|Haley Entner and Dayna White of St. Cloud enjoy cross-country skiing at St. Cloud’s Quarry Park & Nature Area.
|Frost flocks Haley Enter on a super-chilled morning.
Minnesota’s Quarry Park offers unique ski trails
On a mid-December morning, the air bites so frigidly, even the snow seems to protest with a stiff-squeak as skis swish through the tracks. A few quick glides beyond the trail leads to pretty scene that almost looks natural: a snow-covered pond with a rocky edge.
Quarry Park’s Annual Moonlight Ski
Friday, Jan. 3, 2014
6 to 10 pm
Free ski rentals (for this event) at Fitzharris Sports and Revolution Bike and Ski.
Free parking (normally $5/day).
Event includes hot cocoa, a bonfire and places to warm up.
Study it more closely, and parts of the ledge seem artificially steep, rocks suspiciously square. Occasionally a rough chunk of cubed granite sports ridges left by dynamite and blasts that regularly reverberated throughout St. Cloud from the late 1800s into the 1950s.
These days, skiers, snowshoers and winter hikers head to the 625-acre Quarry Park and Nature Preserve for a woodsy escape minutes from St. Cloud’s busy retail hub.
|Snow blankets Quarry Park’s quarries.
|More than 4.2 miles of winter trails loop through this vast park with about 30 former quarries. Traditional skiers can choose the 2.2-mile outer trail or an inner 2-mile loop with a 3.5K stretch for skate skiers who glide along with graceful speed.
On this far western edge of the city it’s quiet enough to hear the distant whistle of trains echoing across the Mississippi River and the rustle and rattle of brown oak leaves that refused to fall. The arthritic oak branches canopy parts of the trail while pines or birch flank other stretches.
Stripped of summer’s thick curtains of leaves, winter woods make it easy to see “grout piles.” These rugged mounds of discarded quarry rocks tower above the tree line like snowy funeral cairns for giants. On thick summer days, breezes stir deliciously cool air that lurks deep within these grout piles, a wisp of natural air conditioning on the 10-minute walk to the designated swimming quarry. In the winter, they shelter skiers.
|Winter adds quiet beauty to St. Cloud’s quarries.
|Haley Entner and Dayna White, friends and work colleagues, dodged dangerous windchillls by sticking to a loop dotted with woods and rock piles, avoiding the park’s open stretch of prairie known for mid-summer’s Indian paintbrush. They wrapped up a morning outing with frost flocking their hair and hats.
While Entner visits Quarry Park often with her family during the summer and fall, she fell in love with the winter season more recently during the annual moonlight ski.
“We went out there and just had a blast,” Entner said. The snowy season now outranks others at the park. “It’s so much more peaceful out there in the winter,” she says.
All of the ski trails are considered flat enough for beginners with a few gentle hills. The easy pace gives visitors time to ponder the land’s history.
The first quarry opened in the early 1860s, with granite growing into an international commodity and St. Cloud earning the nickname “The Granite City.” St. Cloud Red Granite, which came from the park’s quarries, was used on parts of St. Paul’s Landmark Center and the James J. Hill House.
|Quarry Park offers some of Minnesota’s longest lit ski trails.
|The region still claims the world’s biggest granite producer—Coldspring—along with many other granite and rock companies with sheds and showrooms along the Highway 23 corridor. The Stearns History Museum has a permanent granite quarry display, and the park itself continues to add to its interpretive displays that include quarrying equipment, rocks and a derrick that’s occasionally demonstrated.
Quarrying on what’s now park property ceased in the mid-1950s, letting Mother Nature take over. The giant granite bowls filled with spring water, making them irresistible to youth and college students.
“Swimming and partying at the quarries were a longtime tradition,” says Peter Theisen, Stearns County parks director.
The 112-foot-deep swim quarry remains the park’s biggest attraction, but other quarries also offer secluded and scenic spots for trout fishing, scuba diving, rock-climbing and challenging mountain bike trails. Hikers can find marsh marigolds while walking across a floating boardwalk, yellow lady’s slippers in the woods, and even prickly pear cactus on the dry, rocky outcroppings.
Winter boasts a more subtle beauty: iced branches that glitter like crystals, cool blue-gray shadows and pale sunshine mingling on a snow-white canvas, and the brighter blend of clear sky, dark pine and etched trees.
Returning after dark, the park feels even quieter. Trail lights shine like hip-high beacons, welcoming skiers to weave along its granite legacy while soaking in the beauty of a winter’s night.
For more information on St. Cloud-area attractions, visit www.GraniteCountry.com.
Lisa Meyers McClintick is a travel writer based in St. Cloud, Minn., and the author of Day Trips from the Twin Cities. This feature originally ran in the Star Tribune’s Outdoors Weekend.