As a Minnesotan, I find you get the most out living in this state if you come to embrace all four of our very distinct and wonderful seasons. Most people have the hardest time embracing winter – the cold temps, the snow, the often difficult travels, and the extended periods inside with your children on polar vortex and snow days take a toll on a person! Personally, I love winter. I probably spend more time outside in winter than I do in any other season. The secret is to find outdoor activities that let you marvel in nature, while also keeping you warm!
Both cross-country skiing and snowshoeing have a wealth of health benefits, plus these types of “workouts” will keep you warm in even the most frigid of temps! These outdoor recreation options are good cardio exercise, allowing you to build strength, endurance, and balance while providing a full-body workout! Not to mention, the time outdoors in nature helps reduce stress and anxiety, and who doesn’t need that!? Whether your flying solo or with friends and family, this time in nature can be rejuvenating. Plus, did I mention they’re fun? Both snowshoes and cross-country skis come in a variety of sizes, meaning this can be fun for the whole family!
If you’re worried it sounds like a lot of work, don’t be! You can easily adjust your winter adventure to suit your level. If you’re a beginner or just looking for an easier time, go somewhere that has groomed trails for cross-country skiing or has designated snowshoe trails that are likely to already be packed down. Many of the groomed trails are rated by experience (beginner, intermediate, expert), so find a level you’re comfortable with. Don’t feel like there is any rush – going slow and admiring the natural winter beauty is part of the fun! If you want to up your game, you can increase your speed on your snowshoes or skis, head for hillier terrain, or even break your own trail! If you’re in a group, rotating who is in the front is a great way to divvy up the hard work of breaking trail.
History of Cross-Country Skiing & Snowshoeing
Both of these modes of transportation originated as ways to deal with moving through deep snow. Archaeologists believe that foot extension devices date back to 4,000-6,000 years ago, likely originating in central Asia. Since then, many cultures have used various forms of skis and snowshoes to maneuver through snowy landscapes.
In the Americas, snowshoes have a rich and important place in history. Nearly every North American indigenous peoples living in a snowy climate developed their own style of snowshoe to fit their needs. Many styles of snowshoes were modeled after the tracks of animals, such as the snowshoe hare, who’s feet are designed to allow them to walk on top of the snow. Form followed function, with short, round snowshoes utilized in heavily forested areas that required frequent turning and much longer, narrower snowshoes for the deep snow of the open plains.
When European fur traders arrived, they quickly learned the importance of snowshoes during the winter season. Later, when fighting broke out in North America, the implications of wearing snowshoes for winter battle was recognized. In the 1758 Battle on Snowshoes during the French and Indian War, the British had a distinct advantage because of their snowshoes in the deep snow of New York. After this battle, the English colonies, and later United States colonies, included snowshoes in their standard military equipment. In the 1800s, immigrants from Finland, Norway, and Sweden introduced cross-country skiing as another method to address moving through the winter snows. Although we have other modes of winter transportation now, both methods have become favorite pastimes of winter enthusiasts.
Snowshoeing & Cross-Country Skiing in the Lakes Area
There are hundreds of miles of trails in our region for either of these activities! You can snowshoe just about anywhere on public lands, though some places will have designated trails. Pretty much the only place you CANNOT go on your snowshoes on public lands is the groomed cross-country ski trails. Some facilities will even fine you if they catch you snowshoeing on ski trails. It takes considerable time, money, and resources to maintain the ski trails, so please, be respectful if you’re out on your snowshoes!
Due to the effort required to maintain groomed ski trails, most public cross-country ski trails require a ski pass from the MN DNR, which you can purchase for $6/day or $20/year. There are two types of cross-country skiing – traditional/classic and skate skiing – which require different types of grooming. Make sure you know which type of trail is at a location before you head out!
You can also ski on most public lands, but many of them do not have groomed trails. If you don’t have your own equipment, or want to try it out before purchasing your own gear, don’t worry – there are many places for rentals!
Minnesota State Parks, Forests, Recreation Areas, and Natural and Scenic Areas are ideal for winter adventures. Some will have groomed trails, some will not. The MN DNR has a Snow Depth Guide that gives information about snow depth and trails all over the state. You can also search the State Trails Map for “winter trails” and for trails that are specific to snowshoeing or skiing.
Minnesota State Parks
Itasca State Park – snowshoes are available for rental at the Visitor Center. There are 13 miles of groomed classic and skate skiing trails and you can snowshoe anywhere else in the park.
Lake Bemidji State Park – both snowshoes and cross-country skis are available for rent at the park office. There are 8 miles of classic trails, 1.3 miles of skate trails, and you can snowshoe anywhere in the park. They have a Candlelight Snowshoe event coming up on February 15th from 6:30-9:30pm.
Crow Wing State Park – Snowshoes are available to rent from the park office and you can snowshoe anywhere in the park. There are no groomed ski trails here.
Mille Lacs Kathio – both snowshoes and cross-country skis are available for rent at the park office. There are nearly 20 miles of groomed ski trails and 7.7 miles of marked snowshoe trails, highlighting particularly scenic areas of the park.
Cross-Country Ski Trails
The Skinny Ski is a great website to check out skiing trails by region and get up-to-date reports on trail conditions and grooming. Check out this map of Lakes Area Cross Country Skiing Trails. There are tons more trails in Minnesota – take a look a the DNR’s site, your chamber’s website, or you county’s website to find more information. Areas around Bemidji and Grand Rapids have many more groomed trails to explore!
Deep Portage – near Hackensack, MN – 11 miles of trails (classic) – FREE, OPEN TO PUBLIC (no pass required)
Cut Lake Ski Trail – Foothills State Forest, near Pine River, MN – 10 miles of trails (classic)
Hiram Cross-Country Ski Trails – Foothills State Forest, near Hackensack, MN – 5 miles of trails (classic)
Goose Lake Trail – Chippewa National Forest, near Longville, MN – 8 miles of trails (classic)
Shingobee Recreation Area – near Walker, MN – 6 miles of trails (classic) + a ridiculously large sledding hill! (no pass required)
Washburn Lake Solitude Area – near Outing, MN – 14 miles of classic trails, 1.8 miles of skate trails
Pine Beach Ski Trail – near Nisswa, MN – 25 miles of trails (classic & skate)
Northland Arboretum – Brainerd, MN – 12 miles of trails (classic & skate), some lighted
French Rapids XC Ski Area – near Brainerd, MN – 10 miles of trails (classic & skate, expert only!)
Larson Lake – near Crosby, MN – 12 miles of trails (classic & skate)
Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area – near Crosby, MN – 40 miles of trails, though they are multi-use for fat-tire biking, skiing, and snowshoeing.
As I stated previously, you can pretty much snowshoe on any public land, except areas that are groomed for cross-country skiing. Many of the places listed above also have places you could snowshoe. If you’re looking for easy trails, state park trails tend to be the most used, and therefore the most packed down, making them the easiest to walk on. Here are some other fun and adventurous locations to try.
Deep Portage – near Hackensack, MN – In addition to the groomed ski trails, Deep Portage has thousands of acres of glacial hills, lakes, rivers, and bogs (if you’ve never explored a bog in winter, I’d seriously recommend it!), filled with wildlife! Many of the trails are used frequently and offer a packed surface for an easier snowshoe.
Fritz Loven Park – Lake Shore, MN – This 80 acre park is perfect for a family winter adventure. A hidden gem in the area for sure – with beautiful trails through the woodland, a picnic shelter, playground, and a small, yet fun, sledding hill, this is a great place to spend the day!
State Natural and Scenic Areas – These are areas of Minnesota where plants and animals flourish and our state’s natural features are protected. They tend to be a little more off the beaten path, and likely don’t have facilities. But they’re some of the most beautiful areas of our state!
The North Country Trail – This hiking trail stretches for 4,600 miles from New York to North Dakota, with several hundred miles in Minnesota, crossing right through the Walker, MN area. Pull up a map of the trail to find one of the access points and get out there!
Sax-Zim Bog – East of Grand Rapids, MN – Plan a day trip over to the Sax-Zim Bog, a magical place during Minnesota Winters. People come from far and wide to visit the bog to see the unique landscape, abundance of wildlife, and bird diversity that rivals anywhere in the state. The visitor center has many bird feeders, which draws in lots of wildlife, and a snowshoe trail through all the activity! You can also borrow snowshoes from the Welcome Center for FREE to go on this short trail, or at a small cost to go other places in the bog.
Additional Rental Locations in the Lakes Area
Cragun’s Resort & Snowmobile Headquarters – Cross-country skis & snowshoes
11000 Craguns Dr, Brainerd, MN 56401
Breezy Point Resort – Cross-country skis & snowshoes
9252 Breezy Point Drive, Breezy Point, MN 56472
Easy Riders – Cross-country skis & snowshoes
415 Washington St, Brainerd, MN 56401
Bemidji State University Outdoor Recreation Center – Cross-country skis & snowshoes
220 19th Street NE, Bemidji, MN
Occasionally Deep Portage has winter ski or snowshoe programs that come with a rental, though they do not have rentals available on a daily basis. Contact Deep Portage to find out more about their winter programs.
Get out there & enjoy the snow!