Don’t let a little cold weather keep you from staying happy and healthy. Plenty of state parks and local recreation areas plow or pack miles of trails for winter walkers! Winter hiking in Minnesota is beautiful, rewarding, and is a great family activity.
QUARRY HILL NATURE CENTER
Lori Forstie is Public Relations and Outreach Coordinator at Quarry Hill Nature Center. The Quarry Hill Nature Center was established in 1972, and offers environmental education in a 329-acre city park; and an admission-free nature center featuring 30-plus species of live animals. Quarry Hill is a hotspot for bird watching and offers a 3-acre pond. “We hold many events in the park, including our featured Halloween event, Creatures of the Night, Run Wild 5K and Wild Child Dash, Summer Nature Day Camp, and Earth Day Activities,” said Forstie. Winter Offerings:
Candlelight Ski; January 31, 2020; celebrate Minnesota’s sparkling season and winter landscape. Enjoy an evening skiing by candlelight and the glow of the moon. Warm up in front of the Nature Center’s blazing fireplace while refueling with hot cocoa. Equipment is available on a first-come-first-serve basis. All ages are welcome – equipment is available in youth and adult sizes. Event is dependent on snow and trail conditions—so call ahead. This event is not recommended for first-time skiers.
Bagels and Birds; February 2, 2020; experience the beauty of birds up close when you join the naturalist in trapping, banding, and releasing songbirds. Learn about the amazing adaptations these birds have to survive MN winter outside as you enjoy a bagel or muffin, fruit, and a beverage inside.
Owl Moon; February 7, 2020; books, like a walk in the woods, can be an adventure and an escape. They open a new world to the reader – a world that can spark interest in the natural world and fuel imagination. Join a naturalist at the Prairie House site for a fireside reading of the children’s classic Owl Moon. “Late one winter night a little girl and her father go owling. The trees stand still as statues and the world is silent as a dream. Whoo-whoo-whoo, the father calls to the mysterious nighttime bird. But there is no answer. Wordlessly the two companions walk along, for when you go owling you don’t need words. You don’t need anything but hope. Sometimes there isn’t an owl, but sometimes there is.” Book reading begins promptly at 6 p.m. or 7:30 p.m., followed by an owl encounter and a 30-minute hike.
It’s Snow Crazy; February 9, 2020; get ready to experience snow like you never have before! Bring your mittens for snow games including ice bowling, snow snakes, and snowball toss and bring your creativity for snow creating. Materials are provided and (hopefully) Mother Nature provides the snow! Then go on an ‘I Spy Spring’ Hike to the new Prairie House to warm up and satisfy your sweet tooth with Mother Nature’s snow candy and hot cocoa. It will be ‘Snow’ Fun!
Valentine’s Candlelight Ski and Snowshoe; February 14, 2020; enjoy the sparkling winter landscape on a candlelit trail. Bring your sweetheart or come with friends for an enjoyable evening in nature. Then warm up by the crackling fire where champagne and sweets will be served. Equipment is provided by Quarry Hill. Alternate activities will be provided in the case of poor snow or trail conditions. Must be 21 or older to register.
RED WING PARK NATURALIST PROGRAM
Erin Aadalen is the Red Wing Park Naturalist, and her program was established in 2016. “We offer outdoor education and recreation programs to the public, and also are available for private events such as programs for scout troops, classrooms, youth groups, day cares, etc. We offer programs including guided hikes, fire building, birding, wetland ecology, animal adaptations, animal talks, and nature art,” explained Aadalen.
Probably the most popular trails exist at Memorial Park and the Mississippi National Golf Links; and both offer cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. These trails offer beautiful views of the bluff lands and the city of Red Wing. The Cannon Valley Trail also offers groomed cross-country ski trails, and it connects Red Wing, Welch, and Cannon Falls.
Here one can catch a great glimpse of the Cannon River; and it is also an awesome place to see winter wildlife. Finally, a Red Wing local favorite is He Mni Can-Barn Bluff, which overlooks the Mississippi River, in the heart of downtown Red Wing. These trails are great for snowshoeing or hiking with Yaktrax® cleats. Follow the South Trail to the west overlook, to see a stunning view of the Mississippi River. But please respect trail closures, as certain trails can be very icy and unstable (always be prepared with a first aid kit, water, and flashlight; and know your personal limits). Frontenac State Park is hosting a candlelight trails event on February 8. Come and ski, snowshoe, or hike by candlelight.
It’s a great way to see the park in a different light. The trails are great for bird watching during the spring migration. During the winter, see various tracks in the snow left by wildlife.
“In Red Wing, our trails highlight our ability to experience nature right in the middle of our town. You never have to travel far to get to a trail or park to exercise and take in the sights of the outdoors,” Aadalen commented.
All of the city parks are free to use, and all of the park naturalist programs are no cost or low cost as well. Red Wing, in general, has many restaurants and coffee shops that are close to parks and trails, both in the downtown and West End corridor areas.
THE DOUGLAS STATE TRAIL
This is a paved 12.5-mile, multiple-use trail, developed on an abandoned railroad grade. It crosses outstanding rural scenery, traversing some of the richest agricultural land in Minnesota. The trail begins in northwestern Rochester, travels through the small town of Douglas (for which the trail is named) and terminates in Pine Island. It is generally level and wheelchair accessible.
You will pass through a scenic mix of forest, rolling fields and pastures. Partridge and pheasant live in the woods, and toward Rochester, geese become more abundant. Little-used county roads offer an opportunity to plan a circular route. One treadway is paved for bicyclists, hikers, and in-line skaters. A second treadway has a natural surface for horseback riders and snowmobilers.
CHIMNEY ROCK – WHITEWATER STATE PARK
Another geologic wonder of Minnesota, found in the amazingly beautiful Whitewater State Park, is Chimney Rock. Whitewater sits in the absolute heart of bluff country, northeast of Rochester about 30 miles, and the hikes and scenic overlooks are amazing. One of the hikes takes you up to an overlook on the east side of the park. On the way up, you will pass Chimney Rock, a 40-foot tall limestone rock column that has been worn away so you can actually climb around in it. Coyote Point and Eagle Point are both pretty good hikes in this park too.
Elba is a tiny little town nestled deep in a valley in southeastern MN, just north of Whitewater State Park. The steep, picturesque bluffs and the quaint feel of the secluded little hidden gem of a town will make you feel a million miles away from everything, in a good way. Just outside of town is the Elba Fire Tower, which, if you can stomach the heights, provides breathtaking panoramic views of bluff country.
GREAT RIVER BLUFFS
Great River Bluffs State Park is known for its spectacular views of the Mississippi River Valley and the area farmlands. This park, near Winona, officially opened in 1976 and is part of the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood Forest, where ancient seas, wind and meltwater created this landscape. The state park comprises 3,000 acres and is open year-round for those hardy enough to venture in.
Most of the hikes in the park are fairly easy, making them ideal places to start the kids on snowshoes. Choose short hikes or longer loops from the 6.3 miles of trails in the park. From the north end of the parking area where you enter the park, access the King’s Bluff Trail and go north. You can take the 4.5-mile circuit of easy trails, allowing about two hours. Along the way you will travel along the majestic river bluffs and through hardwood forests. Don’t miss the out-and-back to King’s Bluff, just under one mile.
THE HARMONY-PRESTON VALLEY STATE TRAIL
The Trail runs 18 miles on a north-south line between the town of Harmony and the Root River State Trail, which it meets between Lanesboro and Fountain. The paved trail is mostly level, although a section just north of Harmony is relatively steep. An old railroad right-of-way creates the foundation for the northern two-thirds of the Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail. The northern portion of this section passes through lush woodlands and farmlands as it winds along and across Watson Creek, the South Branch of the Root River, and Camp Creek.
The southern portion begins in Harmony, noted for its rich Amish heritage and green business operations. The trail leaves the railroad grade and climbs up through some of its most challenging sections as it continues north out of the river bottom to the valley rim, offering broad vistas of the surrounding countryside. Just 0.5 mile from Harmony, an interpretive site highlights some of the glacial history of the area.
From Preston, continuing another 5.5 miles north and casually paralleling the South Branch of the Root River, the trail links up with the Root River State Trail just east of Isinours Junction (and a northern trailhead parking option), providing an additional 42 miles of trail network. The Harmony–Preston Valley State Trail is popular with cyclists, hikers, and in-line skaters; cross-country skiing and show-shoeing is popular during winter. Restrooms and parking are available at the trailheads in both Preston and Harmony.
THE GREAT RIVER RIDGE STATE TRAIL
The Great River Ridge State Trail runs for 13 miles between County Road 9, just north of Eyota, and 3rd St. SW, just north of Wabasha Street in the town of Plainview, which serves as the agricultural hub of the area. The entire trail is paved, and there is an additional adjacent trail with a natural surface for horseback riders and snowmobilers between the current southern trailhead at County Rd. 9 and the town of Elgin.
The trail traverses both flat and some hilly terrain through a largely open agriculture-dominated landscape. Wind and sun can be intense at times and few amenities are available along the trail, so it is important to bring plenty of water. In the northern section, the trail parallels MN 42 to Elgin, where it begins to head more westerly.
From Elgin, the trail passes largely through agricultural landscapes, where some shade is provided along a partially wooded corridor, especially along a section that parallels the North Fork of the Whitewater River as you approach Viola. Future development of the trail also includes extending it to Carley State Park, about 4 miles east of Elgin. Carley State Park serves as an overflow campground for Whitewater State Park, a few miles farther to the southeast.
FLANDRAU STATE PARK
Flandrau State Park is a lesser-known state park in New Ulm, but it is very beautiful under a fresh blanket of snow. The River Trail is short, but you can easily expand it by taking a left fork along the Old Dam Trail, or a right to do the Old Island Loop.
No matter what, you’ll be struck with some of the most gorgeous views in New Ulm. Nestled in the valley of the Big Cottonwood River, this state park offers hikers and cross-country skiers a diversity of trails and landscapes; from wooded river bottoms to oxbow marshes – to scenic hill prairies. Explore eight miles of foot trails in the summer, which are converted to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails in the winter. There are many opportunities for wildlife observation, and there are also three campgrounds to serve the electric, non-electric and rustic campers. The park also contains historic WPA buildings and a group center.
By Pat Garry