If it's going to keep snowing through March, Minnesotans will keep skiing and snowshoeing. William O'Brien State Park offers opportunities for both, including a new snowshoe stash at the south end of the park.
I visited O'Brien a couple weeks ago, before the latest rounds of snow. Conditions were great, though the classic tracks a little icy in sunny spots, but will obviously be different after recent snow. Check SkinnySki.com for up-to-date trail reports.
The park's outer loop is about 12 kilometers (7.3 miles). That means going counter-clockwise around the park and taking every right turn. There are many cut-off points for shorter routes or ones with less steep hills.
But the full outer loop is a classic Minnesota ski, passing through wetlands, hardwood forests, and prairie. There are long flat stretches, big climbs, and swooping descents. Even though the parking lot was fairly busy, I saw very few people on my outing; even when I stopped for five-minute breaks, no one passed by.
It was great to get back on some familiar trails, but the adventure of my day came after I was done skiing. I wanted to hike, but decided to skip the park's popular walking trail along the river and instead hopped back in my car, and drove out of the gates.
Take Highway 95 back into Marine on St. Croix (where you could stop for a sandwich-to-go at the historic General Store or a burger at the Brookside), and then turned right up Broadway Ave, and then right again on Highway 4.
Shortly after passing through a railroad tunnel, you'll see a parking lot on the right side. It's a new feature, having been expanded from a wide spot in the road a few years ago to a full-fledged park access. You need a state park sticker to park there.
Across the road from the parking lot, a trail heads up into the woods. Strap on snowshoes or a good pair of boots, depending on conditions, and couple square miles of park are at your feet. There are no groomed trails to avoid here, though I found the paths plenty well packed by previous hikers.
At the top of the first hill, you'll come across what is either a James Bond movie villain's lair, or a park research facility and some maintenance sheds. Either way, the building constructed in the side of a hill with an observation tower rising out of it is fun to wonder about.
To the right past the buildings, a short hike will take you to a rolling meadow with trails ringing it. There is a strategically placed bench there with a great view of the prairie. To the left are trails snaking through the woods, each little rise drawing you farther along.
When I stopped to eat a clementine, I leaned on a stump and -- my feet finally not moving noisily on the snow -- the silence rushed in. A little breeze in the treetops and the occasional crow cawing were the only sounds that interrupted the quiet.
I for one am eager for green trees, birdsong, and open water, but winter is here and we had better enjoy it. Last March's balmy temperatures were fun but most people agree it felt unnatural.
If we embrace the usual snow and cold, we have a little more time to enjoy a great Minnesota winter. I suggest a trip to O'Brien, which is possible even on a weeknight now, with the long daylight lingering.