The senses come alive when winter snow blankets the ground and giftwraps the evergreens. Every panoramic view becomes more brilliant and every sound is amplified. Animals, tiny and huge, leave telltale footprints for all to see. We see where the mice were scurrying for seeds, the squirrels digging for nuts and the deer foraging for a last bite of green grass. The best time of the year for hiking is in the winter and here are the five best Minnesota parks for it.

(credit: CBS/Guy Still)

(credit: CBS/Guy Still)

Eastman Nature Center
13351 Elm Creek Road
Dayton, MN 55369
(763) 694-7894 (Elm Creek Chalet)
www.threeriversparks.org

Elm Creek has one of the best winter walks in Three Rivers Park District. The Heron Trail and Oxbow Trail follow the banks and floodplain of Rush Creek and the Meadowlark Trail provides for “off trail” exploration. “You can walk both trails to burn maximum calories and avoid cabin fever,” says Eastman Nature Center’s Outdoor Education Supervisor, Kim Nowicki. Those trails offer winter snowshoeing in a silent beauty unlike anything else. Follow animal tracks, discover deer beds and stalk through the silent woods hoping to catch a glimpse of wildlife or the occasional the sound of winter birds. Rent snowshoes from the park in all sizes. The park is open 5:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.

Fort Snelling State Park
101 Snelling Lake Road
St. Paul, MN 55111
(612) 725-2724
www.dnr.state.mn.us

Enjoy a wilderness escape in the middle of a major metropolitan area at Fort Snelling State Park. Pike Island offers a three-mile trail to the confluence of the Minnesota River and the mighty Mississippi. “A flock of wild turkeys will often greet visitors near the main entrance and you can almost always spot deer throughout the park,” says Amy Barrett, information officer for the Parks and Trails Division at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “The abundance of wildlife makes Fort Snelling State Park an excellent place to hike with kids and introduce them to nature.” The park is open 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. year ’round and usually has a fire going in the fireplace at the visitor center.

Related: Best Hiking Trails In The Twin Cities

(credit: Minnesota DNR Itasca State Park)

(credit: Minnesota DNR Itasca State Park)

Itasca State Park
36750 Main Park Drive
Park Rapids, MN 56470
(218) 699-7251
www.mndnr.gov

Explore the source of the Mississippi River just as Henry Schoolcraft did in 1832 when he declared Lake Itasca as the river’s primary source. A short, paved trail leads from the parking lot to the Mississippi Headwaters, where the river begins its 2,552-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. “Another great winter hike involves taking the Brower Trail along the east shore of Lake Itasca to Preachers Grove, where you can look up and admire some of the park’s towering pines,” says Barrett. At the nearby Jacob V. Brower Visitor Center, you can warm up in front of a cozy fireplace and check out the park’s gift shop and interpretive exhibits. The park is open 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. year ’round. Snowshoe rental available.

Jay Cooke State Park
780 MN-210
Carlton, MN 55718
(218) 384-4610
www.dnr.state.mn.us

Crossing the iconic Swinging Bridge for a view of the St. Louis River is the best way to begin a visit to Jay Cooke State Park, which is celebrating its 100th birthday in 2015. You can pick up the Carlton Trail on the far side and follow it along the river or jump back in the car and proceed to the easier Ogantz Trail at Oldenburg Point. “Keep your eye out for porcupines in the trees,” Barrett says, “And when you’re ready for a break, head back to the River Inn Visitor Center for a snack in front of the stone fireplace.” The park is open 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. year ’round. Snowshoe rental available.

(credit: Megan Valder)

(credit: Megan Valder)

William O’Brien State Park
16821 O’Brien Trail N.
Marine on St Croix, MN 55047
(651) 433-0500
www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/william_obrien

At William O’Brien State Park, the 1.6-mile Riverside Trail offers scenic views of the St. Croix River. “It’s wide and flat, so it’s a nice route for hiking with a group,” Barrett says, “and if there’s snow on the ground, it’s an easy route to snowshoe.” This popular park attracts nature lovers from the metro area, as it is only one hour away and promises the chance for wildlife sightings such as fox, raptors, mink and white-tailed deer. The park is open 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. year ’round. Snowshoe rental available.

Related: Finding Minnesota: Discovering Life In The Dead Of Winter

Robin Johnson was born in Annandale, Minn. and graduated from Richfield High School and then the University of Minnesota where he studied Political Science, Business and Industrial Relations. A writer for Examiner.com, he also consults with a variety of organizations and individuals helping them develop and grow. His work can be found at Examiner.com.

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