Though much of Minnesota is very cold in winter, many individuals can still go out and do their thing on hiking trails in 64 state parks and 55 state forests, as well as the state’s two national forests. The southeastern part of the state has somewhat warmer winter weather, making it a desirable area for snowshoeing. The bluffs that rise high above the Mississippi River are the Oneota Dolomite, Jordan sandstone, Saint Lawrence formation if you wonder about this unique geology.
Many of the trails throughout the state can be navigated on snowshoes and cross-country skis. In fact, winter is the only season to visit some of these trails, as many go over marshes and wetlands. Always be sure to carry extra layers, food, and water, and remember that there are shorter hours of daylight. Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return. All Minnesota state parks require a vehicle permit, which is available for $35 and good all year.
GREAT RIVER BLUFFS STATE PARK
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 souls 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.
BEAVER CREEK VALLEY STATE PARK
Beaver Creek Valley State Park is west of Caledonia and features 7.5 total miles of trails to hike on snowshoes. This state park comprises 1,214 acres and is rated one of the best in the state because of its unique plant life, steep bluffs, and interesting geology.
A favorite hike is a route up the switchbacks of the bluff overlooking the valley. This is the shortest and steepest hike in the park, about 1.25 miles round-trip, and accessed from the parking lot near the picnic area. Rated easy to moderate, the route goes up the bluffs, gaining 250 feet above the creek. There are several alternate routes along the creek that are less strenuous hikes in case some in your party are not up to tackling the heights.
WHITEWATER STATE PARK
Whitewater State Park, on State Highway 74 near Altura is another great place to snowshoe in winter for several reasons. You’ve got the whole park to play around in, 2,700 acres, with no groomed cross-country ski trails here to avoid and snowshoe rental is available at the Visitor Center. Seasonal conditions prevail, so the only drinking water and flush toilets are located at the Visitor Center too, though vault toilets are always open.
This park offers many special programs including a geocaching tour on December 15, the Owl Prowl on December 29, and a Hidden History tour on January 5. Each Saturday in February there are Snowshoe Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., which are naturalist-led outings. If you don’t have your own equipment, borrow their snowshoes! See the event calendar on the website for other events for the rest of the season.
LOST CREEK TRAIL
Lost Creek Trail is near Chatfield and is a relatively new trail, opened in October 2011 and maintained by the Bluff Country Hiking Club that constructed it. The trail runs about 6 miles, out and back, and is rated moderate. This route will take about three hours and offers a range of terrain, including forest, prairie, pasture and agricultural land.
The trail is open to the public specifically for hiking and snowshoeing, as the trail surface is soil and grass. Visit the Bluff Country Hiking Club website for more details. And remember that this trail, like the others reviewed above is closed during firearm hunting season.
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