On a mid-December morning, the air bites so frigidly that even the snow seems to protest with a stiff squeak as skis swish through the tracks. A few quick glides beyond the trail leads to a pretty scene that looks natural on first glimpse: a snow-covered pond with a rocky edge.
Study it more closely, though, and parts of the ledge start to seem artificially steep. The rocks are suspiciously square. The occasional cube of granite sports rough ridges left by dynamite, blasts that regularly reverberated throughout St. Cloud from the late 1800s into the 1950s.
These days, the 625-acre Quarry Park and Nature Preserve is a much quieter place, offering a woodsy escape for skiers, snowshoers and winter hikers.
More than 4.2 miles of winter trails loop through this vast park spanning about 30 abandoned quarries. Traditional skiers can choose the 2.2-mile outer trail or an inner 2-mile loop. There’s also a 3.5-kilometer stretch for skate skiers, where they can glide along with graceful speed.
On this far western edge of the city it’s quiet enough to hear the distant whistle of trains and the rustle and rattle of brown oak leaves that refused to fall. The arthritic oak branches canopy parts of the trail, with pines or birch flanking other stretches.
Stripped of summer’s thick curtains of leaves, winter woods make it easy to see “grout piles.” These rugged mounds of discarded quarry rocks tower above the trees like funeral cairns for giants. On thick summer days, breezes stir deliciously cool air that lurks deep within these grout piles, a wisp of natural air conditioning on the 10-minute walk from the parking lot to the designated swimming quarry. In the winter, the grout piles shelter skiers from the wind.
Haley Entner and Dayna White, friends and work colleagues, dodged dangerous windchills by sticking to a loop dotted with woods and rock piles, avoiding the park’s open stretch of prairie known for midsummer’s Indian paintbrush. They wrapped up a morning outing with frost flocking their hair and hats.
While Entner visits Quarry Park often with her family during the summer and fall, she fell in love with the winter season more recently during the annual moonlight ski. Sponsored by the park and the Nordic Ski Club of Central Minnesota, this year’s event happens Friday, Jan. 3 from 6 to 10 p.m., includes free admission (the county normally charges $5 for parking), a bonfire and heated gathering area, hot cocoa, and free ski rentals through Fitzharris Sports or Revolution Bike and Ski with advance in-person reservations. “We went out there and just had a blast,” Entner said. She now prefers the snowy season above others at the park. “It’s so much more peaceful out there in the winter,” she says.
All of the ski trails are considered flat enough for beginners with a few gentle hills. The easy terrain leaves visitors with enough energy to ponder the land’s history.
The first quarry opened in the early 1860s, with granite growing into an international commodity and St. Cloud earning the nickname “The Granite City.” St. Cloud Red Granite, which came from the park’s quarries, was used for St. Paul’s Landmark Center and the James J. Hill House.
The region still claims the world’s biggest granite producer, Coldspring, along with many other granite and rock companies with sheds and showrooms spread along the Highway 23 corridor. The Stearns History Museum has a permanent granite quarry display, and Quarry Park itself continues to add to its interpretive displays, currently featuring quarrying equipment and a derrick that’s occasionally demonstrated.
Quarrying on what’s now park property ceased in the mid-1950s, letting Mother Nature take over. The giant granite bowls filled with spring water, making them irresistible to youth and college students.
“Swimming and partying at the quarries were a longtime tradition,” says Peter Theisen, Stearns County parks director.
The 112-foot-deep swim quarry remains the park’s biggest attraction, but the park’s other areas offer secluded and scenic spots for trout fishing, scuba diving, rock-climbing and challenging mountain bike trails. In the summer, hikers can find marsh marigolds while walking across a floating boardwalk, yellow lady’s slippers in the woods, and even prickly pear cactus on the dry, rocky outcroppings.
Winter suffuses the park with more subtle beauty: iced branches that glitter like crystals, cool blue-gray shadows and pale sunshine mingling on a canvas of snow, and the brighter blend of clear sky, dark pine and etched trees.
Returning after dark, the park feels even quieter. Trail lights shine like hip-high beacons, welcoming skiers to weave along its granite legacy while soaking in the beauty of a winter’s night.
Lisa Meyers McClintick is a travel writer based in St. Cloud, Minn., and the author of Day Trips from the Twin Cities.