Best Winter Weekend Getaway in Afton State Park

By Trent Jonas

Best Winter Weekend Getaway in Afton State Park

Minnesota plays host to some fierce winters, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from getting outdoors. Stretching across 1,600 acres, Afton State Park is a beautiful place to explore when the seasons change. From snowshoeing to fat tire biking, here’s how to enjoy a winter weekend getaway at Afton State Park to its fullest.  

Backpack Campsite Six

Afton State Park is a backpack-only campground (for tents, anyway) that is open year-round. This is a favorite park to go camping at due to the peaceful nature to the area, as well as the opportunities that are right at the park. Skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, and so much more are among the many activities that draw people in. If you don’t feel like pitching your tent in the snow, reserve one of the park’s yurts or camper cabins for the weekend. 

Snowshoe the North River Trail

Get ready for some amazing sights; this trail boasts beautiful overlooks of the river valley. You’ll follow along the St. Croix River parallel to an older in-active railroad grade. After passing though a forest, picnic area, two railroad bridges, you’ll find a trail leading to the top f the bluff. One way will take you just under a mile and a half, with some decent elevation changes to get your blood pumping. The views are certainly worth it.

Hit the slopes at Afton Alps

Afton Alps Ski Resort is adjacent to Afton State Park. With its 48 trails, 18 lifts, four terrain parks, and almost 300 acres of skiable land, the resort is the largest ski area within 100 miles of the Twin Cities metro. On weekends, there is often live music and other entertainment at the chalet. It’s a perfect place to warm up before heading back to your campsite.

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Drop a line in the St. Croix River

Afton State Park sits right on the shore of one of the state’s most diverse fisheries: The St. Croix River. Known for its smallmouth bass and monster catfish, anglers have also pulled out everything from monster brown trout to muskies, walleyes and sturgeon. With the colder water, the big fish are going to be feeding hard in order to make it through the winter. The river will eventually freeze, but then you can head upriver toward Bayport and ice fish.

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Bag your limit or tag your deer

In Minnesota, Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) are open to public hunting. Gores Pool No. 3 WMA is more than 7,000 acres of huntable land, marshes and backwaters along the Mississippi River. About a 30-mile or so drive from Afton State Park, Gores Pool is a great spot to hunt deer, small game, forest upland birds, pheasants, waterfowl, turkey, and doves. Make sure you have proper permits and are knowledgeable in Minnesota’s hunting laws

Snowmobile the Star Trail

Snowmobiling enthusiasts can bring their sleds and hook up with the Washington County Star Trail just minutes outside the park entrance. The 140 miles of trail are groomed and maintained by a consortium of local clubs. A feeder trail in the nearby town of Afton will get you access to Star Trail while offering plenty of parking and gas.

Get Nordic at Lake Elmo Park Reserve

There are plenty of awesome cross-country skiing opportunities within Afton State Park, like the 3.8-mile Prairie Loop. However, nearby Lake Elmo Park Reserve also offers many, many miles of groomed ski trails—both skate and classic—for all levels of ability. The reserve also offers plowed hiking trails and groomed snowshoeing opportunities. Since you’ll be in the area, grab brunch or dinner at the Lake Elmo Inn.

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Soak in the park on a winter hike

A winter hiking trail stretches from the Visitor Center/South Camp Area parking lot to the Deer Valley Loop snowshoe trail head. You’ll hike for about a mile, along the tree-lined river bluffs and across the restored tallgrass prairie area, to the trailhead. With the return trip, you’ll get a couple miles in, which, in the winter cold, is probably enough for most folks.

Fat bike Brown’s Creek State Trail

Thinking about bringing your fat bike along for some winter riding? Head up to the trailhead near the old railroad depot in Stillwater, a St. Croix River town a few miles north of Afton State Park and hop onto Brown’s Creek State Trail. The trail is only about six miles each way, but it connects to the 18-mile Gateway Trail, which you can ride all the way into St. Paul, or also to the St. Croix crossing trail, which will get you over to the Wisconsin side of the river. So, start pedaling and turn around when you’re ready. Fuel up, before or after, with some belly-warming bourbon and Southern comfort food at Pearl and the Thief.

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Treat yourself at Afton House Inn

If you don’t feel like camping or staying in one of the park’s cabins—or you just want some warm food and drink in your belly—pop over to the Afton House Inn, just minutes north of the park. The historic hostelry and eatery is one of the oldest in the state and oozes with traditional elegance. Exquisite food and perfectly-prepared cocktails will surely make you dread the dark, cold hike back to your tent.

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