After a 220-mile drive from the Twin Cities to the North Shore, and a 1 ½-mile trek on cross-country skis into the silent, frozen woods, I arrived at the little rustic cabin, nestled along a small wilderness lake sparkling with fresh snow.
Ready to relax.
The old cabin had electric lights, a propane heater, wood stove, and no running water, TV or phone. A web of groomed ski trails loomed just outside. It was a perfect winter getaway, a place to explore the rugged North Shore woods and lakes on skis or snowshoes, or snuggle up with a good book.
A cherished family retreat? Nope.
It’s one of five rustic cabins open to the public at Tettegouche State Park — and just one of Minnesota’s many unique state park winter destinations. Whether ice fishing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, snowmobiling or winter camping in a tent or cozy cabin, the state’s 76 parks and recreation areas offer a panoply of winter adventures.
Early snow and cold have made this December the best start to the winter recreation season in years. The biggest problem: Deciding where to go. Here’s a at look at four possibilities. Don’t have gear? Some parks rent skis, some rent snowshoes, and some rent both.
The North Shore is one of the state’s most popular winter getaways, for good reason. It has everything — miles of ski and snowmobile trails, plus spectacular Lake Superior.
Besides the rustic cabins and views, Tettegouche’s 9,500 acres beckon with 15 miles of ski trails. Twelve miles of snowmobile trails bisect the park and connect to the popular C.J. Ramstad/North Shore State Trail, which runs from Duluth to Grand Marais.
And four inland lakes offer remote ice fishing experiences.
If a cabin is too urbane, you can always set up a tent in the park’s campground or walk-in sites.
“We keep a number of the sites plowed out so they can be used during the winter,’’ said Jason Peterson, assistant park manager. “And we’re one of the only places that has a heated shower building open year-round.’’
Two of the park’s more dramatic vistas, 60-foot High Falls on the Baptism River and Shovel Point on Lake Superior, are accessible by winter trails. The park rents snowshoes, which you’ll need: So far, more than 2 feet of snow has blanketed Tettegouche, including another 6 inches last weekend. A new park visitor center is expected to open later this winter.
A gem in western Minnesota, straddling the transition zone between prairie and forest, Glendalough offers a special winter experience.
The park’s Annie Battle Lake is a “heritage fishery,’’ meaning there are special regulations, including no motors, electronics or power ice augers. Not to worry, the park has hand augers to use. Bluegills and crappies are the main target.
Glendalough’s 2,700 acres include seven miles of groomed cross-country ski trails, and a sledding hill for the kids. “Some years we’ll have more folks out on the sledding hill than will be out skiing,’’ said Jeff Wiersma, park manager.
And snowshoers are welcome to explore the park. (There are no snowmobile trails.) The park rents both skis and snowshoes. When you’ve had your fill of outdoor fun, gather in the heated trail center building or retreat to one of the four little rustic camper cabins nestled in the woods.
“A lot of people come to ski, some to snowshoe, some to ice fish and others are just looking to get away and find peace and quiet,’’ said Wiersma.
And there’s wildlife: deer, turkeys, fox, coyote and sometimes trumpeter swans and geese.
The park’s history is novel, too. The then-owner of the Minneapolis Tribune bought it in 1928 and used it as a private game farm and corporate retreat. Among its famous guests: Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. The newspaper donated the land in 1990. Check out the restored historic lodge for more on the rich history.
Mille Lacs Kathio
Just 100 miles from the Twin Cities, Mille Lacs Kathio is 10,000 acres of woods and lakes in central Minnesota — the state’s fourth-largest state park. The allure: 20 miles of cross-country ski trails, ranging from easy to difficult. Another 19 miles of snowmobile trails cut through the park, linking with other trails.
And there’s snowshoeing and ice-fishing, too.
“Shakopee Lake is a popular ice fishing lake, and we have a hike-in ‘heritage fishery’ on Black Bass Lake,’’ said Ron Jones, park manager. “A fair number of people will go in there and fish for sunfish. You can’t use a power auger or electronics. It’s a beautiful setting.’’
The park has five camper cabins open year-round.
“They are full most weekends, and from Christmas through New Years, they are pretty much filled every day,’’ Jones said. “It’s a nice experience. You have the whole park to roam around in.’’
The park rents skis and snowshoes. Just bring your enthusiasm. At last check, the park had about 10 inches of snow.
The allure of Wild River State Park: “It’s a short drive from the Twin Cities, but because the park is so large, you get the feeling you’re up north in a wilderness,’’ said Paul Kurvers, park manager.
“If you like cross-country skiing, this is definitely a destination. We have about 55 kilometers of groomed cross country ski trails, for both skate and classic styles.’’
The ‘wild’ refers to the stunning St. Croix River, one of the first to be protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The park borders 18 miles of the river, and trails wind along it, offering visitors a glimpse of bald eagles, otters and trumpeter swans.
Snowmobilers will have to look elsewhere; there are no trails here. But there are winter hiking and snowshoe trails and a heated trail center to warm up. A concessionaire at the park rents skis and snowshoes.
The park’s six rustic camper cabins are popular with skiers and snowshoers. “They’re busy all winter long,’’ Kurvers said. Snow conditions are excellent.
“This is a good time to explore the park on snowshoes,’’ Kurvers said.