In case you haven't discovered it yet, Minnesota state parks can be pretty enticing in the winter. They show off the special beauty of the season: glistening snow shrouding pine and hardwood trees, frozen waterfalls, gurgling streams, deer trails, and animal tracks in the snow.
The Department of Natural Resources makes it easy to get out and explore the parks this winter: Check out the online Winter Activities Guide. These resources are your roadmap to winter fun, providing maps of state park locations and information on skiing, hiking and snowshoeing at state parks. You'll also find a calendar of special programs, which range from tracking animals to sleigh rides, and from maple syruping to moonlight walks.
Eighteen state parks even offer heated camper cabins: small, rustic, but warm places to bunk down for the night. All state parks are located near communities where you can find a hotel, B&B or resort nearby while you enjoy the park during the day.
Some of Minnesota's most scenic cross-country ski trails are in state parks. The rolling, wooded terrain of many of the parks is perfect for skiing, with most trails sheltered by pine and hardwood forests. The top 12 ski destination parks, located mostly in the Twin Cities area and northern Minnesota, have warming shelters open on weekends and holidays, and trails are groomed at least twice a week to keep parks in good shape for skiing any day of the week. Seventeen more are groomed weekends and holidays at a minimum.
Included among these are parks with extensive trail systems, with trail loops available for all levels of skiers. Itasca State Park, at the source of the Mississippi River, has 31 miles of classic ski trail, and 15 of skate-ski trail. Wild River, along the scenic St. Croix, has 30 miles of regular ski trails, and 15 for skate-skiing. Jay Cooke State Park, just outside Duluth, challenges skiers with rugged terrain, and rewards them with scenic overlooks and views of the St. Louis River; there are 32 miles of ski trail. Mille Lacs Kathio State Park is another favorite with skiers.
Mille Lacs, Wild River, Buffalo River, Flandrau and Glendalough state parks all rent cross-country skis for $10 a day. In addition to the top ski parks, 17 others are groomed for weekends and holidays, and 18 more parks have trails that are groomed occasionally.
In addition to park admission, skiers should have a Minnesota Ski Pass; daily passes ($6) are available at the parks, as are annual and three-year passes. The Ski Pass program supports the care and maintenance of ski trails across the state.
Snowshoeing has really increased in popularity in the past decade. When the snow piles up, snowshoes are a great way to get around, keeping you from sinking into the drifts. Twenty-five state parks offer snowshoe rental for $6 a day, and several offer guided snowshoe treks and instruction for beginners. It's an easy and fun way to try out this activity, and the wide expanse of snow-covered fields and woods make state parks great places to go exploring on these webbed wonders.
Walking in the woods during the winter is a special treat, with views of wildlife tracks, frozen waterfalls, trees and shrubs draped in snow, and views through the forest that are blocked by foliage the rest of the year. The stillness of the winter woods is a serene escape from the bustle of daily life.
Hikers are welcome at all state parks in the winter, but they should stay off groomed ski trails. Fifteen state parks have plowed or packed paths especially for winter walks, including 8 miles at Buffalo River State Park near Moorhead, 4 miles at Gooseberry Falls along the North Shore, and 4 miles at Afton in the Twin Cities area. Gooseberry Falls, Cascade and Jay Cooke, all with packed hiking trails, all offer spectacular scenery, with waterfalls and rapids.
Very popular at over the past few years are evening outings along short, easy trails lit with lanterns or luminaries, with a bonfire to warm you after your trek. Most of these candlelight events are for cross-country skiing, others are for snowshoeing and/or hiking, some for any of these activities.
Various state parks offer a variety of other winter programs as well, including an introduction to snowshoeing, ice fishing with kids, bird feeding, geocaching, and maple syruping at several state parks in March.
Consider giving a Minnesota State Parks gift card, which can be used to purchase a night of camping, equipment rental, or gift shop items at state parks. The gift cards are available at all state parks with office hours (while all the parks are open during the winter, not all have office hours).