If you want to play in the snow, Elm Creek Park Reserve is the place to go. Even when there's no snow anywhere else, Elm Creek will make snow.
That’s why this 5,000 acres park, bordering Maple Grove, Dayton and Champlin, attracts visitors from throughout the Twin Cities. The park makes snow every night for its ski trails and hills. It's the only metro park that makes snow for people who want to cross-country ski.
Last year, the guaranteed snow attracted close to 50,000 skiers. Another 20,000 children and adults tried the park's tubing and snowboarding hills.
This year’s visitors will find a new, alpine-looking stone visitor center complete with a double-sided fireplace, cedar interior, and a wall of windows overlooking the ski trail. The new visitor center will include a full service café and coffee bar. The building is designed for conferences and receptions at other times of the year.
Elm Creek's trails are a treat to ski. Groomed nightly, they feature lots of curves, pleasant views, and a range of levels. The park rents out skis; fees range from $6 an hour for kids' traditional skis to $14.25 for adult skate-ski packages. All skiers ages 12 and older need a Three Rivers ski pass, which costs $4 per day or $40 per season. Additional seasonal ski passes for people in the same household cost $20. The park also rents out children's ski sleds and offers ski lessons.
The park grooms its ten-foot wide trails for traditional cross-country skiers as well as skate skiers. Elm Creek also has a modest downhill ski area, which includes a terrain park with many features. Lessons for both downhill skiing and snowboarding are offered. Downhill skis or snowboards are available to rent.
Each night, the park lights its main 6-km ski trail loop, which seems to attract many more skate skiers than traditional skiers, but both are welcome on the groomed trails. Elm Creek makes snow for 2.5 km of the trail along the main Valley Trail. The park's remaining 15.4 km of trails rely on Mother Nature for snow. The trails range from the beginner level Valley Trail to the advanced Thicket Trail. The park also features 4.5 miles of multi-use trails for dog sledding, ski-joring, snowshoeing and dog walking.
For trail conditions, call the Trail Hotline at 763-559-6778.
Elm Creek charges $12 for two hours of tubing. That's probably the right amount of time for most kids--at least my sons, ages 10 and 12, thought so. They and I loved sliding down the hill, which reminded us of the Genie Slide at the State Fair. The park has designed 20 lanes that tubers zip down. Staffers at the top and bottom of the hill make sure the lane is clear before the next tubing party heads down. Tubing is like a party--people can tie up to eight tubes together to slide down en masse. The more tubes, the faster the group goes.
Going back up to the top of the hill is another adventure. Just north of the lanes is what the park calls a Magic Carpet Lift, a conveyor lift that people can stand on and be towed up the hill with their tubes. When the lines for the lift got long, my sons and I decided to pull our tubes up the snowy hill just south of the lanes. Clumping up the sugary snow is more exercise--and I thought more fun--but after walking up a few times, my sons were ready for the ramp again. This season a second lift will be added.
One helpful staffer said Sunday nights are the best time to visit the tubing hills--that's when they are least crowded. The tubing area is open seven days a week and reservations are available for large groups.
At the north end of the park, by Eastman Nature Center, Elm Creek offers 7.5 miles of snowshoe trails. Snowshoers can also trek around the beach area in the center of the park. Snowshoeing is free--no passes required, but you can sign up for one of the park's frequent guided snowshoe hikes, which cost $5. The nature center has about two dozen pairs of snowshoes that visitors can rent for $4.50 an hour.
On a recent sunny Sunday, naturalist Vicky Wachtler led fifteen snowshoers on an easy hike along the park's Rush Creek floodplain. Snowshoes make it easy for people to wander off trail, through snowy meadows or shaded woods. For many, including 8-year-old Dillon Tews and his father Frank, both of Maple Grove, the hike was their first time on snowshoes. Wachtler told the group that grouse grow feathers between their toes that act like natural snowshoes, helping to keep the birds from sinking down as they walk on snows.
When the group headed out, people began moving at their own pace, some hiking quickly, others more interested in looking for animal tracks. Dillon Tews noticed a vole, a mouse-sized creature scurrying down into a hole in the snow. Wachtler pointed out tracks for pheasant, which looked like the tracks of a small turkey, with a wide Y shape, as well as fox prints. "Straight tracks are a sign of red fox," Wachtler said.
Standing under a circle of juniper and red pine trees, Wachtler showed snowshoers an owl pellet, which is food residue--mostly bones--which owls cough up after eating. In just an hour and a half walk with a naturalist, snowshoers got to go off trail, hike around in snow, and see signs of animals, from the tiny nest of a goldfinch to the flattened grassy patch of a deer bed.
Elm Creek offers nine miles of groomed snowmobile trails, which link up to other trails outside the park. Snowmobilers can park their trailers at the north end of Elm Creek on Highway 121. The park's website notes that the trail corridor bridge over Highway 169 is closed to snowmobiling.