Yes, winter in Minnesota brings the chill, but locals know that doesn’t equate to spending the season inside. Many of the state’s 66 state parks have snow-friendly trails tailored to suit the speed of both casual hikers and diehard trekkers, whether you’re on foot, on snowshoes, or gliding on cross-country skis.
Despite the snowfall and frigid temperatures, Minnesota sees plenty of sunny days, so don’t forget the sunscreen — the sun’s reflection off the snow can cause a winter sunburn. Or, avoid the rays entirely by seeking out the state’s magical candlelight trails. These are flat and relatively short, only a few miles per trail, and are lined with candles or lanterns for a serene evening stroll.
Wherever and whenever you’re heading out, a MN State Parks Pass vehicle permit is generally required for entry, either $7 per day or $35 for the year. Check the snow depth and groomed trail conditions on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website before venturing into the cold because, while snowfall is beautiful, it’s often unpredictable. When you’re ready to bundle up and get outside, seek out these five supreme winter hiking spots in the North Star State.
TWIN CITIES AREA
1. Afton State Park, Hastings
Afton State Park is set along the St. Croix River and offers hikers sweeping river-valley views. The rolling hills and deep ravines that drop 300 feet to the water make this park a gorgeous stop in the winter months. Within its boundaries, there are 1.5 miles of plowed trail intended exclusively for winter walking. Plus, the visitor center becomes a warming house with a cozy woodstove. If you’re after a longer hike, there are 12 additional miles of trails maintained for snowshoers — you can rent snowshoes for $6 a day at the main office.
Afton’s candlelight walk, a 3-mile loop, will be held on February 3, 2024, from 5 to 8pm. Bonfires will be set up at the halfway point and at the visitor center to warm up. Dogs are welcome as long as they’re secured on a leash. And on February 10, 2024, Afton State Park will host two snowshoeing classes for beginners.
2. Blue Mounds State Park, Luverne
The geology of Blue Mounds State Park, with its sandstone and quartzite cliffs carved by glaciers cutting across Minnesota’s landscape, makes for a beautiful backdrop in the sun, rain, and snow. The opportunity to view native prairieland and wildlife in the state’s southwestern region isn’t on most travelers’ radar, but it should be — this is a special environment.
Hikers can spot snowy bison that roam the park while walking Blue Mound State Park’s Mound Trail or Western Loop Trail in the early mornings. Bring your binoculars to get the best views of the herd. The park includes a variety of habitats, quarries, cliffs, and a flat prairie landscape with 13 miles of winter hiking. Snowshoeing is also permitted in the park.
Make your trip out for the candlelight hike on January 27, 2024, from 5:30 to 8pm. The picnic shelter will serve hot chocolate and has spots by the campfire to mingle and relax.
3. Lake Bemidji State Park, Bemidji
Lake Bemidji State Park allows winter hiking on plowed roads and packed sections of parking lots and trails, making for about a one-mile loop. Throughout the season, the city’s 16-mile Lakeshore Trail Loop around Lake Bemidji is another popular choice for a promptly groomed and easy trail whenever the snow falls.
A warming house at the park’s headquarters has snowshoes available for a $6 daily rental. And the city’s 14-hole disc golf course is open year round for additional outdoor fun. Bring your binoculars to spot native birds in the mature pine forests and along the lakeshore. Colorblind glasses for adults and youth, GPS units, birding kits, ice fishing rods, and skis are all accessible at the ranger station and are first-come, first-served.
A candlelight snowshoe event will start and end at the visitor center on January 26, 2024, from 5:30 to 8pm. The park will also host a night of candlelight skiing on February 10, 2024, from 6 to 8:30pm.
4. Itasca State Park, Park Rapids
Minnesota’s oldest state park, established in 1891, is located on the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Itasca State Park‘s trails are open for winter hiking and packed for walking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. Take advantage of the park’s live-stream to check weather conditions before your visit. Also note that you’ll need to BYO water, and be sure to pack a headlamp or lantern, too, as portions of the trail in this remote area become incredibly dark at night — which happens to make this park a prime spot for stargazing.
Similar to the state-wide candlelit hikes, Itasca’s Twinkle Light Trail is illuminated from dusk to 10pm every night through March 15. An additional Evening Lantern Lit Snowshoe and Ski event will be held on February 10, 2024, from 5:30 to 8pm.
5. Gooseberry Falls State Park, Two Harbors
Set along what is lovingly known as Minnesota’s North Coast, about 45 minutes north of Duluth, Gooseberry Falls State Park lets visitors soak up the majesty of Lake Superior. During winter, the Gooseberry River Falls undergo a stunning transformation as they freeze, making for an especially picturesque setting. The path that leads to the Upper Falls is the only trail officially groomed for hikers, though snowshoes are allowed off-trail.
The candlelit walk at Gooseberry Falls is on February 17, 2024, from 6 to 8pm. Begin the night with a hot drink and snack at the visitor center and walk to Lady Slipper Lodge for marshmallow roasting and a bonfire. What more reason do you need to go on, get out, and feel the awe of one of Minnesota’s best winter hikes?
For more travel ideas or for a free travel guide, visit exploreminnesota.com.