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.
QUICK TAKE: Wild River State Park, MN
DRIVE TIME: Wild River State Park is about 55 miles (1 hour) from St. Paul and Minneapolis.
THE WAY: Follow I-35 north from Minneapolis and St. Paul. Take exit 147 onto MN 95 east to Almelund. Turn north on County Road 12 and continue 3 miles to the park entrance.
TRAILS: The park has 35 miles of trail, all of which are groomed for diagonal track skiing. Snowshoers can walk alongside trails or bushwhack.
ELEVATION: This is prairie, so the highest point is less than 200 feet above the river. Riverside bluffs yield good views, but don't expect alpine vistas or oxygen-debt climbs.
CAN'T MISS: Keep an eye out for river otters, black bears, bald eagles, marsh hawks, trumpeter swans, and foxes.
CROWD CONTROL: In winter, crowds are generally thin and competition for the eight backpacking campsites is light. On summer weekends, campsites fill fast.
PIT STOP: Chisago House at 361 Bench Street in Taylors Falls serves American fare like burgers and pancakes, and there's a Friday night fish fry. For last-minute groceries and supplies, stop by Rod's Country Corner just after the turnoff onto County Road 12 in Almelund, about 3 miles from the park gate.
WALK SOFTLY: In summer, the many meadows may invite bushwhacking, but stay on trails to protect sensitive prairie plants. Do not disturb fenced areas, which are part of an experiment to monitor effects of animal foraging.
MAPS AND GUIDES: The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources distributes a free Wild River State Park map by mail, at the address below, and via its web site.
MORE INFORMATION: Wild River State Park, 39755 Park Trail, Center City, MN 55012; (651) 583-2125. Or Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Information Center, 500 Lafayette Rd., St. Paul, MN 55155-4040; (651) 296-6157; http://www.dnr.state.mn.us.