Gooseberries on ice
In winter, the beloved waterfalls on Minnesota's North Shore turn into a big, frozen playground.
There's one spot along the North Shore at which everyone has to stop.
Its five falls tumble over lumpy floes of ancient lava, filling the air with mist and tumult.
Intriguing crannies, created by jagged walls of rock and twisted cedars, turn adults into compulsive shutterbugs and bring out the Indiana Jones in children, who clamber from one precipice to another.
This is Gooseberry Falls State Park, the most-visited state park in Minnesota outside of Fort Snelling in the Twin Cities.
Before the tourists came, its quiet river estuary was often visited by explorers, one of whom, Sieur des Groseilliers, had a surname that means "gooseberries" in French.
In the winter, the falls seethe rather than roar, but they are even more beautiful. At the bottom of a 60-foot curtain of icicles, the water flickers behind filmy veils of ice, then disappears down a second tier of falls, where only a subdued gurgle reveals its presence.
In the winter, visitors can walk right up, close enough to see swirls, bubbles and milky bands festooning the ice, as if put there by a glassblower.
Icicles twist down in tangled braids; at Lower Falls, they form a tunnel big enough for a child to crawl through.
The effect is dramatic and magical and, in fact, reminded my son of the perpetual winter of the children's classic "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."
"Look, there are two hills," my son Peter said. "Remember, the Witch says, 'I live between two hills.' I think we've gone through the wardrobe."
Exploring the falls, of course, was the first thing my family did after settling into the Gooseberry Trailside Suites, which sit on the park's eastern border.
The very sight of all that ice galvanized Peter — "I'm Adventure Boy!" he shouted, racing from one niche to another. By noon, we'd been joined by a whole crew of other little explorers and their parents.
After lunch, we returned to the park, which had become even busier, mainly with skiers. We joined a Learn to Snowshoe program, given by naturalist Retta James-Gasser, who had lined up six different kinds of snowshoes.
"In Minnesota, it really pays to learn the different styles," she said. "On the prairies, you've got the open spaces and wind-packed snow, but in the BWCA and forests, you've got the fluffy, powdery snow."
She held up a high-tech snowshoe with solid synthetic decking, on which snow can build up. "This isn't made for Minnesota, but that's what's selling. It's a step backward for Minnesota."
She gave the children wooden Ojibwe snowshoes, with pointed, upturned toes and tails, and the adults got Maine snowshoes, with rounded toes.
As we walked through a cedar grove, she showed us where to "see" wildlife in the winter: inside goldenrod ball galls, where snippet wasps sleep; at the end of U-shaped vole tracks, under a comfy blanket of snow; in a hole pecked into a cedar tree.
At the handsome visitors center, a skier asked James-Gasser about the big wolf tracks that followed the ski trail, he said, "for a really long way." The naturalist wasn't surprised.
"They like a nice, compacted trail, because it's easier to run on," she said. "They're not dumb animals."
Back at the Trailside Suites, I let the children watch a movie while I skied right from our door onto the state park's 20-kilometer network of trails.
Following the eastern and northern perimeter of the park, through birch forest gleaming in the afternoon sun, I saw only one other skier until I approached the Upper Falls of the Gooseberry River.
Then, after making dinner, we all piled into the car and headed for Two Harbors, 14 miles south. It doesn't have a lot of nightlife, but it does have a great 3-kilometer lighted loop on the Two Harbors Municipal Trail, built and maintained by the local ski club.
We had a wonderful time gliding through the darkness, under a blue-black sky filled with constellations.
As soon as we got to the cabin, I turned on the sauna. When I got in 45 minutes later, the temperature was edging past 180, and it didn't take long to feel as cooked as leftover pasta.
Before we left the next day, we hiked up the Split Rock River, just three miles up the road, where we found a 20-foot waterfall hidden in the forest. This one, however, had frozen not into icicles but into a smooth wall that bulged like carved yellow jade.
There was beauty everywhere — in the thicket of birch, their bark a startling white against the blue sky, and in the expanse of Lake Superior, so placid that day that two fishermen had taken a boat into the mouth of the river.
In spring, this forest turns from white to brown to pale chartreuse, and Gooseberry Falls swells with meltwater. In summer, the crowds arrive. But the park is at its loveliest in winter.
Trip Tips: Minnesota's Gooseberry Falls in winter
Getting there: Gooseberry Falls State Park is 40 miles northeast of Duluth's Canal Park, or 15 miles from Two Harbors. Parking is free for day visitors.
Park programs: The park naturalist leads many hikes and nature programs. On Presidents' Day weekend in February, there's a candlelight ski, snowshoe and hike with music and treats.
Lighted skiing: The nine kilometers of the Erkki Harju Ski Trail in Two Harbors includes a very nice, easy three-kilometer loop that's lighted. Donations help the local ski club maintain it. It's less than a mile from Minnesota 61, off County Road 2.
Trails nearby: See Skiing the North Shore and North Shore by snowshoe. Many popular trails, such as the five-mile Split Rock River Loop, part of the Superior Hiking Trail, become so packed that snowshoes aren't necessary.
Accommodations: Gooseberry Trailside Suites, adjoining Gooseberry Falls State Park, has four attractive two-bedroom suites, each with wood-burning fireplace, VCR, CD player, deck and full kitchen. There's a big sauna and a ski-waxing room outside.
They're rented on VRBO: the Lester Suite, the French Suite, and two suites that are dog-friendly, Trailside and Gooseberry.
Bell Sheep Homestead, formerly J Gregers Inn, across from the park, has four rooms, all with fridges and microwaves, one with fireplace and two with two beds and kitchens, and a cabin for two with fireplace.
Castle Haven Cabins, 12 miles east of Two Harbors, has 12 two-bedroom cabins right on the lake, and seven have wood-burning fireplaces.
Superior Shores, one mile north of Two Harbors, is a large complex of hotel rooms, studios, suites and townhouses, with two outdoor pools, one indoor pool, two saunas, a whirlpool, tennis courts, and restaurant with patio.
Dining: The Rustic Inn, known for its pies, is just three miles south of the park in Castle Danger.
The Silver Creek Chophouse at Superior Shores Resort, 12 miles south of Gooseberry, would be a nice stop after an evening on the lighted Two Harbors loop.