All around the Twin Cities metro area, there are disappointed people of all ages who can’t use the skis, snowboards and snowshoes they found under the Christmas tree.
But no one is more disappointed than Peter Mott and his colleagues in Washington County’s Parks Division. This fall, after several years of planning and construction, they completed work on 5.4 miles of lighted cross-country ski trails at the 2,400-acre Lake Elmo Regional Park Reserve. They are believed to be the longest set of lighted ski trails in Minnesota.
Apart from a few days after Thanksgiving, when the region received a modest snowfall, the trails have been unusable for skiing.
“On the one hand, we’ve been disappointed by the lack of snow,” says Mott, manager of park planning for Washington County. “On the other hand, this has allowed us to go in and make adjustments to the lighting without interfering with skiers or snowgrooming.”
The new trails, which feature low-impact lights, have not gone entirely unused. They have been open to walkers and hikers who have flocked to Lake Elmo park to take advantage of the mild winter weather.
“So we have opened up new outdoor recreation opportunities — just not what we planned,” says Mott.
Lake Elmo Regional Park is part of the 55,000-acre regional parks system planned, developed and operated by the Metropolitan Council in partnership with 10 city and county park agencies. The system includes 51 regional parks, 231 miles of regional trails and seven special recreation features, such as Como Zoo and Conservatory.
Like Lake Elmo’s new lighted ski trails, most of the system’s facilities for skiing, snowboarding, tubing, snowshoeing and skijoring (a skier pulled by a dog) have been shut down for lack of snow. So, too, have the skiing and snowshoeing lessons offered at many of the parks.
Several notable exceptions: With the help of snow-making equipment, the Three Rivers Park District reports that it has snow at both the Hyland Hills ski and snowboard area in Bloomington, and the Elm Creek Park winter recreation area in Maple Grove.
Elm Creek Park has a 2.5-kilometer lighted ski trail, and Hyland Hills allows cross country skiing from 7 to 10 a.m. on weekdays and 7 to 9 a.m. on weekends.
“We have enough of a snow base at both sites that we should be good to go even if we have a long stretch of mild weather,” says Boe Carlson, associate superintendent of Three Rivers Park District.
Carlson says the traffic at these facilities probably is down from last winter, when the lack of snow was never a problem. “When people don’t see snow in their back yard, they don’t think to go skiing.”
At the same time, he says, “We’ve seen many more park users walking, hiking, biking — a lot like we normally see in the fall.”
Clearly, not everyone minds the mild weather.
Val Cunningham, a St. Paul nature writer, bird surveyor and field trip leader, says winter also is a good time for bird-watching and that regional parks are excellent places to visit, especially in the early morning and late afternoon.
“Any place with open water and shrubs and trees is a good place to find birds,” she says. “You might see robins or even Eastern bluebirds near water and berries, while wooded areas can produce brown creepers, woodpeckers and nuthatches.”
The Anoka County parks system is offering a series of guided bird walks this winter and spring, the first of which is Jan. 21 at Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park. The fee is $5 to $7 per session.
With these and other activities, the regional parks system attracts some 40 million visitors a year. In regional surveys, Twin Cities residents consistently rank the abundance of parks, trails and natural areas as the region’s most appealing feature.
(Dornfeld is a member of the Washington County Parks and Open Space Commission.)