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Best Bets for Winter Fun

State parks and trails offer hot tickets to cold-weather fun. Try these.

Can a Minnesota winter be snowy and cold? Yah, you betcha. But the hard northern winters also make Minnesota one of the nation's premier places for winter sports. Speed down a sliding hill. Savor a silent moonlit evening. With your ski poles a-flyin' or snowmobile a-blazin', you'll cruise right by winter blues. Here are some winter wonders and wanderings.

Visit state parks online or call 888-MINNDNR.

On and Off Trail

Snowshoe: Jay Cooke State Park reaps the benefits of Lake Superior's maritime effect, which results in an annual average snowfall of more than 5 feet. Tromp through the white stuff on 10 miles of marked trails. Or go off trail—the entire park is open for snowshoeing, and part of the thrill is venturing into backcountry haunts that can't normally be reached in summer.

Snowmobile: Matthew Lourey State Trail runs for 80 miles through St. Croix State Park, as well as three state forests, along its way from Pine City to Holyoke. At St. Croix State Park, assistant manager Dave Felleson invites snowmobilers to enjoy the wide, smooth trail and stop to roast a meal on a fire pit in the trail center warming house. "I start [the fire] in the morning," he says, "and it's maintained by the riders for the rest of the day." Find maps, virtual tours, and trail-condition reports.

Over Hills

Sliding: Fort Ridgely State Park has great hills for sliding or sledding. Whatever you call it, careening down a hill at top speed is sure to give you a thrill. Fort Ridgely, about a two-hour drive southwest of the Twin Cities, features three runs on two sliding hills. Two runs on the largest hill are reserved for tubing, and the smaller hill is open to sleds, skis, and snowboards. Bring your own sled, or rent a tube at the park.

"It's a fun, yet economical day," assistant manager Al Sobrack says. "Bring some hot dogs to roast over the fire for lunch or dinner." There is a fireplace in the chalet, where you will also find outlets to plug in your slow cooker or coffee maker.

Cross-country ski: Wild River State Park is one of the state's top-tier skinny-ski destinations, with 30 miles groomed for classic cross-country and 15 miles for skate-ski. On a windy day, seek out the five-mile wooded Deer Creek Loop. Assistant manager Shawn Donais and his wife, Kia, favor the Mitquaki Loop and the "Big Fast Hill" on the river access road.

"The Mitquaki Loop rolls along the Dry Creek gorge," says Kia. "It offers beautiful views, challenging but manageable hills, and is the perfect distance for skiing with kids, with warm, dry resting places at both ends."

On Ice

Ice climb: Gooseberry Falls State Park has ice-covered cliffs to climb. This extreme sport requires the skills (and nerves) of a rock or mountain climber. Imagine flexing every muscle in your body, and your adrenaline is pumping. You swing your ice axe one more time and you're there—the top of the frozen Lower Falls of the Gooseberry River.

"It's an exciting and fun thing to do if you like adventure in your life," says park manager Audrey Butts. "It's a great place to learn and then, once you're comfortable, explore other areas along the North Shore."

The rush of ice climbing comes from getting over your fear. If you can do that, the University of Minnesota Duluth can teach you how to climb. An all-day class includes guide, instruction, and gear.

Ice fishing: Mille Lacs Kathio State Park offers variety for ice anglers. Head to any of the three lakes within the park for northern pike, walleye, bass, and panfish. Drive to Shakopee Lake for consistent catches. Ski, snowshoe, or snowmobile to Ogechie Lake, where there's less competition from other anglers. And of course, there's always mighty Lake Mille Lacs, one of the state's premier ice fishing lakes for walleye and pike.

Don't know how to ice fish? Learn about jiggle sticks and ice safety by attending "I Can Fish: Ice Fishing 101" at the park on Jan. 15.

In the Night

Candlelight: Harmony–Preston State Trail becomes a glowing winter wonderland on the evening of Saturday, Jan. 15. Flickering candles along 1.5 miles of trail light the way through dark, snowy woods. Ski or stroll along the luminaries, then warm up at a bonfire at the Trailhead Inn. The inn, located in Preston, hosts this illuminating event, which finishes with a chili cook-off. Call 888-845-2100 or 507-765-2153 for information.

Lantern light: Itasca State Park offers nighttime snowshoeing, classic cross-country skiing, and skate skiing along a 1.5-mile trail lined with old-fashioned kerosene lanterns on the evenings of Jan. 15 and Feb. 12.

"Skiing at night is amazing," says park naturalist Connie Cox. Though snow sparkles in the light of the lanterns, Cox says, "You have to trust your skis because it is harder to see the curves the trail takes."

Consider spending the night in one of the park suites.

Moonlight: Whitewater State Park celebrates the magic of a winter full moon, when nighttime is so bright you don't need a flashlight. Moonlit snowshoe walks follow the Whitewater River, helping people see, hear, and feel winter's beauty, including the calls of owls and the leafless silhouettes of trees.

Park naturalist Dave Palmquist keeps a fire going at the visitor center, where he serves up hot chocolate and participants read winter-themed writings from Thoreau, Frost, and Leopold.

"Winter can be harsh," he says, "but when you drink hot chocolate, crunch snow under your snowshoes, and experience the stillness of a moonlit night, winter can be truly enjoyable."

Cozy cabins: Bear Head Lake State Park, honored as America's Favorite Park in an online poll last summer, has four new cabins for rent. The cabins offer electric heating, outlets, an outdoor fire ring, and plenty of space for up to six people. Venture down nine miles of ski trails that wind along Bear Head Lake's north and east bays. Or explore off trail by snowshoe. After the park closes at 10 p.m., you'll have the whole 4,500-acre place to yourself.

"The Aspen cabin is a visitor favorite, because it's more secluded than the other new cabins. It sleeps up to six people, as do most of the cabins, and all of them have the 'up north' style, look, and feel," says park manager Jen Westlund.

Reserve a state park cabin online.

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