diverse, picturesque trails and unique park lodging. Thirty miles are groomed for classic cross-country, and 15 are skate-ski trails. The trails range from the easy, 1.5-mile River Trail with views of the St. Croix River and the Nevers Dam, to expert trails such as the two-mile Aspen Knob loop with steep hills through oak and pine woods.
The park has three miles of packed winter hiking trails and six miles of snowshoe trails. The trail center rents skis and the visitor center rents snowshoes. Winter park programs include animal tracking and candlelight skiing.
Play and Stay:
Wild River State Park rents a modern, secluded guesthouse that sleeps six, with bath, kitchen, fireplace, and TV. The guesthouse gets booked well in advance. The park also has campsites and rustic camper cabins that sleep five or six, with heat and electricity but no indoor plumbing. Area lodging includes hotels, motels, cabins, and B & Bs.
Gooseberry Falls State Park
On the North Shore in Northeast Minnesota
Gooseberry Falls State Park, located 40 miles north of Duluth, is a four-season North Shore destination. In winter, the views from the park’s high elevations and bridges are spectacular. The park has trails for skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and hiking, and frozen falls for ice climbing.
Twelve miles of traditional cross-country ski trails cater to diverse skill levels. Snowmobilers can explore two miles of park trails, which connect to the North Shore State Trail running along Lake Superior. Winter hikers have four miles of trail to explore, and snowshoeing is welcome anywhere except groomed trails. Ice climbers can scale the face of the frozen Lower Falls of the Gooseberry River, and climbing classes are offered by the U of M-Duluth.
The visitor center offers warmth and a Nature Store. Snowshoe and ski rentals are available from private vendors near the park.
Play and Stay:
Park campsites are available, and private cabins, motels, inns, and lodges are located within a few miles of the park.
Itasca State Park
Itasca State Park recently added skijoring to its winter trails menu, with seven miles of trails available to visitors and their dogs. Classic cross-country and skate skiers have 28 miles of trail from easy to difficult to choose from. Snowmobile trails circle the park perimeter for 31 miles and connect with area town trails. Snowshoeing trails are plentiful, and ice fishing is popular on Lake Itasca.
Winter park visitors can access the walkway to the Mississippi Headwaters to see the source of this famous river. A car trip along the Wilderness Drive loop offers views of the park’s tall white and red pines and a wilderness sanctuary. The park visitor center has snowshoe rental, interpretive exhibits, a Nature Store, and a fireplace. In January and February, look for candlelight trail events.
Play and Stay:
Itasca State Park rents suites that sleep six, as well as rustic campgrounds and backpack camping sites. The historic Mississippi Headwaters Hostel offers modernized, budget accommodations, and nearby towns have resort, B & B, and motel options.
Frontenac State Park
Southeast of the Twin Cities Metro Area
Located in southeast Minnesota on Lake Pepin, Frontenac State Park has a popular sledding hill with a lake view at the top and a nearby warming house/picnic shelter outfitted with a stove, firewood, and electricity. Nearly six miles of cross-country skiing trails are groomed, and warming houses are located at the two trail heads. Snowmobilers can explore 5.5 miles of groomed park trails that connect with several other grant-in-aid trails. Snowshoeing is welcome except on groomed trails, and eight miles of winter hiking trails are available.
North of the campground, find the historic In-Yan-Teopa, a limestone arch formed by glaciers. Birders may spot eagles and peregrine falcons. At the park office, rent snowshoes and shop at the Nature Store.
Play and Stay:
Frontenac State Park has a winter campground and rustic campsites. Within six miles of the park, find a B & B, hotel, or motel.