We’d been watching the Olympics, so it was no surprise that as soon as the kids put on their cross-country skis, they looked for a big hill — and milked the bump at the bottom for all the air they could get. Later, on the tubing hill, even the 5-year-olds in our group wanted to try the plastic snowboards, with visions of half-pipes spurring them higher and higher up the steep, sparkling slope. With those and other activities just outside the cabin that we’d rented in northwest Wisconsin, it felt like a gold-medal weekend.
With two other families — five kids under 10 and two dogs over 70 pounds — we spent a fun-filled and surprisingly relaxing weekend near Danbury, about 2½ hours north and east of the Twin Cities (quick directions: go north on Interstate 35, then turn east at Tobies in Hinckley after you pick up some caramel rolls). Lakes surrounded by cabins, pine and oak adorn that corner of the map, a draw for cross-country skiers, snowmobilers, anglers and cabin owners who like to split wood.
In winter, we like to stay at the Heartwood Conference Center and Retreat, which offers cross-country skiing, sledding, a broomball court and skating rink on the lake — and a hot tub for grown-ups. It’s owned by Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, but you don’t have to be a member (or Lutheran) to stay there, and it is quite economical (lodge rooms start at $99 for the general public). Accommodations range from large, simple duplexes that sleep up to 14 (and allow dogs), to a lodge hotel. If you’re a gamblin’ man or you like more luxury, the St. Croix Casino’s hotel in Danbury might be for you. St. Croix State Park also has two guesthouses that are open year-round.
Heartwood offers about 20 kilometers of groomed ski trails, and the entire Danbury area is crisscrossed with snowmobile and ski trails, including at St. Croix State Park, and the Gandy Dancer Trail (for snowmobilers), which starts in Danbury. On weekends, packs of snowmobiles also zoom along state highways and county roads and across lakes.
At Forts Folle Avoine Historical Park, about 10 minutes from Danbury, you can see where fur traders built a stockade and trading post more than 200 years ago along the Yellow River. The visitor center and other sites are open year-round (with abbreviated hours in the colder months), and the park also has ski trails.
In Danbury, amusements center on the Log Cabin Store, where snowmobilers and boaters gas up, and which offers North Woods-themed gifts, wild rice, sporting goods (fishing licenses and bait, too), and a wall of hats and pelts, from fox to skunk, that fascinated our city kids. If you lose a mitten, this is the place to get a good pair of choppers.
The Log Cabin has a restaurant with pizza and fried chicken, plus 32 flavors of ice cream. Down the street, the Homestead Café and Bakery is a good choice for breakfast. The casino offers buffets, a restaurant and a deli. If you stopped at Tobies on your way up, you should take a different way back, through Grantsburg, and head to the Burnett Dairy Cooperative in Alpha, Wis., about a half-hour southwest of Danbury. The operation includes a deli with dozens of cheeses, and in recent years has added wine, gifts, a much bigger ice cream counter and indoor and outdoor dining areas. You should also buy some butter there; your toast will thank you.
Six months out
In summertime, you can bike on the crushed-limestone Gandy Dancer Trail south from Danbury all the way to St. Croix Falls. North from Danbury and across the Minnesota border, the trail is used by ATV riders. It’s also worth a trip back to Forts Folle Avoine for the Fur Trade Rendezvous in late July (July 25-27 this year). Whole families camp at the park dressed as fur traders, voyageurs, tanners, blacksmiths and other characters of the time. Visitors can walk through the encampment and ask questions, watch demonstrations of skills like archery or tomahawk throwing, and buy period trade goods. If you want to get out on the water, take a paddle on the Namekagon River, where you might see herons, snapping turtles or beavers. For better fishing, hit the Yellow River, where largemouth and smallmouth bass, northern pike and even muskies lurk.
If you go
Heartwood Conference Center and Retreat: Trego, www.heartwoodconferencecenter.com; 1-800-577-4848.
St. Croix Casino: Danbury, danbury.stcroixcasino.com; 1-800-238-8946.
St. Croix State Park: Hinckley, www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/st_croix; 1-866-857-2757
Log Cabin Store: Danbury, www.logcabinstoredanbury.com; 1-715-656-3116