Winter campers in Minnesota face two concerns: midwestern blizzards that can turn an easy outing into a flatland version of the Donner Party, and that growling, abominable snow monster, the snowmobile. If, like me, you can’t decide which is worse, head for Wild River State Park, where you can escape both.
Not to suggest that Wild River occupies a little-known blizzard-free zone, but its proximity to the Twin Cities allows for a quick bailout, in case the north wind blows and the thermometer nosedives. Better yet, the park, which hugs the west bank of the St. Croix River for 18 miles, is one of the precious few in Minnesota to exclude snowmobiles. The silent woods and sugar-covered meadows make it easy to imagine how this waterway looked hundreds of years ago when it was the main trading route for Ojibwe, Dakota Sioux, and French fur trappers.
In winter, coyote and white-tailed deer tracks dot the snowy parchment. River otters and red and gray foxes trot across trails through snow-swagged pines. Trumpeter swans, the largest waterfowl in North America, occasionally fill the air with their unforgettable honking.
In summer, the meadows bloom with wildflowers, such as black-eyed Susan and blazing star. Warmer months also bring out hikers, horseback riders, and canoe campers.
A schuss along the banks of the St. Croix on the Old Military Road Trail takes you through a cross section of local history. You pass sites of two midnineteenth-century trading posts, and the trail also follows a pre-Civil War route that once linked St. Paul with Lake Superior. Some of the small islands in the frozen river are all that remain of a logging dam built in 1889, when timber camps dotted the St. Croix and its tributaries.
All total, some 35 miles of trail wind through the pine and hardwood forests, and oak savannah, offering that rarest of commodities here in Ski-Doo country: peace and quiet.