Winter storms and frigid weather can threaten to shut a city down, but nothing short of an ice age can keep children from leaping into the snow. Maybe young bodies adapt to the cold better than older ones. I know my two sons, ages 6 and 5, seem immune to any type of weather, be it the heat waves in August or the subzero days of early January.
The fantastic, convenient truth about the Twin Cities area is that many of our wonderful summer outdoor spots become wonderful winter outdoor spots, plus a few more to boot. Whether it's parks and frozen lakes within the city, farmsteads converted for the winter, or wild places hiding in plain view, there are many places to ice skate, sled, snowshoe, trek and tube with children all around the metro area.
Sledding and tubing
A sled and a hill is all you'll need most days to get the children outdoors and active, and although mostly flat and pitted with lakes, both Minneapolis and St. Paul have plenty of hills within a quick drive to satisfy any little daredevil.
In south Minneapolis, King's Hill at Lyndale Farmstead Park on 40th Street and Bryant Avenue is one of the larger, faster hills in the city and is generally busy. Audubon Park in northeast Minneapolis is a great all-ages sledding spot, with a variety of slopes. They range from the monster starting just beyond the backyards of the homes on 30th Avenue to the little babies along 31st Avenue. Just down the street from Audubon is the Columbia Golf Club, with its own series of hills, including one of the steepest slopes in the city.
St. Paul's best hill is arguably the steep side of the bowl at Como Park on the corner of Arlington Avenue and North Lexington Parkway, but Battle Creek Regional Park also has some fast runs ranging all the way down Hwy. 61, toward Pig's Eye Lake and the Mississippi River. The sledding hills at Battle Creek are closest to the recreation center (75 Winthrop St. S.)
Any of the hills in the city are tube-suitable, but a short trip out of the Twin Cities presents some interesting possibilities. The Three Rivers Park District has a whole complex of hills starting at French Regional Park in Plymouth — steep hills and lighted up at night until 10 p.m. — and coursing through the western suburbs to Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove where you can tube, ski or snowboard, too. Look to the Three Rivers website for information on family events (snowshoeing and hot cocoa, anyone? threeriversparks.org/events.aspx) throughout the winter months.
A bit farther afield, Green Acres Recreation (greenacresrec.com/index.htm) in Lake Elmo provides shelter and a tow rope for tubers. The hills range from family friendly to rather challenging, and are designed for groups of interlocking inner tubes heading downhill, which is its own special brand of fun. It runs about $10-$17 per person for three hours of tubing. Eko Backen (ekobacken.com/tubing.shtm) in Scandia also has kid-friendly hills and tow ropes.
Ice skates and snowshoes
Lakes are good for two things in winter: fishing and skating. Some of the best spots for ice skating in Minneapolis are Lake of the Isles, with a hockey rink and small warming house, and Powderhorn Park, a gem in the heart of south Minneapolis with an island in the middle and a great view of downtown Minneapolis. Burnsville has a dozen outdoor skating rinks (bit.ly/burnsrinks). The Burnsville Ice Center, located at 251 Civic Center Parkway, has skating lessons, skate rental, and public hours throughout the year.
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation website has hours (bit.ly/mplsrinks) for warming houses across the city.
Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield is another little gem for trekking and snowshoeing. The center, run by Karen Shragg, author of the "Nature's Yucky!" (bit.ly/yuckybook) series and other books, has similarities to Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis. The paths through Wood Lake detach visitors from the surrounding city and, if you rent snowshoes for the little ones, can transport the whole family into the wilderness in a heartbeat.
Tamarack Nature Center in White Bear Township might be a favorite in summer for its Discovery Hollow play area where kids can get muddy, but in winter it becomes a recreation center of sorts with snowshoe and ski rental for treks through its wood and mead. There also are naturalist-guided tours on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Presidents' Day.
By the river
Don't neglect the mother river of the metro area during winter. When crossing the Ford Parkway Bridge, or I-35W, the river looks like a slumbering, half-frozen serpent best left alone until the spring thaw. But there is no better place for children to witness the majesty of a northern winter near the Twin Cities than in the river flats watching ice floes grind against each other.
Great places for this are south of the Lake Street bridge along the West River Parkway, where sandy beaches turn white for six months. Light a small fire if conditions are safe at Longfellow Beach across from Hidden Falls and the war monument at Summit Park and stay till the sunset hints from the horizon. North Mississippi Regional Park (bit.ly/mnrpark) might be the best location for families, however, with the well worn skiing and hiking paths to follow down to the banks, and the Carl Kroenig Interpretive Center nearby to warm up and learn about what bugs do when the frost lies heavy.
There are more lakes and small streams, hills and stands of barren trees to explore all across the area and into the suburbs. A trek down Minnehaha Creek from the cemetery on West 56th Street and France Avenue to York Park switches from quiet residential streets to urban, creekside wilderness in just two short blocks. Crosby Farm Park behind Mickey's Diner on Highway 5 is as silent as the Northwoods on a Sunday afternoon.
We're lucky to have wild places and things throughout the city, both safe and accessible, where we can give our kids a sense of winter wonder.
Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.