A series exploring the best outdoor experiences in the Twin Cities
Chase white tails on white trails at this sprawling south metro park. Strap on snowshoes and make big tracks at Whitetail Woods Regional Park, laced with a spaghetti tangle of trail miles and a full house of resident wildlife.
Cruisin’ and playin’ in the new fallen snow, with no particular place to go.
I did my best Chuck Berry out there. It didn’t sound at all like him, and I think I scared a squirrel. I couldn’t help but belt out a lively tune, being in the middle of 450 acres of wild and an untracked canvas of fluffy white snow in my sights. If you’ve explored the trails at Whitetail Woods Regional Park, you are likely equally keen on the widespread fixings among its rolling hills and shady forests.
Whitetail is part of a big ol’ tract of land at Farmington’s northern fringe, purchased by Dakota County from a gracious, preservation-minded family. The park opened its gates in the fall of 2014 to rousing reviews from area outdoor fans. This is the first regional park in the county in close to 30 years, and its location smack in the middle of growing communities bodes well for an enduring legacy. To wit, Whitetail has already proven a big hit with nature-loving fans, and it is common to see tykes in strollers or small fry hiking boots with the same gleam in their eyes as seasoned hikers and athletes, all sharing this special place with a who’s-who of local wildlife species. (Did you just hear a great horned owl?)
A rarity with park creation, Whitetail was built from scratch in one fell swoop, and its artisans did themselves proud. They had a treasure to work with right from the start, with rolling hills, wetlands, handsome Empire Lake, mystical stands of lowland cedar, and majestic oaks with roots 100 years’ deep. Taking visitors up close, a dozen miles of hiking trails squiggle over hill and dale. For winter lovers, over 5 of those miles are dedicated for snowshoeing and winter hiking.
My favorite loop starts with a flat stretch along the south shore of Empire Lake before veering into the woods and through a smudge of wetland. A quick dip through a shallow valley leads to a couple of buttonhook turns up to the crest of the woodsy hill north of the lake, with commanding views all around the compass. The path descends to follow the edge of a fishhook-shaped wetland and back over one final lumpy hill to the trailhead. Just shy of 3 miles and packed with good vibes. Still feeling fresh? Zip over to the sledding hill and let loose with a storied Minnesota pastime.
Get there: From I-35, exit at CR 46 (160th St.) and head east 7.5 miles to Highway 3. Turn right, southbound for one mile to 170th St. Turn left and go east again 2.1 miles to 158th St. (Station Tr.). Turn right and follow the curve left to the park entrance. The visitor center and main trailhead is at the end of the long entrance road.
By Steve Johnson