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Itasca in winter

From a cozy hostel, guests ski out the door onto park trails.

Skiers in front of Mississippi Headwaters Hostel in Itasca.

© Beth Gauper

The Mississippi Headwaters Hostel makes a cozy base for exploring Itasca State Park.

In winter, only the most dedicated pilgrims make the trip to Itasca, Minnesota's most revered state park.

Yet the park is beautiful without its forest canopy. It's easy to see its bones, the lumpy quilt of knobs and kettles laid down by retreating glaciers.

It's easy to see the 300-year-old pines that escaped loggers. And it's easier to listen to the sassy chatter of a squirrel, the prehistoric croak of a crow, the rat-a-tat of a woodpecker.

In winter, the park grooms 32 kilometers of trails for classic and skate skiing. On the trails, skiers see the legacy of Jacob Brower, the far-sighted surveyor who, in 1891, used his own salary to start piecing together the state's first state park.

One January, I drove up to the park with my daughter, my niece and my snow-starved sister from Florida.

Before darkness fell, we skied along the lake to the headwaters, where the Mississippi begins its run to the Gulf of Mexico. The little clearing, packed with tourists in summer, was so quiet our clicking skis seemed to echo.

Our lodgings were just up from the trail. The log Mississippi Headwaters Hostel occupies the 1923 former park headquarters, and at the end of 2007, it got a face lift new leather chairs, Mission-style benches, window treatments, carpeting, refinished floors, a second oven.

Temporary manager Nancy Ludwig said it had been in demand by ice fishermen as well as skiers and snowshoers.

"They want to be more comfortable than they used to be,'' she said.

After dinner, we made a beeline for the cozy fireplace room, where we drank wine and played Cranium; before going to bed, we went outside to see the stars in an inky sky.

We settled in front of the fire after breakfast, too, but finally pulled ourselves away to ski the trails south of the the visitors center.

Ozawindib Trail, named for the Ojibwe guide who led Henry Schoolcraft to the  headwaters, forms the spine of the network. It was too hilly for Lynn, my flatlander sister, so she headed back to the lake trail and the visitor center's hot cocoa and gas fireplaces.

Skiing in Itasca State Park.

© Beth Gauper

Ski trails connect the hostel and the headwaters.

I skied to Deer Park Trail, where the tiny islands of Deer Park Lake were top-heavy with pines that reach eight stories into blue sky. A bark rang out in the distance, a dog or one of Itasca's own pack of wolves.

The terrain rose and fell under my skis as I crossed back to Ozawindib Trail; at Itasca, the hardwood and pine forest makes a last stand before flattening into prairie.

The third day, we skied along the lake and through the campground, and Lynn found her snow legs.

"I was a totally clumsy klutz, and then I was flying,'' she marveled. "This is a unique experience for anyone, even if they're not from Florida.''

She was the first person to write in the brand-new guest book: "What a cold and refreshing change from Florida!''

In Itasca, winter is everything it's cracked up to be.

Trip Tips: Winter in Itasca

Getting there: The fastest route from the Twin Cities is I-94 to the Clearwater exit, U.S. 10 to Motley, Minnesota 64 to 200 and Minnesota 200/U.S. 71 west to the park. It takes a little more than four hours in good conditions.

For more on Itasca, see The people's park.

Mississippi Headwaters Hostel: This comfortable hostel occupies the former park headquarters just off Lake Itasca, across from the canoe landing and sports rental. In winter, skiers can ski from the hostel right onto a groomed trail, and ice fishermen can walk to the lake.

It has six bedrooms with 31 beds, five common rooms, three bedrooms and a large, well-designed kitchen. The 18-bed "quiet wing'' has its own skylit sitting area with games and books.

Cost is $23-$27 per person, $10-$12 for children younger than 14, and $20-$24 for members of Hostelling International and nonprofit groups of 10 or more. It's open weekends only in winter.

There are no private rooms. Bring bedding, towels, hand soap and food. Guests are expected to clean up before they leave. Reserve as early as possible at 218-266-3415.

Other accommodations: Most of the park's accommodations close for the winter. But near Douglas Lodge, the Itasca Suites stay open. They occupy two buildings that sit on either side of a large asphalt parking lot.

Skiing in Itasca State Park.

© Beth Gauper

Skiers pass the Forest Inn near the Douglas Lodge.

There's no view, but the suites are attractively furnished, and they have kitchenettes, satellite televisions, phones and computer hookups, $99 in winter. Reserve online or at 866-857-2757.

A mile from the headwaters, on Wilderness Drive, Bert's Cabins is a private resort in a lovely grove of red pines. Its 12 housekeeping log cabins are very well-kept, and five deluxe cabins have wood stoves and are open in winter.

Itasca State Park: It has a full-time naturalist, so check year-round for special events and programs, 218-699-7251. The park offers two lantern-lit candlelight ski evenings each winter.

Skiing: A Minnesota ski pass is required, $6 daily, $20 annual. The visitors center sells daily passes.

Snowshoeing: The park rents snowshoes, $6. The 3.2-kilometer Dr. Roberts Trail and 3.1-kilometer Mary Lake Trail near Douglas Lodge and 1.8-kilometer Schoolcraft Trail near the Headwaters are groomed for snowshoeing.

Last updated on December 29, 2016