I expected given my eagerness that I would need State Park trips during the week whenever possible in order to supplement my big year. Given the proximity to Afton, William O'Brien, and Fort Snelling I hope to hike every trail possible in all of them this year even if that is not a viable goal for all the other parks in a single year.
Getting done at 3PM gives me a small window of time to race to a park and get a quality hike in before dark, at least in the winter months anyway when we drop as low as 4:30PM for sunset.
On the 4th I started these day trips at Afton State Park, a location I know very well at this point. After stopping by the entrance sign in dire need of repair I headed to a "secret" parking location to hike the Trout Brook Loop.
I say secret only because it is not listed on the official park map. The official park map for winter indicates the Trout Brook Loop hike is a 5.7 mile super hike as the trail head is listed as the main parking area. This is a great segment and I highly recommend all the hikes at Afton if you have the juice and the time. The actual loop section of the trail though is only 1.5 miles and still a strong gain and loss of elevation and you can drop into this loop using St. Croix Trail (HWY 21). North of the main park entrance road you would pass by the Afton Alps downhill ski facility and then a section of homes. At about 1 mile you will find a wider shoulder and a small bridge that spans Trout Brook itself. Parking just before this bridge while heading North will provide direct access to the trail no more than 20 feet or so off the road ditch.
I put on my Yak Trax knowing the low snow pack wouldn't dictate a need to snowshoe on the trail at this time. (To be honest size 14 winter boots on a yeti are nearly snowshoe sized anyway.)
Woodpeckers could be heard drumming already with Red-bellied, Hairy, and Pileated being present. As I crossed over Trout Brook for the first time (walking north from point of entry) I could see the speed of movement was plenty to keep the stream open, which was encouraging.
Only a few hundred yards later I came upon an additional spring feed area that had a large flock (20+) of American Robin feeding in the leaf litter around this spring flat as well as in the buckthorn berries. A nice location to find American Robin in January anyway and I scanned the birds well on the off chance a Varied Thrush was mixed in with the birds, but it wasn't to be.
On this loop trail you cross or come in contact with the Trout Brook at least 4 times when travelling the lower valley portion of the trail. The road noise from St. Croix Trail soon disappears as you move around the backside of the large hill with steep rock walls that the brook circles and the steady sound of the bubbling brook takes over and provides the calm described on the Afton map for this loop trail. (I have a short video on Instagram.)
One thing not mentioned though is the potential for noise coming off the Afton Alps ski area that you will invariably creep closer to as you wrap around the hill and move back south on the valley floor. This day I found that loud speaker announcements were regular, likely from a school Alpine Ski competition of some sort. A normally serene and silent valley was transformed into a 0 degree outdoor event. I don't get the impression this is a regular situation as I've hiked this trail in winter at least 6 other times and had no such PA system noise to contend with so take it as you will.
At the closest point to the ski hills you turn and ascend a good portion of wooden stairs built into the hill side to aid in the climb. Once you top out on those though the climb is only about half finished as you continue to gain elevation and a great work out. You will eventually lose all of that elevation as you are returned back to St. Croix Trail running along this Western edge of the Afton SP property.
The Great: This trail is always a nice hike and as noted can be cut down based on the parking used. In spring, summer, and fall this trail is a hot spot inside an amazing park. Ruffed Grouse, Blue-winged Warbler, Wood Thrush, and Summer Tanager have been present annually for at least 5 years now. Winter Wren love this area in spring and fall for migration refueling. I love Afton State Park and this trail is a special location.
The Meh: Bird diversity is limited in winter and Afton Alps noise can be a drag at times. Early morning hikes can likely avoid that particular issue.
The Verdict: If you love hiking and birds, you really need this trail in your life. I've also had Red-shouldered Hawk making a racket in the air over this loop on multiple occasions. Hiking from the St. Croix Trail spot or from 50th street (to be covered later) or the main park body all provide amazing value based on your time and ability.