MANKATO — What was Scott Kudelka’s favorite part of the hike through Minneopa State Park on Tuesday morning?
“That people showed up,” said the good-natured naturalist who led the sub-zero hike through Minnesota’s third-oldest state park on New Year’s Day. “When I left the house this morning, it was -9.”
By hike time, the temperature had risen only slightly. But that didn’t stop a handful of hearty souls from joining the so-called First Day Hike, which were held in state parks throughout all 50 states to mark the new year.
Though this year marked the first in which Minneopa participated, such hikes began more than 20 years ago in Massachusetts as a way to encourage locals to get off the couch.
Last year, a group called America’s State Parks expanded the effort to all 50 states. The group hoped for 50 events but had no idea how many Americans would willingly skip New Year’s Eve revelry in order to get up early Jan. 1 and hit the woods.
They ended up with 400 outings that drew 14,000 people, hiking a total of more than 30,000 miles. This year was even bigger, with more than 600 events from a cross-country ski outing in Alaska to a sunrise hike in Hawaii.
“It’s a way to promote a naturally healthy way of life but also to promote state parks as a year-round recreation option,” said Priscilla Geigis, state parks director in Massachusetts and organizer of the national effort. “The park managers got people on hikes who live right there but who had never been to the parks during the winter.”
Most First Day Hikes were moderate in difficulty, ranging from one to three miles. Some were on paved roads accessible to strollers and wheelchairs. All were free, though some parks charged parking fees.
At Minneopa, the hike began at the picnic shelter on the falls side of the park. Kudelka led the group over the new bridge that crosses the lower falls and down to the creek, which he noted was at the “highest level I’ve seen in months.”
Along the way, Kudelka pointed out the steps that were built in 1939 by the Works Progress Administration and talked about the impact of drought at Minneopa. During the summer, he said, park staff cleared more than 1,000 dead carp from a pool above the falls.
As hikers crossed the creek and ascended the opposite embankment before re-tracing the route, Kudelka talked about the formation of the Minnesota River Valley through the ages, how geologists believe its deep valley was carved by the Glacial River Warren about 10,000 years ago. He talked about the bald eagle nest that park visitors discovered in a cottonwood tree and the hand-dug well that still exists near Williams Nature Center on the former site of a Dakota village that preceded the village of Minneopa.
As the park naturalist, Kudelka said he enjoys a continual sense of discovery when hiking the park. He said he hoped to share some of that discovery with visitors.
“It’s such a unique story, how the whole Minnesota River valley was formed,” he said. “For me, every day is a learning experience. That’s what I enjoy.”
— Some information for this story was provided by The Associated Press.