On a Saturday at dusk in the Vermillion Highlands, Tim Loesch of Rosemount is tethered to his dog, Dude, a gigantic, enthusiastic golden retriever. They've just started learning to skijor.
"It's a blast," he said. "He likes to run."
Loesch hesitates to talk about skiing the Lone Rock Trail. Right now, he's the only one out here — aside from a reporter and her skiing companion — and he rather prefers that.
"It's very peaceful," he said. "Unlike all of the other parks around, it's not developed. There's not that many places [like this]."
The 10.5-mile trail, south of UMore Park in Rosemount, is far enough out and sufficiently tucked into the rolling terrain that it's easy to feel alone. The trail winds through fields and patches of native prairie, alongside barbed-wire fences and windbreaks of pine. Cockleburs and soybeans peek out of snowdrifts. Sections of the trail zigzag down into marshes and stands of aspen, birch and pine.
Loesch likes the remote feeling of the place, and he puts in about 50 miles out here a winter. Occasionally, he said, he meets a person skiing, snowshoeing or hiking.
In contrast, that same evening, more than 1,000 people crowded into Lebanon Hills in Eagan, another Dakota County cross-country ski destination, for its annual Trails by Candlelight. The parking lots were full, and buses with fogged windows crammed with people and skis ran back and forth from a nearby church.
On the Marsh Lake beginner loop, a relatively flat trail, the chatty groups of skiers fell quiet as they headed single file into the dark woods. Glowing luminaries led the way, and through the trees, skiers could glimpse the frozen moonlit lake and the flashing red lights of other skiers. At warming bonfires, park workers served cups of hot chocolate.
According to Katie Pata, Dakota County Parks operations coordinator, the event drew its highest attendance ever. While the park is not typically that busy, the parking lots tend to fill up on weekends when the temperature is above 15, she said.
The woodsy 2,000-acre park, with 15 miles of trails, is popular, she said, because of that "Up North vibe you get when you ski here." People ski there for daily fitness, she said, and use it to train for the Birkebeiner in Wisconsin, the largest cross-country ski race in North America.
She steers beginners to areas around the visitor center and advises more advanced skiers to park at the Jensen trailhead and ski the center section. "There are several downhills and downhills with corners," she said, "which is a really high-level skill. It's a little bit more thrilling."
She considers the other Dakota County parks trails — the Lone Rock Trail, with its short hill climbs, as well as Spring Lake Park Reserve in Hastings, a four-mile course popular because of its blufftop views of the Mississippi River Valley — intermediate level. "I go to Spring Lake if I want to work out," she said.
Windy days, she said, can make those trails less hospitable, as winds can blow sections of the Lone Rock Trail shut pretty quickly and can make the blufftop runs a bit brisk.
Also in Dakota County but not part of the parks system, Ritter Farm Park in Lakeville has 5.7 miles of trails. Lakeville Parks and Recreation Director Brett Altergott said people of any level can find a place to ski there, but "it's not a flat course," he said. "There is a lot of elevation change." The trails wind through oaks and maples and past native prairie, and are "just nice and peaceful," he said.
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.