On any given day — or night — folks head into Lake Elmo park’s snowy playground. Popularity exceeds 2013.
Amy Koltun looked out at the carefully preened ski trails of the Lake Elmo Park Reserve and wished that she was there.
A lunch date with her sister, who was just finishing up a cross-country ski trek, would keep her from strapping on her own skis and heading out into the chill on this brisk weekday afternoon.
But on most days, even those she calls “the worst, nastiest days,” Koltun, a lifelong skier who first started skiing the reserve several years ago, will make the drive from her Stillwater home to this scenic and snowy playground for her “only form of exercise in the winter.”
And she’s not alone.
For much of the winter, the park reserve’s 12.4 miles of ski trails — 5.4 of which are illuminated at night by LED lights — have been choked with outdoors enthusiasts looking for places to cross-country ski, hike, snowshoe and generally frolic as a way of warding off cabin fever.
County parks officials say the reserve has drawn 75,000 visitors in two months this year, compared with 63,000 skiers from January through March in 2013.
This, despite a bitterly cold winter that has flirted with the record for most days below zero (60), set in 1874-75.
“You’ve got skiers that would come out in pretty much any weather conditions: they’re training so they’ll always come out,” Washington County’s parks director, John Elholm, said last week. As the temperatures drop, he said, the skiers will simply don more layers.
Only die-hards venture out on really cold days, but whenever the temperature pushes into the 20s, dozens of skiers of all stripes can be found on the trail, said Ross Diller, a seasonal maintenance worker.
“I thought I was the only living soul out there, but I got into the woods with the trees and there were a million ski tracks,” Koltun said about a recent ski through the park.
The trails are used by several area high school cross-country teams and ski clubs, who gather on Tuesday nights to practice their classical and skate skiing techniques.
“They pack the joint every time they come here,” Diller said, sitting next to a fireplace inside the park’s Nordic Center.
The center, which serves as a shelter and meeting space, opened in the fall of 2012 as part of $1.3 million project that also included the installation of dozens of LED lights along several interconnected “loop” trails of varying distances and difficulties.
On mornings after heavy snowfall, park employees rise as early as 4 a.m. to groom the trails, county officials said.
It’s those “investments” that keep Brian Mueller coming back.
On a recent afternoon, he completed a 4-mile trek clad in a heavy jacket and snow pants.
“In Minnesota, you have two options,” the Oakdale resident said, breathing heavily as he snapped off his skis. “You can hibernate all winter, or you can find something to do.”