Bound to St. Cloud for spring break, a few friends and I had a bit of time on our hands and decided we had been inside too much this winter. The first weekend of spring break proved favorable enough, and on a whim, we decided to go camping. We gathered our gear, piled it into my car, made a few quick stops on the way out of St. Cloud, and headed down I-94 toward Monticello. The drive was short from St. Cloud, and the park is only a few miles from the off ramp.
The small, brown information building is just around the corner after pulling into the park. It doesn’t take long to hop out of the car and self-register for your trip, grab a map and go— which is nice if you’re in a hurry to get on the trail— or pulling in much later than expected, like we did.
However, if the office is open, I would recommend stopping in there to chat with the folks working that day. They seem to know the park like the back of their hand, and will surely have some good insight or advice. Plus, there’s maps and information in there for an array of opportunities and trails all over Minnesota.
After paying the park fees and stepping out of the office, we head down to the parking area. Since it was just a weekend trip, we packed fairly light, which made hiking into our site a bit more relaxing.
We stepped on the trail around 2 p.m. The sun was out and the snow was melting beneath our feet. During the day the temperature was just over 30 degrees, but when you’re hiking through the woods, even during the winter, there’s not a whole lot of wind to cool you off. And so, making you’re way down the trail, each step can leave your boots feeling heavier and heavier, especially when you’re stuck with carrying most of the gear and trying to stay off the groomed trails. Even though I was far away, it felt like I was walking on the beach with my backpack and boots on.
Nonetheless, it was wonderful to listen to the wind blowing through the trees, as slight as it was, and to hear the crunching of snow and ice under our feet, rather than the busy noises that come with everyday life near a city, even a city scaled to St. Cloud. The sun being out was a treat too. I was feeling for the folks that shipped off to sit on a beach and soak up the sun.
Our site wasn’t far from the parking area, and we made it there pretty fast. Leaving the main trail and veering off into our site, we made our way through a few more inches of snow. Entering site B2, we were blown away by the Minnesota scenery, but also by the wind coming off of Putnam Lake. Even though the sun was out, shining through the leaf-less trees and glaring off the snow-covered lake and land, the wind whipped off the ice and greeted us harshly.
We struggled a bit setting up camp, especially the tent. If I would’ve been an onlooker that day, I would’ve laughed at our tactics; pinning one thing down, only to let another blow away. Luckily the wind died down as the sun lowered.
We got a fire going, brewed some coffee and just took a moment to sit, chat and take the much-needed break from the grind.
From where we were sitting, you couldn’t hear a car or see a telephone poll or anything else of the sort. The thought of having a place so close to home, where you could just escape to a seemingly untouched place trumped a sandy, crowded beach during spring break–for me anyways.
We enjoyed a bit of peace for a while, but wanted to use what sunlight we still had left to see some of the 1,580 acres of the park. We hiked through the park for a few hours, making brief stops to enjoy the landscape, or to just explore around for a bit.
Walking along the trail, I can say for myself anyways, that it was nice just to enjoy the solitude and the forest as it is during the winter months.
After wandering through the park, we eventually made our way back to camp. We rekindled a fire, put on more coffee, and made dinner. To keep it simple, we brought along some trail mix for the day, but ate beans and hot dogs for dinner.
After the sun went down and the park greeted the night, we sat around a warm fire in our snow-covered camp.
My favorite part about the entire experience, by far, was the night hike. I don’t think it was 9 p.m. yet when we headed back to the trail, and there was a decent overcast when we first started out. However, given that there was still a fair layer of snow on the trail, we didn’t bother with flashlights unless it was to look at maps staked along the trail.
The contrast between the snowy trails and the dark woods was like black and white. And although there, the trail froze over with the drop in temperature, the uneven terrain kept us from getting cold and kept us going in the right direction.
We were on the trail for hours that night. At night, there was a greater silence than during the day, which didn’t necessarily give off an eerie feeling, rather than a foreign one. Having grown up near cities, I’ve never really experience such a deep silence.
We were also met by the bright moon that peaked out as the overcast moved on. The sky was still spotted with a few remaining cloud, but the moon seemed nearly full, covering the forest in a dim, gray light that looked like something out of storybook.
There was a point during our hike that there was a slight break in the trees where the moon was able to come through just a bit greater. The combination of the silent woods with a big, bright moon, casting down its gray light, accompanied by subtle clouds seemed unreal.
Once we began dragging our boots along, we decided to head back into camp, which was nice now that the wind died down and we weren’t shivering from just sitting around camp.
I must say, though, having a sleeping bag rated for the temperature that night, along with enough layers to bundle up with when we weren’t shuffling along definitely made all the difference.
The next morning, we were greeted with the sun and the wind, yet again, but we were able to get coffee going and the bacon cooking with some determination. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated the combo more. After breakfast, we packed up and headed back. The trip was short, too short, but much-needed.
I can remember many of the times camping with the family during the summer. It seemed that every year my family took a trip over my birthday. Some years were better than others, naturally, but more or less we knew what to expect.
Camping during the off season brought on a few unexpected burdens, mainly minor and easy enough to counter, but it also brought some much-appreciated rewards. For anybody that enjoys camping during the summer, I would suggest heading out during the winter. On the plus side, there aren’t many mosquitoes out when the temps are below freezing.
This article was originally printed in the University Chronicle on March 23, 2015.