New trails highlight major changes at Lake Elmo Park Reserve

It was almost as if Mother Nature looked into the future, realized how difficult the winter would be for her most pesky children (that’s us) and decided to give us one last stretch of beautiful, warm weather to hold in our hearts for the coming months. Because the air was warm and the sun was fading, my son and I grabbed our mountain bikes and raced to Lake Elmo Park Reserve to ride the trails one last time before the snow began to fall. It was the best decision we made all week.

Riding the multi-use trails at Lake Elmo Park Reserve on a warm November day.

This year, Washington County launched a major transformation at Lake Elmo Park Reserve, aided in part by a grant from the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund. The park has added a new parking lot and entrance off of Inwood Ave., created new trails, and began work to restore 166 acres of prairie and oak savanna. One of the most visible agents of change in this process was the herd of goats that appeared on the shores of Eagle Point Lake one day, happily munching away on buckthorn, honeysuckle, amur maple and box elder. Thanks to these loud-mouthed ungulates, park visitors can now enjoy sweeping views of the lake and surrounding savanna, no longer blocked by invasive species.

This summer, Washington County Parks hired a herd of goats from Goat Dispatch, LLC to graze on invasive buckthorn, honeysuckle, amur maple and box elder.

During our farewell tour, my son and I rode our bikes from the new parking area on Inwood Ave., across the western prairie, and around Eagle Point Lake. As we rode, the setting sun cast soft, pink light on the hills below and transformed the prairie to a field of gold. We encountered several deer, a trio of geese, and two hawks during our ride.

 The network of trails on the west side of Lake Elmo Park Reserve has now been designated as multi-use, and will continue to be available for a variety of uses this winter, including hiking, snowshoeing, fat-tire cycling, and skiing. There is a new bridge across the north end of Eagle Point Lake, and new loops within the prairie as well.

A second picture, taken later in the fall, shows a clear view down to Eagle Point Lake with no buckthorn in sight.

On the east side of the park near the Nordic Center, Washington County will continue to groom trails for classic and skate-style skiing. In addition, the park added 2.2 miles of new ski trails in this section, including a new “Flats Loop” and a “North Loop”. These eastern trails are lighted during the winter, making it easier for people to get outside and ski when darkness comes early in the day. A Washington County ski pass is required to use the groomed trails, but not the multi-use trails on the west side of the park.

On the east side of Lake Elmo Park Reserve, trails are groomed for both classic and skate style skiing.

Altogether, Lake Elmo Park Reserve contains 2,165 acres of prairie, savanna, woods and wetlands. It is the largest tract of public land in Washington County, and home to an abundance of wildlife – everything from deer and turkeys to red-headed woodpeckers, red-tailed hawks, meadow voles, and chorus frogs. The park is also nestled in the heart of the Valley Branch Watershed District and offers public access to Lake Elmo, Raleigh Creek, and Eagle Point Lake. If you ski the trails at Lake Elmo Park Reserve this winter, look for a sign marking a small damn  between wetlands on the west side of Lake Elmo that is part of Valley Branch Watershed District’s “Project 1007,” a $4.25 million flood-prevention project completed in 1987 that also helps to keep nutrient-rich runoff out of Lake Elmo’s crystalline water.

Planning your visit: Access Lake Elmo Park Reserve from the south through the main entrance at 10th St. N and Keats Ave. (1-mile north of Hwy 94) or at the new west entrance on Inwood Ave. (1-mile north of 10th St). A vehicle permit is required ($7/day or $30/year) in both locations. The park has more than 20-miles of trails for a variety of uses. New this year, skiers 18 and older will need to purchase a Washington County ski pass to ski on the groomed trails at Lake Elmo Park Reserve and other Washington County Parks ($6/day or $30/year). For this winter only, the county will continue to honor three-year DNR ski passes that were previously purchased.

Sunset at Lake Elmo Park Reserve