National parks offer visitors a wintertime escape

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Winter on the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin. Image: Ice Age Trail Alliance.

By Anne Hooper

Many joys of the holiday season, such as getting together with loved ones, are on hold this year. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, restrictions on travel and sizable gatherings remain in place.

However, many outdoor venues remain open, including national parks in the Great Lakes region.

One is Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, said Alexandra Picavet, chief communicator for the Midwest region of the National Park Service.

“In terms of parks, it’s by far the biggest wintertime destination in the Great Lakes region,” she said.

According to Picavet, Voyageurs offers a wide array of winter-specific activities. These include ice fishing, ice roads and cross-country skiing.

Once Lake Superior has frozen over for the season, snowmobiling can be added to the list, Picavet said.

“And, quite recently, Voyageurs was designated a Dark Sky Park where people can go year-round to see the stars and the Northern Lights,” she said.

Picavet said that another unique wintertime experience is found just one state over: the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin.

“It stretches for nearly 1,200 miles and traces the outline of a glacier located there during the Ice Age. People can walk along and see the combination of gently rolling hills and jagged edges sculpted by this prehistoric glacier,” she said.

In addition to the trail, she said, Wisconsin is also home to other National Park Service venues: the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, North Country Trail and Saint Croix National Riverway.

“It’s important to keep in mind that by venue, week and even date, park conditions can vary greatly—especially during the winter season. People can visit each state’s Park Service website, where they can find current conditions by location,” she said.

Winter at Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota. Image: Voyageurs Conservancy

Other important information can be found on the agency website, Picavet said.

“We ask guests to be up-to-date on our safety guidelines, which are available online. We expect everyone to follow them and recreate responsibly,” she said.

Picavet said that, especially during the pandemic, visitors should make their safety a priority. This is crucial as parks continue their operations, she said.

After seeing record numbers of attendees during the summer, some parks expect to stay busy even with the year winding down, said Superintendent Denice Swanke of Isle Royale National Park.

“Parks all over the country, both state and national, have had unprecedented amounts of visitors this year. Among these are Isle Royale and the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan,” she said.

According to Swanke, Isle Royale saw more attendees during its shortened visiting period in 2020 than it had during any previous full-length season.

“Along with returning visitors, we had people that lived nearby but, for one reason or another, hadn’t taken the opportunity to stop by the park before,” she said.

Swanke said that apart from their normal “in-season” activities, parks offer special wintertime sports and ventures: fat-tire biking, snowmobiling, ice skating, skiing and more.

“In Sleeping Bear Dunes, there’s a 6-mile stretch of road that, when snow covers it, turns into an amazing ski trail,” she said.

Swanke also said that fat-tire biking, which allows bikers to traverse through snow and ice, is quite popular in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

There are also “lower octane” winter activities offered by the parks, she said.

“Since night skies are a resource protected by state and national parks, many of them have star-viewing spaces that are available to visitors year-round. Some of the best viewing opportunities are in the wintertime,” Swanke said.

And while limitations may be in place due to COVID-19, many parks also have onsite lodging for guests.

“It lets you experience a familiar landscape in a different, more intimate way,” she said.     The escape offered by the parks and other outdoor venues can be hugely beneficial for mental health, experts say, especially as people’s wintertime struggles are worsened by pandemic-related stress.

The onset of winter is expected to intensify the sensations of “COVID fatigue” that many are already experiencing, especially for those with Seasonal Affective Disorder, according to the Health unit of University of California, Davis.

Seasonal depression can be mitigated by staying active and socializing with others, the university said.

With travel restrictions in place, however, connecting with friends and family has become a challenge, it said, and this winter may be especially difficult, as people also struggle with a sense of isolation.

Despite the circumstances, there are still ways to combat these problems. To cope with the winter blues, it advised, people can decorate or participate in festive activities, contact loved ones frequently and spend time outside.

“Staying physically active is one of the best ways to keep your mind and body healthy. In many areas, people can visit parks, trails, and open spaces as a way to relieve stress, get some fresh air, and stay active,” said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

As long as visitors follow proper sanitation rules, maintain social-distancing and abide by any restrictions that are in place, these facilities will remain relatively safe to visit, the CDC reported.

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