Trees at William O'Brien State Park, My Full Review

William O’Brien State Park Review | Hiking when you are out of shape

Hiking in Winter brings a whole other set of problems. Like when you find out that the only way to get the password for the MN State Parks Club is to have a set of Cross Country Skis. It puts a damper on your plans quick. An alternative, snowshoe. Relatively inexpensive to rent, but I’m just not sure my youngest is coordinated enough yet to tackle that activity. A quick email to the nice people at the MN State Parks and I uncovered a way to get the password for William O’Brien State Park without needing to go a full 5.3 miles or use extra equipment on their Hiking Club Trail.

Hiking When You Are Out of Shape

I have a small confession to make, I am out of shape. I like to think of myself as a bad-ass that can go on a 10-mile hike without blinking an eye. Realistically a 3-mile hike is no problem. I can probably double that if I want to challenge myself. But I also have two kids with me. Smaller kids that don’t always share my love of hiking. And I don’t find it fun trying to coax a little one to go much more than 3 miles on a hike. That is why this winter, I have been on the lookout for shorter hikes and figured one day, we’ll work up to the larger hikes.

When I was at Lake Maria State Park earlier this year after one of the first snow’s I noticed that the hiking club path was transitioning over to a Cross Country Ski Trail. With too little snow for skiers to partake, I didn’t feel bad hiking anyway. Neither did the dozen people we passed by doing the same thing. But that experience had me re-strategizing for hiking this winter.

Icy Lake at William O'Brien State Park

William O’Brien State Park Hiking Club Trail Review

Miles: 2.7 miles
Difficulty: Easy
Total Miles Hiked: 11.5 miles

Traditionally, the State Parks Hiking Club Trail is 5.3 miles, during Spring, Summer and Fall. Through the Wetlands, Prairies and the Woodland Edge trails. The hike takes visitors deep into the state park. It can be hilly at times, but fun. While I don’t want to discourage you from taking this hike, I don’t think it highlights some of the best features of the park. For those, you’ll want to check out Riverside Trail as it follows along Lake Alice and the St. Croix River.

Winter Hiking Club Hack

During the Winter, MN State Parks shift gears to winter activities. That includes both Snowshoeing and Cross Country Skiing. You can still hike at a lot of the Minnesota State Parks but some of the Hiking Club Trails are switched to Cross Country Skiing trails only, like William O’Brien State Park. The only way to get the password is to go on Skis. But William O’Brien State Park is one of the only parks in the state to offer an alternative. They have a separate riverside trial just for Winter Hikers that includes the sought after hiking club password on it.

MN State Parks Hiking Trails

Bench on William O'Brien State Park

Winter Views of the River

This trail is half the size of the regular trail, located on the state parks peninsula Riverside Trail. As far as views, goes, nothing beats it. More amazing than the Waterfall at Nerstarnd Big Woods State Park. This is because it followed along the shoreline of the St. Croix River. Giving you a mix of ice cold water, rocky cliffs, and wooded trees. The canopy you were hiking through was thick enough that it prevented the snow from reaching the floor in a much of areas, making the hiking relatively easy. The only thing I would recommend is wearing Ice Cleats because the walk down to the peninsula can get slippery and snow packed. Officially the trail is maintained for hikers.

Winter Creek

Icy Hiking Trail

My favorite part about the hike was the first view of the St. Croix River. The cool air swept over us, in eternal stillness. Below the ice, you can feel the water moving down below, but above on there was a complete calmness on the surface as everything is frozen in time. It is something I will never forget.

The Riverside Trail for Everyone

The hiking trail was for everyone. We saw dogs, walking with their owners, individuals getting their morning workout in and families like us taking a stroll. The hike was flat making it easy for every person walking ability. The only challenging part was the road to the peninsula. During winter, they do not allow cars down there, so guest have to make the walk. It is a steep climb and unfortunately, it’s on the way out. The best way to get there is to Park at the Visitors Center and take the trail.

The navigator in action

Other Things to Do At William O’Brien State Park

Cross Country Skiing

One of the biggest draws to the park is the Cross Country Ski Trails. They offer a mix of trial for every skill level. Including a wetland loop that that is fairly flat and the Prairie Overlook Trail loop, where you can also pick up a Hiking Club Password, but it’s on a 5-mile hilly loop.

Summer Time

During the summer, guest can canoe and kayak down the river. The park rents out equipment so everyone can take part. The park also has free GPS units, fishing poles and tackle boxes, birding kids, horseshoes, volleyballs, soccer balls and bocce balls for use by overnight and day visitors. There are also tons of hiking trails to explore beyond the Riverside Trails. Stop by the visitor’s center for a full list of things activities.

Group Camping

One of the only ways to camp on the peninsula is to be part of a group. They have a site that accommodates up to 50 people in tents. And the best part is, it’s riverside! These are the best campsites in the whole park. The only downside to it, is that it’s right smack in the middle of the hiking trail, so you may have to put up with a few people peeking into your site. But that usually isn’t a big deal at most state parks.

Lake Alice Lake at William O'Brien State Park

Would I Do It Again?

Sometimes the challenges of winter will have you going into unexpected parts of the park. And I am so glad we found this. Not because it was shorter, but because it was like being on the North Shore of MN, without needing to drive for hours. Every time I get out, I’m amazed at what there is. Before you go out, make sure to read my tips for Winter Hiking that apply to the whole family.

Become Part of the Adventure

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