Just because the line between winter and spring can be muddled and muddy is no reason to stay indoors. With an adventuresome spirit and proper gear, you can enjoy the last of the snow while wearing a lighter jacket. You can also see, hear, smell and touch the earth quickening while winter fades. Lake Carlos State Park, a jewel of lakes, woods and rolling hills, is a pleasing place to experience this magnificent change of seasons.
Lake Carlos State Park, encompassing 1,236 acres, is 10 miles north of Alexandria on Hwy. 29, then 2 miles west on County Road 38. The park lies in the hardwood transition zone between Minnesota’s southwestern prairies and northeastern coniferous forests. This means that in the space of a few minutes, you can hike or ski from a tamarack bog to a maple-basswood forest or from the park’s open grasslands to a wooded ridge overlooking the expanse of Lake Carlos. The lake is the largest of the 11 in Alexandria’s famous Chain of Lakes, as well as one of Minnesota’s deepest lakes. The park grooms nine miles of snowmobile trails and six miles of cross-country ski trails. Snowshoes can be rented in the park and, besides hiking, might be the best way to experience the park when ski and snowmobile options have melted away.
My wife and I took in one of the park’s two candlelight cross-country ski outings this winter. We skied on groomed tracks marked by candles on either side of the trail. With a bright moon overhead, we skied along the shore of Lake Carlos before circling Hidden Lake through the hilly forest. It was a magical night with moonlight casting stark shadows amid puddles of silver light through the bare hardwoods. The candles added a friendly, warm glow as we twisted, climbed and dropped through the nighttime forest.
Pausing, we absorbed the sensations of the woods in winter: wind catching in the canopy, the sound of our breath and the fresh smell of crisp air. And, of course, the occasional feel of snow on our bottoms. After a break in the warming shelter sharing conversation with other skiers and snowshoers, we headed back out for another loop.
The park makes it easy to enjoy its winter wonders. You can check out free ice fishing, birding, campfire or kids’ discovery kits at the office. A ski outing around Hidden Lake offers a quiet respite. In place of human sounds, bird calls take over. Bald eagles coast overhead. Maybe you’ll see deer or hear the staccato beat of a pileated woodpecker. The park’s snowshoe trail meanders through the tamarack bog, which is not easily accessible at other times of the year.
It seems that the park catches its breath during this shoulder season. Soon enough, buds will pop and the sounds of summer will overtake it. But now is the time to savor the lamb side after winter’s lion.
Where to eat
The Hayloft in Carlos serves plentiful helpings of pizza, chicken and barbecue ribs (1-320-852-7905). Herby’s Bar, Grill and Café in Carlos boasts the best burgers around (1-320-852-7170; www.herbysincarlos.com). The Interlachen Inn, between lakes Darling and Le Homme Dieu, specializes in pan-fried walleye, prime rib and pasta (try the Le Homme Dieu) and has live entertainment (1-320-846-1051; www.interlacheninn.com).
Where to sleep
For an indoor water park and spacious facilities, try Arrowwood Resort in Alexandria (1-866-386-5263; www.arrowwoodresort.com). Spirit Cove Lodge in Garfield is a B&B with hiking and snowshoe trails on the grounds (1-320-834-7250; www.spiritcovelodge.com). Want to add to your late-winter adventure? Lake Carlos State Park features four camper cabins with heat and electricity. In addition, the park plows a couple of sites in the lower campground for hardier campers (1-320-852-7200; www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/lake_carlos).
What to do
AAAA Theatre in Alexandria features performances from October to May, including dramas, mysteries, musicals and comedies (1-320-762-8300; www.alexandriaareaarts.org). Carlos Creek Winery outside Alexandria produces reds and white wines from Minnesota grape varieties and sponsors tours and entertainment (1-320-846-5443; www.carlos creekwinery.com). Inspiration Peak State Wayside, 15 miles northwest of Lake Carlos State Park and administered by the park, boasts one of Minnesota’s best scenic vistas, accessible by a steep quarter-mile path. (1-320-852-7200; www.co.otter-tail.mn.us/inspirationpeak). Lakes Radio Theatre in Alexandria features live radio dramas on Friday nights (1-320-808-3841; www.lakesareatheatre.com). Runestone Museum and Fort Alexandria are noted for exhibits on Norse and Native American history, and restored period buildings (1-320-763-3160; www.runestonemuseum.org).
If you go
More information is available at Alexandria Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce (1-800-235-9441; www.VacationAlexandriaMN.com). For comprehensive information on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, go to www.dnr.state.mn.us.
Jim Umhoefer is a travel/outdoor writer and photographer from Sauk Centre, Minn.