If you like snowmobiling in the Twin Cities, south metro counties offer the most trail miles in the metro area and connections as far south as Iowa.
But riding them assumes decent snowfall, which has been sporadic lately. Snow cover has been thin in the metro area since rain followed a foot of snow that fell Dec. 22, although recent snowfall has helped.
"I saw some tracks around town," said Mike McGinnis, of the Lakeville Sno Trackers Snowmobile Club.
Clubs like the Sno Trackers maintain and pay most expenses for the state's nearly 22,000 miles of trails, including about 1,750 miles in the 10-county metro area, according to the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Snowmobile clubs "are incredibly important to maintaining the trail system. We couldn't do it without their help," said Rachel Hintzman, DNR metro snowmobile trail supervisor.
The Sno Trackers have volunteered about 700 hours since October, grooming and posting signs on the 55 miles of trails the club maintains in Lakeville, McGinnis said.
With 272 groomed miles, Dakota County has the most trails among the seven metro counties, followed by Scott with nearly 250 miles and Anoka with 203 miles, DNR records show. The second-ring counties of Wright, Chisago and Isanti each have more than 200 miles of trails. Goodhue, abutting Dakota's southern border, has nearly 320 miles.
The number of trail miles has been fairly stable over the past four years in the metro area and statewide, Hintzman said.
The trails cross fields, ditches, wooded regional and state parks and zip along the peaceful Minnesota River Valley. Local snowmobile clubs cover about 60 percent of the maintenance costs, Hintzman said. She said the rest of the funds come from snowmobile license fees and gas taxes, distributed as DNR grants to local clubs at a rate of $332 per groomed mile in the metro area.
Why do about 250,000 Minnesota snowmobilers, including 9,300 registered riders in Dakota County, hit the trails?
"It's beautiful. The snow in the trees," said McGinnis, who rides with his wife and two kids. "You can't hear your phone. It's relaxing. We see eagles in the river valleys. It's a good way to get outside."
When snow is hard to find, as in 2012, license renewals and their fees dip, DNR grants shrink, and the clubs hold more fundraisers.
About 34,000 fewer snowmobile licenses were renewed in nearly snowless 2012 than in 2011, which had good snow cover, said Andrew Korsberg, DNR's state snowmobile trail coordinator. License renewals jumped by about 50,000 in the first half of fiscal 2013 compared to that period last year, DNR records show.
The state's snowmobile trail maintenance budget this year is $7.7 million, derived from gas taxes and license fees on the state's 219,000 registered riders, state records show. Annual registrations in the prior four years were slightly above 250,000 riders.
Fluffy white club rides were few and finances tight until December's foot-deep snowfall, Scott County trail administrator Terry Hutchinson said. Then hundreds hit the trails and thousands of riders renewed their three-year, $78.50 snowmobile license tabs, he said.
After the December dump, "everybody was going crazy," Hutchinson said. "I was getting calls from people who couldn't find trails, or about people riding through city parks," a no-no, he said. "People are trying to get to the trails. They take the shortest path."
Scott and Dakota trails connect to one another and lead into southern Minnesota, noted Roseann Schaack, administrator of the Dakota Trails Association. Her group grooms about 130 miles of trails.
"We are the gateway to Iowa," she said, chuckling.
Schaack, 67, said she started riding with her family decades ago. "I hated winter with a passion. I thought, 'I'll buy one of these and it'll give me something to do.' Now I'm mad because there's no snow to ride on," she said.
"Some people go south for the winter. I like our winters up here -- if we have them."
Jim Adams • 952-746-3283