NEW ULM - Although this year's surprisingly mild winter has allowed visitors to Flandrau State Park an unexpected extension of time to pursue activities usually reserved for the fall, those waiting to enjoy the park's winter lineup have had an awfully long wait for the snow to arrive.
The wait is finally over.
After this past week and a half's snow accumulation, Flandrau is finally ready for visitors to participate in snow-related activities such as cross-county skiing and snowshoeing.
A view of the Cottonwood River from one of the park’s cross-country ski trails.
An interior view of Hackberry Haven, one of Flandrau State Park’s two camper cabins.
Each pair of wooden snowshoes available for rental at Flandrau is unique.
Flandrau State Park’s two camper cabins, Coffeetree Retreat (foreground) and Hackberry Haven. Hackberry Haven is handicap accessible and sleeps five, while Coffeetree Retreat sleeps six.
"There's just enough snow for us to groom and just enough snow to ski right now," said Park Manager Gary Teipel, who was able to groom the park's cross-country ski trails on Monday for the first time this winter. "We're hoping that we won't lose much of it, but that we'll be able to gain another inch or two of snow here and that some more people will come out to ski.
"We'd like to encourage people to come on out and to enjoy some winter activities at the park - if they don't have their own equipment, they can rent it from us."
For those looking to find an excuse to get out of the house in the remaining winter months, here is a sample of the activities that the park is currently offering its guests to take in Flandrau's scenic winter landscape:
Cross-country skiing is usually the most popular winter activity in Flandrau, but this year's ski season has been cut much shorter than in years past.
Despite the absence of skiable conditions, park visitors still were able to enjoy the trails during the early winter months.
"We've had a lot of people hiking this winter, just because there hasn't been any snow," Teipel said. "We've had a lot of people out telling us that they've been going around in places where they normally aren't in the park at that time of year."
However, now that the trails have been groomed for cross-country skiing, they are no longer accessible to hikers in order to prevent damage to the groomed snow.
Even if cross-country skiing is something you've never done before, Flandrau is a great place to learn.
"Most of trails system is fairly flat, it's rated as easy, so it's a good place for people to start out," Teipel said. "Skiing can be fairly easy as long as you don't start off trying to go real hard. If you just go slow at first and gain your balance it works pretty well to learn to ski on the flat ground out here."
The park office has a full array of skis, boots and poles available to rent for a combined $10 per person. A daily ski pass runs for $6, with season-long passes costing $20. Children 16 and under aren't required to purchase a ski pass, making cross-country skiing an ideal family activity.
The vast majority of the park's trails are accessible for classic-style skiing (they are not wide enough for skate-style skiing), with trails offering scenic views of the Cottonwood River and the park's many wooded areas. The wooded sections of the trails should offer fine skiing even in warmer conditions, with the trails in open grassland likely to see the most variance of trail conditions.
The park has many deer and winter birds in winter residence, offering visitors a great chance to break out their cameras (perhaps new cameras received for Christmas) to try their hand at nature photography - during my brief visit to the park I happened upon a group of three deer resting in the brush, though lacked the necessary stealth to capture a picture.
The park's trails should become even better for skiing with each new snowfall.
"If we get enough snow we'll re-groom our ski trails and keep them in really good condition," Teipel said. "This last snowfall was just enough to groom them. We won't be able to re-groom until we get more snow."
While cross-country skiing is the park's most popular winter activity, the park office also rents out snowshoes to visitors that are looking to trek through the park without the use of skis.
Snowshoeing was particularly popular in the park last winter with the substantial volume of snow received last year.
"Last year because we had really deep snow I'd say a third of our rentals were snow shoe," Teipel said. "That was kind of unusual with how deep the snow was for most of the winter last year. Normally a larger proportion would be cross country ski rentals."
This year the southeast section of the park heading toward the Schell's brewery (comprised of the River Trial, the Old Dam Trail and the Old Island Loop) has been set aside specifically for snowshoeing.
The park office has a vast selection of snowshoes available for rent to suit each visitor's preference for either aesthetics or practicality.
"We've got both the traditional wood-style snowshoes as well as some of the lighter aluminum ones," Teipel said. "If you've never done it I would just recommend trying the aluminum ones first, just because they're a little bit lighter and you're using some muscles that you normally don't use. A lot of people like the traditional look (of wooden snowshoes) and will use those, and they work fairly well. They each work a little bit different depending on the snow conditions and whether you're going up or down steep hills or not."
Though snowshoeing is an easier technique to grasp initially than cross-country skiing, it still provides a satisfying workout for those looking to get some outdoor exercise.
Flandrau State Park also offers two year-round camper cabins in its non-electric campground, situated in an ideal location for easy access to the cross-country ski trails.
"The cabins have been real popular," Teipel said. "The ski trail goes right near them and last winter they were very popular with all the snow we had. This year people are still renting them. We still have a few weekends where at least one of the nights one of the cabins is open."
The two cabins - named Coffeetree Retreat and Hackberry Haven - each have electric heating and lighting and also have a ceiling fan. They also each have a small picnic inside with benches and chairs for seating. There are two bunk beds inside each cabin, with Coffeetree Retreat able to sleep six and Hackberry Haven able to sleep five. Hackberry Haven is handicap accessible.
Cooking must be done outside the cabins, though crock pots and coffee makers may be used inside.
The park's shower building is closed during the winter, but there is an outhouse-style bathroom facility next to the cabins.
Each cabin rents for $50 a night. Reservations prior to March 1 must be made by contacting the park office.