Scant snowfall has been scuttling the prospects for cross-country skiers at Ramsey County's Battle Creek Regional Park for years. But this winter should be different.
More than $6.6 million in dramatic upgrades — including new snow-making capabilities, widened trails and equipment rentals — are expected to transform a corner of the park's St. Paul section into a dependable regional winter sports destination.
The Battle Creek Winter Recreation Area will be the first cross-country ski course and sledding hill with snow-making capabilities in the east metro area. Members of the public will be able to buy daily and season ski passes, and high school practices and meets — which were often canceled there due to inadequate snow — will return.
"It's been a long time coming," said Parks and Recreation Director Mark McCabe. "It's already a popular cross-country ski destination, but it hasn't had consistent snow conditions in recent years to take advantage of the great trails that exist."
Construction crews are racing to finish the upgrades, in hopes of opening in late November should temperatures fall below freezing. Officials anticipate 165,000 visitors this winter.
"This improvement will make this well-liked park beloved," said County Board Chair Trista MatasCastillo. "It's really great we will now have ski facilities in the east metro."
County leaders and east metro cross-country skiers have spent 15 years lobbying for improvements and equipment rentals at Battle Creek. The project is being paid for with state bonding and funding from Ramsey County, Minnesota Clean Water, the Land and Legacy Amendment and the Metropolitan Council.
Crews have installed a water cooling tower, underground piping and 26 hydrants along 4 kilometers of ski trails and a newly configured sledding hill. Eight mobile snow guns will be attached to the hydrants to produce up to 24 inches of base snow early in the season. A maintenance and storage facility also is being built.
"It's about making a significant amount of snow in a short period of time. That sets you up for the whole season," McCabe said. "We then use grooming and snow-moving equipment to shape and smooth out the trail."
McCabe said they've conferred with their metro-area counterparts, including the Three Rivers Park District, to learn best practices for snow-making. Several cross-country ski courses in the west metro have snow-making capabilities.
Those courses were inundated with east metro high school ski teams when conditions were dry at Battle Creek, McCabe said. "The west metro [trails] were being overwhelmed," he said.
At times there can be nearly 500 high school athletes practicing after school at the cross-country ski trails in Theodore Wirth Regional Park in Minneapolis, said Robb Lageson, head coach of St. Paul Central High's Nordic ski team.
"It can get pretty crowded," said Lageson, who said he had 85 skiers on his team last year.
Lageson said he is excited about the Battle Creek improvements, which will enable his skiers to practice and compete closer to home even when snowfall is less than ample.
"Having early snow and predictable snow and such a great course will be great for my athletes," Lageson said. "Battle Creek is really a remarkable course. It is a fun place to ski and it's challenging."
The course isn't just for accomplished skiers. It includes a gentle 1-kilometer loop for beginners. Ski rentals and classes and programs for novices will be offered at St. Paul's Battle Creek Recreation Center, 75 Winthrop St. S., funded in part by a Met Council equity grant in an effort to expand access to the sport.
Parks departments in both Ramsey County and St. Paul are partnering to offer a joint ski pass system that will be valid at other cross-country courses in the area. The sledding hill will be free.
McCabe said they anticipate both the ski trails and the sledding hills to draw crowds. "I have no doubt this will be wildly popular and widely utilized," he said.