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Fort Ridgely’s hiking trail is lit with luminaries for a winter candlelight hike in 2020. Similar candlelight hikes are scheduled each year at area state parks. A candlelight hike will be held in Minneopa on January 15. Another candlelight hike will take place in Fort Ridgely on Saturday, photo submitted by Joanne Svendsen

During Minnesota’s long, cold winters, state parks offer an alternative to cabin fever.

State parks in the region are open to visitors during the winter season. While some amenities

are closed during the cold months, the natural beauty of the parks is preserved all year round. In

in some cases, winter weather can even enhance park enjoyment.

Flandrau State Park

Photo by Clay Schuldt Flandrau’s hiking trails offer impressive winter scenery. The Old Dam trail has several scenic viewpoints.

Flandrau State Park was originally called Cottonwood River State Park for the river. It was renamed in 1945 in honor of pioneer Charles E. Flandreau.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the park was the site of a Work Projects Administration (WPA) camp. Several buildings constructed by the WPA remain in the park.

Flandrau is known for its year-round hiking trails. In the winter, the trails become popular as snowshoe and cross-country ski trails.

Currently, the Flandrau ski slopes are ungroomed, but the snowshoe and hiking trails remain open all winter.

The main hiking route through Flandrau is the Old Dam trail. Users are invited to take the snowshoe trail to access this trail. The wooden stairs on the trail are starting to erode after years of flooding on the Cottonwood.

Photo by Clay Schuldt Griffin Bell climbing the frozen waterfall in Minneopa State Park. This isn’t Bell’s first time climbing the falls. His previous ascent was with a rope. This one is with ice picks.

The trail will take visitors to several scenic viewpoints of the Cottonwood River and the former dam site.

Fort Ridgely

Fort Ridgely is one of Minnesota’s oldest state parks. The fort played a major role in the American-Dakota War of 1862. In 1896, the legislature passed a bill to preserve the land as a memorial. In 1911 it became a national park.

Besides historical significance, Fort Ridgely Park offers over nine miles of hiking trails and over 13 miles of equestrian trails. In winter, the trails are open for hiking and snowshoeing. A chalet remains open year-round for visitors and is located at the start of the hiking trails.

During the winter months, Fort Ridgely is a great place to snowshoe. Several group snowshoe hikes are organized each winter.

Photo by Clay Schuldt Carolyn Black and Roger Voelz get out the ski poles for a hike through Fort Ridgely. Black and Voelz are regular visitors to the park. Black said she can’t say enough good things about Fort Ridgely. She has introduced many people to the park over the years.

This winter has been unusual in terms of snow accumulation. In a normal year, navigating the trails would require snowshoes, but with only a few inches of snow, normal hiking boots will suffice.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) naturalist Scott Kudelka said that with minimal snow, snowshoes are more of an obstacle. He recommended only taking snowshoes out when the snow is at least four to five inches deep.

One of the biggest benefits of hiking state park trails in the winter is that it becomes easier to see evidence of wildlife.

Animal footprints are easily visible in the snow. Fort Ridgely and other state parks are teeming with wildlife that few would notice. Rabbit and deer tracks are common in the snow, but the snow also confirms the presence of coyotes.


Minneopa was established as a state park in 1905, making it Minnesota’s third state park. The name “Minneopa” comes from the Dakota language and means “water falls twice”. This is a reference to the Minneopa Creek waterfalls.

The Minneopa Falls attract thousands of visitors each year, but it is during the winter months that visitors can get closest to the falls.

Minneopa Creek freezes over during the winter months and that includes the waterfalls. The result is an impressive vertical ice formation.

The walking path to the frozen falls is open in winter, although signs warn that the steps could be covered in snow and ice. Those willing to brave the 70 steps to the base of the waterfall can get a close view of the falls.

Recently, mountaineer Griffin Bell got as close to the falls as possible. Using ice picks and spiked shoes, he scaled the Minneopa ice flow. It was the second time he climbed the frozen falls this year. His first time was with ropes.

Besides the falls, the bison route is open Thursday to Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The bison route

is closed on Wednesdays for maintenance.

Group hikes

Those who wish to explore the parks with a group are in luck. During the rest of January, group hikes are planned in these state parks.

On Saturday, January 15, naturalist Scott Kudelka will lead a tour of Flandrau State Park from the Beach House.

Later that evening, at 5:00 p.m., a candlelight hike will take place at Minneopa State Park from the group campsite.

On Friday, January 21, a hike through Fort Ridgely is scheduled for a 10 a.m. meeting at the chalet parking lot.

A second group hike will take place at 1 p.m. in Minneopa State Park.

On Saturday, January 29, a hike through Flandrau will start at 10 a.m. This hike will include a program on beaver ecology. A second hike is scheduled for 1 p.m. in Minneopa.

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