– Sunshine and freshly groomed trails at Itasca State Park this week attracted families from across the globe — including the Meissners of Jena, Germany, who went off snowshoeing for the first time Tuesday afternoon.

“It doesn’t feel like Christmas without the snow,” said Sarah Meissner, who grew up in Ulen, Minn., and returns to the state each year with husband Stefan and daughters Laila, 7, and Ella, 5, to see family members over the holidays.

Back home in Germany, she said, it’s 50 degrees and rainy. So they were thrilled with the foot of snow that shut down most of the state over the weekend.

After renting four pairs of snowshoes from the park’s bustling visitor center, they pulled on snow pants, strapped on metal frame shoes and took off with map in hand to wander over miles of trails.

They shared paths alongside skiers like the Rowekamp family, who were staying at the park’s University of Minnesota biological station. Family members came from Valley City, N.D., Rochester and the Twin Cities to spend the holiday together.

Fresh snow is a big draw at the Mississippi headwaters, where “the water is always moving and doesn’t freeze,” said Park Ranger Greg Lanners.

Most of the half-million visitors who annually frequent Itasca come in the summer. Though the numbers drop off in the cold, an influx of visitors typically follows storms like the ones that hit this weekend. All weatherized cabin suites were booked for the first few days of the New Year, and more visitors were expected.

“It totally depends on the snowfall,” Lanners said. “If there’s no snow, we don’t get a lot of people. … We have a lull between fall and when we get snow. But it definitely picks up when we get snow. When there’s snow, we get a lot of skiers, snowmobiles, snowshoers.”

Brave campers bring their tents to the park during the winter, Lanners said. Still, while many families make it a tradition to visit Itasca every summer, not nearly as many venture there in winter.

“I don’t know if they don’t realize what goes on in the wintertime,” he said, adding that all of Itasca’s nearly 33,000 acres are open year-round.

Mark and Bonnie Douty, of Dexter, Minn., said they enjoy visiting Itasca in the winter because there are no crowds and it’s peaceful. The snow acts as a noise damper, leaving only the gentle babbling of the river, bird song and sometimes the roar of snowmobiles in the distance.

Jesse and Stephanie Toomey, of Corcoran, visited Itasca for the first time Tuesday, bringing along their dog Bear and young daughters Eleanor and Josephine. The girls were still giddy over gifts from Santa and looked forward to exploring in the snow.

The families wished each other a Happy New Year before taking off on the trails. Nearby, at the Mary Gibbs Center, stood a Peace Pole surrounded by a foot of snow that offered a good vision for 2020: “May Peace Be In Our Homes and Communities. May Peace Prevail on Earth.”