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Winter hiking at Minnesota State Parks has always been something I wanted to try. I used my birthday as the perfect excuse to try it out.
With this being the first time tried winter hiking, we wanted to stay closer to home and on a shorter hiking trail, and Lake Maria State Park seemed perfect. We found this park to be a perfect testing ground for this winter hiking.
The Lake Maria State Park Highlights
Lake Maria State Park is a smaller park just outside of Monticello MN. The park caters more to hikers than any other I’ve come across. They don’t have a lot of the amenities that some of the other parks are known for. The park also has two lakes and one smaller pond.
During the summer, the park is covered in a Prairie landscape and woods. They also have many different trails to explore, including one that is part of the MN State Parks Hiking Club Trails. It is one of the easier trails to do.
In the winter, the trails at the park switched from hiking trails to a mix of Snowshoeing and Cross Country Skiing. They do have some hiking trails, but the Hiking Club Trail becomes officially a Ski/Snowshoe only trail. They have horseback riding on the trails too.
After doing a quick check of the snow conditions on the MN DNR site and decided to hike this one. Technically, we were past the official date that hikers should stop.
But with so little snow on the ground, we figured that no one could use it for anything but hiking. The biggest difference between this hike and all others is the amount of prep work involved.
Dressing the Part
Winter hiking is all about layers and adding the kids into the mix, which meant snow pants too. We dressed the kids minimally on the way up so they wouldn’t overheat in the car.
When we got there, it seemed like it took a good twenty minutes to get them set to hike. If you think getting kids in a snowsuit for school is a challenge in a house, try to do it in the confines of a car.
Another thing we added to the mix was a pair of microspikes or ice cleats. They were a little fun to watch us try and get on the first time, but we found they made for a lot easier hiking once on the trail. Here are the 10 best ice cleats for hiking.
The Lake Maria Hiking Club State Trail
Miles: 2 miles
Total Hiking Club Miles Hiked: 12.3 miles
The Lay of the Land
After getting dressed, we jumped onto the trail. The trail starts directly behind the Interpretive Center. Hiking on the trail, I was surprised at the number of others we found.
With the park being as closest to the cities, it ended up being well-traveled already making it easy to find out where to go. We didn’t need to carve out our own path or anything like that.
The trails were 100% in the woods and the trail itself had a few elevation changes. Nothing extreme but enough to kick you in the butt a little.
If you are looking to get the rolling hills out of the way first, I recommend going counter-clockwise on the loop, otherwise, you are saving the most tiring sections for last. Even with hills, it was a beginner’s hike.
Animal Trails and Tracks
One of the fun things about this hiking trail was all the animal tracks everywhere. During summer, you see them occasionally in some mud, and you’ll notice the occasional animal trails through the forest, but in winter, everything is more vibrant.
Every time we saw something different, we’d quiz the kids on what animal they thought it was. My youngest was a master at it. Probably because he wasn’t overthinking it. We saw Deer, Dogs, Squirrels, and Bunny Rabbits.
We could also make out some animal trails they used to cut through the forest. Without the obstruction of the grass and trees, it was easier to see exactly where they were going. Most were migrating toward the lakes.
Sounds of the Forest
Another thing I didn’t realize was how much sound travels in the winter. With the colder weather and less foliage to muffle the sounds, every word seemed to go on for miles.
We could hear every crinkle of the boot under the ice. The crunching of leaves that had fallen in the autumn. And when other hikers started to come up behind us too. I had to give a quick reminder to my kids that if we could hear them, they could hear us.
Other Things to Do At Lake Maria State Park
Year-Round Backpack in Campground
The only way to camp at Lake Maria State Park is by backpacking in. Along the trails, the guest takes all their gear into these remote spots. These campsites are perfect for those that are not sure if a longer backpacking trip is right for them.
The trail is only two miles, so it would give them an idea if they brought the right gear, how much to bring and if they packed too much. I would defiantly consider doing this with my kids before I took them out the Superior Hiking Trail.
You can pick up your canoe’s rentals at both Little Mary Lake and Maria Lake. However, the only way to get to Maria Lake is by the hiking trail. Lake Maria State Park also rents Skis and Snowshoes to guests at the park office.
Check before you go on the trail. During the off-season, the trails are usually open, but because they don’t have as many visitors, they didn’t staff the park office.
This meant, no MN State Parks Passport Stamp this time. The only conciliation was that we did get our Hiking Club Password. And the sign was easy to find.
Fuel your body before you go. Hiking during winter can be a little deceiving. You may not think you are losing water but you are. Even if you are on a smaller hike, make sure you eat enough to have the energy on the
Don’t give up on the challenge
I think we saw more people on this trail than I have in any other Hiking Club Trail. And one thing is for sure, these hikers are hardcore to be out in winter.
When you pass someone on a trail like this, there is a sense of comradery you don’t get in the Summertime. My husband is already talking about next weekend’s trip. Who knows where it will take us!