Minocqua Winter Park's trails are great for both beginners and expert skiers.(Photo: Chelsey Lewis / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
It was one of those nearly perfect winter days in January last year — blues skies, temperatures in the low 30s, a fresh blanket of snow on the ground — when my family snapped into cross-country skis at the Minocqua Winter Park for a nice winter outing.
"Nice" being the intention, of course.
Within 10 minutes I was trying to use my whole four other cross-country skiing experiences (including, to be fair, an actual lesson) to teach four newbies, someone had lost a ski and couldn’t get it back on, and someone else had resorted to eating snow when she fell over since she was "thirsty."
Maybe we should have taken a lesson after all. And brought a water bottle, apparently.
Minocqua Winter Park is actually a great spot for beginner cross-country skiers and families, with the convenience of onsite rentals, a ski school and a handful of short, easy loops ranging from under 1 kilometer to more than 3 kilometers.
But even on the easy trails, small hills can be a challenge for new skiers, and a lesson from one of the park's trained instructors could have helped eliminate some frustration we all felt trying to inch our way up and maintain our balance on the way down.
Still, the pristinely groomed trails set among the frosted pines and hardwoods made for a beautiful winter outing — hills and all.
The park has more than 50 miles of ski and snowshoe trails ranging from easy to advanced, plus a tubing hill and an ice skating pond on 6,500 acres of land along the Squirrel River.
That's one of the beauties of the park: There's something for everyone. Add in a more reliable snow base than the sometimes snow-starved southern part of the state, and it's a great spot for getting in some winter outdoor fun.
The park got its start more than 50 years ago when a group of friends pooled their resources to create Squirrel Hill. While the park closed in the '70s, it was revived a couple of years later under the umbrella of the Lakeland Ski Touring Foundation.
Today the nonprofit operates the park, which is officially a Minocqua town park. Trails on the property wind through a mixture of public and private land. That includes a 3,195-acre land easement from an Illinois couple who purchased the land for $4.5 million in 2010 to prevent it from being clear-cut for a proposed golf course development.
At the time, the easement — nearly 5 square miles — was the largest ever donated to a Wisconsin land trust and protected popular trails in the park including Tornado Alley, Nutcracker, Nose Dive, Silver Strider and Sleigh Ride. The land is adjacent to the Squirrel River Pines State Natural Area, which features acres of old, red pines, some of which are more than two feet in diameter. Bald eagles also use the area for nesting.
All of that combines for a classic Northwoods skiing experience. And while the popular park sees thousands of visitors every season, it's easy enough to find that way-out-there feeling thanks to the park's large footprint.
The well-marked trails are groomed for both classic and skate skiing, with 15 kilometers of wilderness trails set aside for striding only and providing an even more remote experience. Scenic vistas abound, as trails pass through towering pines and past remote lakes and frozen streams.
On the easy Nepco Cruise Trail, a small Tea House serves warm tea and cookies to skiers and snowshoers for a donation. The small building is open at select hours; check with the office before heading there.
Six kilometers of trails are also open to skijoring, or skiing with dogs, except during peak times.
A chalet stands ready to warm visitors with snacks and refreshments. It was a welcome sight at the end of our outing last winter, as we regrouped and soothed sore muscles with local craft beers.
Even with the challenges brought on by next to no official training, it was a "nice" way to spend a winter day in Wisconsin. We have plans to return this year — and maybe take a lesson this time.
More information: The Minocqua Winter Park chalet and trails are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, typically Dec. 1 through March 31, depending on snow.
The snow tubing hill is open for two sessions, from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. or 2 to 4:30 p.m. daily Dec. 19 to Jan. 1 and on weekends during the season through March 31.
Select trails are open to snowshoeing, skijoring and fat biking.
Private and group ski lessons are offered daily by appointment. The ski shop rents skis, boots, poles and snowshoes.
Trail passes for skiing are $15 for adults, $12 for seniors age 65 and older, $10 for kids ages 6 to 18 and free for kids 5 and under.
Visit Jan. 21 for the Inga Lami Celebration, a traditional Norwegian festival for women. The event kicks off at 1:30 p.m. and will include a guided luminary ski or snowshoe, a Norwegian smorgasbord, local music, and door prizes. Registration is $35 in advance and $40 at the door.
For more, call (715) 356-3309 or see minocquawinterpark.org.
Getting there: Minocqua Winter Park is at 7543 Squirrel Hill Road. From Minocqua, follow Highway 70 west to Squirrel Lake Road, turn left and then left again onto Scotchman Lake Road. Follow the signs to Squirrel Hill Road. If you're coming from the south, be aware that some GPS units will take you on backroads through Hazelhurst to get there. Some of the roads are unpaved and not plowed in the winter.
Chelsey Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @chelseylew.