Winter activities are in full swing at Willow River State Park, 1034 County A.
Ice fishing is in progress, cross country skiing has started, the sledding hill is open and winter camping is available. Although ski trails are closed to hikers and pets, multiple-use trails are packed for use by hikers, snowshoeing, etc. Visitors may pick up a winter trails map at the park office or at various boxes around the park. Leashed pets are allowed on all multiple-use trails except the Hidden Ponds nature trail behind the Nature Center. Pet owners are reminded to pick up after their pets.
Cross country ski trails (14 km) have been packed and tracked for both skate and classic styles of skiing. The trails vary from flat to roller coaster down hills with an "S" turn between the drops. The main trails will be in very good condition but some of the spurs off the main trails will be a bit bumpy until there is deeper snow. The addition of a Ginzu groomer to the inventory will give the groomers more options as the season progresses. Because the trails are maintained by volunteers, no trail pass is required; only vehicle admission. With ski trails open, the usage on designated ski trails is limited to skiing, and no pets.
The Willow River Nordic Ski Association will offer a series of skiing lessons for adults in January and February in addition to ongoing weekly training sessions. Lessons are offered from 9-11:30 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 10, 24 and Feb. 14. Instructor Wally Milbrath will teach skate and classic styles beginning at the nature center. Students provide their own equipment.
Fees are $10 per session (free to members of the park friends organization, the OWLs). Advanced signup is necessary, (715) 386-5931.
Youth skiing lessons will be offered by the Minnesota Youth Ski League, www.mysl.com.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the WRN skiers train at 5:30 p.m., meeting at the Purple trail head. Most trainers have skate and classic gear along so the group can choose their technique. These sessions can become a ski trip, working on basic skills, or a combination of the two.
The Candlelight Ski and Hike has been cancelled for 2009 due to budget limitations.
A skiing trail requires a specific surface in order for it to work properly for the skiers. "Skaters" ski down the center of the trail while "Striders" ski in the slots (track) cut out to the side. Essentially, a ski trail is a layer cake of packed snow. It's most solid at the bottom and gradually gets softer toward the surface. Once that surface is prepared, body weight that is not widely distributed by a ski (or a snowshoe hiker crossing the trail) will cause damage.
A footprint will eventually be the first place to melt to bare ground while a ski trail is still in skiing condition. The deterioration accelerates and skiing ends before the season is actually over. In the case of a very solid surface on a ski trail that will support a person off skis with no damage, it is still a ski trail, and subject to the limitation of skiing use only.
Volunteers maintain the winter trails, and hiking on a prepared ski trail will partially undo their work. They have also raised funds, which was used to acquire equipment needed for ski trail maintenance. In warm weather, volunteers keep the trails clear of brush for year-round use. They also pack the multiple-use trails for hikers.
Hikers and others have some well-known trails and some other options for winter at the park. Many hikers enter the park from the parking lot at River Road. Bypassing the overlooks, it is about 1-3/4 hilly miles to Willow Falls. The short way to the falls is the parking lot off County A. This route is nothing but hill. The Hidden Ponds trail behind the nature center is short, flat and generally out of the wind. Snowshoe hikers are welcome off trail when snow conditions allow.
More winter-use options for foot travel include the park road, the Mound Trail, the disc golf course, off-trail snowshoeing and the area the anglers use at the Willow River Race. Many visitors drive the park road, and some park their vehicle and walk the road. The disc golf course and the Mound Trail receive no winter maintenance so visitors break trail there.
Leashed pets are welcome on these lesser known hiking options. For other hiking-snow shoeing off trail, another under-used option is the angler's access parking at the Willow River Race. The anglers have worn paths all along the island, providing a bushwhacking style hiking.
Ice fishing generally starts out well for anglers seeking bluegills; crappies show up later on, and then it gets tougher as winter progresses. Anglers should park at the RV lot on the side not used for camping, or at the boat launch lot. There is a 10-fish limit on pan fish.
Winter camping involves carrying a tent in to the main campground or RV parking at the beach area, which has electric hookup.