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Winter fun in Minnesota State Parks

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Podcasts
Winter fun in Minnesota State Parks .mp3  (1.7 Mb) 12/18/08

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Steve Carroll:

Hi, everyone and welcome to today's program on winter outdoor recreation opportunities in Minnesota State Parks.

I'm Steve Carroll, and I'm joined by Gene Groebner, Park Manager at Afton State Park.

Welcome, Gene.

Gene Groebner:

Thank you.

SC:

Well, let's get everyone acclimated to Afton State Park. Where is Afton State Park?

GG:

Afton State Park is located on the east side of the Twin Cities area along the St. Croix River. It's about a 20-minute drive from downtown St. Paul.

SC:

And because of its location I imagine it's a very popular park.

GG:

We're very close to a lot of people and it's kind of a remote, rustic area near the metropolitan area that brings in a lot of people for that reason.

SC:

You know, all the state parks have hidden little treasures that they offer. What makes Afton State Park so popular?

GG:

I think the trails at the park. We have 20 miles of trails in the park and they're located along the scenic St. Croix River so those are the two main draws for the park.

SC:

As we move into the winter months people are looking to get outside and exercise, perhaps a new year's resolution. What can they do at Minnesota State Parks?

GG:

There's quite a variety at the 72 parks in the state. Cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, some parks allow snowmobiling. One thing that's become more popular recently is snowshoeing. There are a few parks that do have skating rinks and even sliding hills.

SC:

Wow. So there is, kind of, whatever your interest is you can find it at Minnesota state parks.

GG:

There is. I don't think I mentioned hiking. That's one thing we've seen a lot more people trying to get out in the winter just to hike. So there are a number of parks now that are plowing hiking trails or packing hiking trails to make that available.

SC:

Yeah, I know I've been to the state parks during the summer and also during the winter and they're two different type of experiences, can you kind of touch on that?

GG:

Well, I'd say the one big thing to do is make sure you dress for the conditions. Then you can enjoy the winter just like you do the summer on the trails. Without leaves on the trees you get a lot different view even walking the same trail that you'd walk in the summer.

SC:

Right, I know the state parks have different tiers for cross-country skiing. What are the tiers, if you know, and what is Afton classified as?

GG:

We're trying a new thing in the last couple years now where we've had four different levels, four different tiers of skiing parks and Afton is in tier one, which there are twelve parks in tier one, and they're the more popular cross-country skiing locations. And generally we try to have the ski trails in groomed condition on a daily basis as conditions permit.

SC:

And talk a little bit about the grooming process. What actually happens when you groom a trail?

GG:

Well, the tier one parks all have some of the best equipment in the state. We're still using snowmobiles in a lot of parks to do the grooming but it's come a long way since even ten years ago. Generally we want to pack a four to six inch base before we set track in our trails and usually a snowfall gets packed in half so that gives you an idea of how it's done. I put 34 miles on the snowmobile last week packing the trails and we ended up with a 2-inch base that hopefully half is still there after the warm weather.

SC:

Now how many trails are at Afton, or how many miles of trails?

GG:

We groom about 15 miles. So, you know with the equipment, as you can tell by the numbers, we have to go over a lot of the sections twice.

SC:

And I understand this grooming thing can be kind of competitive - state park - who has the best trails?

GG:

It is because people are reporting the conditions. So we do try to add a little inside thing between some of the local parks as who can get out there and do the best grooming.

SC:

From what I understand grooming takes place almost around the clock in some places?

GG:

Some parks have the ability to get out just about any time of the day.

SC:

Right.

GG:

Or night.

SC:

You talked about updating trail conditions. When do you do that and how can people find out what's happening at Afton or the other state parks?

GG:

Our website has the snow condition report on it, the DNR website. And we can update any time and the update is almost instant on the website. Generally by Wednesday we have a weekly update and then the tier 1, tier 2 parks we'll be updating more frequently as the conditions change.

SC:

So you can let people know what's happening at Afton State Park maybe after a big snowfall and trails are groomed, or you have a six-inch base, or what other kind of information do you provide?

GG:

Sure, we give the snow depth, the trail depth, the base, and then we also give a rating as to the skiing conditions. I know at Afton it's very rare that we give an excellent condition so when we say “very good” that means they're as close to excellent as they can be.

SC:

And do you provide rental equipment?

GG:

We don't rent cross-country skis. We do rent snowshoes, which have been very popular now.

SC:

Right, and you talked about the popularity of snowshoeing. Why do you think that's becoming more popular?

GG:

The last few years we really haven't had the snow conditions to groom trails at Afton but people still want to get out. It's as simple – I mean it's like walking in the summer with snowshoes on. Actually our trails get packed so hard after a day or two of snowshoeing that even with decent boots you could walk on the snowshoe trails.

SC:

And at Afton and many of the state parks they provide the latest equipment not the antiquated equipment.

GG:

Well, actually we have both and if people want to wander through the deep snow we have the old army surplus wooden snowshoes that are available also. But generally - actually we have trail runners that come out in the winter and they'll run the trails in the new modern, small, light-weight snowshoes.

SC:

Do you see a lot of families come out during the winter?

GG:

We do and I think the geocaching thing has brought a lot of families to the parks. We'll see this winter now if that carries over. We do have smaller snowshoes for kids and we do have a small sliding hill so there are opportunities for the kids and the whole family.

SC:

And you said geocaching? I thought, to me, that was a summer activity but it's year round?

GG:

The initial program is going to end December 31st, and then next year we're going to kick off a new program that will last for three years so we are making accommodations to be able to do it all year round.

SC:

Are you surprised at how popular geocaching has been?

GG:

I think so. A lot of us have never really heard of it before we got into it this year. At Afton I think we've had over 300 people do the regional geocache, which requires them to go to seven other state parks first and then come to Afton.

SC:

Oh, interesting.

What about with today's economy? Are you finding more people are maybe staying a little bit closer to home and taking advantage of the resources here in Minnesota?

GG:

We'd like to think that that's happening. The attendance is up. A lot of people I think once they discover the state parks are coming back too, and I think we provide such a good product that that could be part of it also.

SC:

And you talked about at Afton state park there are people that live nearby that aren't aware of what's available down the road.

GG:

I've seen that at every park I've worked at that people will come in and say, "I only live ten minutes away and I didn't even know this was here." And I think once they discover us they'll be back.

SC:

Yeah, I think people are surprised that there're so many opportunities so close to home to do stuff in Minnesota State Parks.

GG:

There's a state park not much more than thirty minutes away from anyone in the state. So no matter what the price of gas we're near by.

SC:

And obviously during the summer is a real popular time at state parks but winter time is a good time to get to state parks and get out and enjoy the outdoor activities.

GG:

Right, and we're seeing a lot more of that and we're developing trails, keeping some facilities open for winter use, and we're hoping to provide something year round for everyone.

SC:

In general, what are the park hours? Are they the same as they are during the summer?

GG:

The park itself is open 8 am till 10 pm year round. In the winter, because of staffing cuts, we generally have someone in the office between 9 and 4 on weekends. During the week there's usually, in parks like Afton, there's someone in the park but they may not be in the office.

SC:

Is there a good time to visit a state park like a weekday, or a weekend, or it doesn't really matter?

GG:

Well, the weeks - during the week is generally the quieter time. We can get real busy on weekends which is typical I think of most areas.

SC:

I suppose the centers - the visitor centers - do they have bonfires and that type of activities?

GG:

Sure, our visitor center it's a modern building with modern rest room facilities but we do have a wood stove in the building and we provide wood. Outside there are fire places where if people want to roast something or a fire outside that's available too. And the building, you know, it's open on weekends and all the tier one parks have a trail center open on weekends and unless there's unforeseen circumstances most of them are open during the week too during the day.

SC:

And I know one of the popular things during the winter time are these candlelight ski programs. Can you talk a little about candlelight ski programs?

GG:

Sure there's quite a list on the website under special events around the state. Generally the further north the more reliable it is to do those. We've had a little bit of trouble at Afton because of the conditions so we're leaning towards doing candlelight snowshoe or hike events which would allow us to maintain that even without the good snow conditions.

SC:

Have the snow conditions been good the last year or two?

GG:

Last year was a good year. We had good skiing for a period of time. I think the three previous years there were maybe two weekends all winter when actual trail conditions were in good condition for skiing.

SC:

Do you need a certain amount of snow for good trail conditions?

GG:

It's not just the amount but the condition. You know, we get the thawing and the freezing and we'll end up with real icy conditions. And our new grooming equipment might allow us to work with that more than in the past so that should help.

SC:

How about temperature wise -- is there a good temperature that you'd like to see?

GG:

I prefer skiing when it's close to zero because it's easier to wax your skis, but with the no wax skis I think they can handle even the above freezing conditions better.

SC:

Do you still find people that come out when it gets zero or below zero?

GG:

At Afton we had some people Sunday, we had people out running the trails in the slush. Especially now with the modern clothes and equipment I think, you know, you can prepare for any type of conditions.

SC:

Yeah, I'm sure people do. I mean some people like a mild experience weather wise other people like it when it's nice and cold and they need to bundle up and get a little exercise, a little sweat going.

GG:

They can be more guaranteed to be the only ones there too. Some people opt for that.

SC:

Very good. Well, that's about all the time we have today for our program on outdoor recreation opportunities in Minnesota State Parks.

I want to thank our guest, Gene Groebner, State Park Manager at Afton State Park. And Gene, if people want more information about what's happening in Minnesota State Parks where can they go?

GG:

I'd say the one best source is the website www.mnstateparks.info.

SC:

OK, very good. I want to thank you too for listening. I'm Steve Carroll for the Minnesota DNR.