There is a buzz about the skiing at Lake Elmo Park Reserve this winter. Located a short drive east of St. Paul, the park has long been a popular destination, but with recent improvements it has become a true destination for Twin Cities skiers.
The 2,165-acre park features a new Nordic Center, with locker rooms, a large lounge with a fireplace, and waxing racks outside. From this hub, skiers can access twenty kilometers (twelve miles) of ski trails, all of them recently widened and leveled to accommodate classic tracks and a skate lane.
The trail improvements are one thing, but it’s been extending the skiing day that has really brought in the crowd. Almost nine kilometers (five-and-a-half miles) of trail are lighted at night. Park manager Mike Polehna told me that makes it the longest lighted trail system in the upper Midwest. He also said that there will be 30 cars in the parking lot at 8:30 p.m.
“Our use has gone crazy,” Pohlena said. “The 130 parking spots are full some Saturdays.”
The park hosted 625,000 visitors in 2012. Polehna said he is sure it will be far higher when this year’s numbers come in. Even when the park is busy, though, because the trails are all one-way, it’s very easy to feel alone and enjoy the sounds of your skis on snow and the quiet of the park.
The lighting system is state-of-the-art. There are more than 200 lights, which use bright and super-efficient LED bulbs. The lights have hoods over them to direct the light at the trails, not the sky, preventing light pollution. They also point in the direction of travel, so there are no bright lights shining in skiers’ eyes.
I was there during the day recently and had about an hour for a ski. As I glided along the rolling Brown and Green Trails, which cut through hardwood forests and skirt the edges of broad prairies, I kept marveling that my entire route was marked by the lights. I could have come back that night and skied even farther.
Ski before the snow melts
If you go, the trail lights start turning off at 9:15 on the outer loops and 9:45 on the trails closer to the trailheads. The park closes at 10 p.m. More information and trail maps are available on the parks’ website.