Winter light from above and below: State parks and trails offer more than 30 candlelit events this winter

Many Minnesota state parks offer nighttime walking trails illuminated by lanterns, candles and other luminaries.

At night not too many decades into the past, Minnesotans lit the farmland and countryside only with the use of lanterns.

The image of a soft light when it falls on new snow, combined with lights from the moon and stars, is a sight to behold.

Move ahead to the winter of 2019 and you can witness the same image in a natural setting. Each year many of Minnesota’s state park staff line the perimeters of short trails with lanterns, candles and other luminaries, and invite the public in for a candlelit walk. Depending on snow depth, visitors may choose to snowshoe or cross-country ski, depending on the park, trail location and snow amount. Following an evening walk, hot cocoa or hot cider will be available near a bonfire where your insides and outside will warm up simultaneously.

“Few things transform a winter evening like soft light on snow,” said Erika Rivers, director of Minnesota State Parks and Trails. “Lit candles and lanterns help to create an unforgettable experience, especially beneath the light from a starry sky and full moon.”

More than 30 candlelight events are scheduled at Minnesota state parks and trails this winter. They started on Dec. 31 and will continue through early March, according to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). A complete listing of events can be found at A few events include 4 p.m. – 8 p.m. Dec. 31 (Monday) at Fort Snelling State Park, St. Paul, 5:30 p.m. – 8 p.m. Feb. 2 (Friday) at Lake Maria State Park, Monticello and 6 p.m. – 8 p.m. Feb. 16, Whitewater State Park, Altura

Some parks rent snowshoes and skis; fees are usually $6 per day. Call the park in advance to see if the equipment is available. Many parks offer programs on how to snowshoe. For information on those programs and many others, get a copy of the winter programs and events brochure at the nearest state park, or get one through the DNR Information Center, (651) 296-6157. The full park and trail events calendar may be found at

Most programs including the candlelight events are free, but a vehicle permit is required to enter the park ($7 for a one-day permit or $35 for a year-round permit).

Events may be postponed or canceled because of severe weather. For information on the program you plan to attend, look for the “visitor alert” section on the park’s website, or send an email to

Doing it yourself

How to make an ice luminary

You ventured out on a candlelight walk in a state park and now want to make your own luminary.

Linda Radimecky, Afton State Park naturalist, has created and displayed dozens and dozens of luminaries over the years, and offers two words to live by when it comes to creating ice candle holders. Timing. Temperature.

Timing, because the ideal luminary freezes nearly all the way through, with just enough water poured off the center to hold a light. Temperature because freeze times vary. Usually Minnesotans can count on extreme cold in January. But not always.

The Afton State Park staff uses five-gallon buckets to make the luminaries used on candlelight walks. Check online and you will see many methods of creating these seasonal beauties, from balloons filled with water and frozen, to the use of a bundt cake pan. It takes a certain finesse to make these, but when they are mastered, luminaries bring a lovely flicker to a winter evening.

The Afton State Park luminaries usually take 24 hours to freeze, and often an additional eight hours, Radimecky said. Here is how they are made.

Fill the bucket until it is an inch from the top of the bucket. Set the bucket outside on a flat, preferably insulated surface; the water freezes from the top down and the outside to the inside. It will take at least 24 hours to freeze. Ideally, anything below 15 degrees should do it. Bring the bucket inside, tip it over in a large sink and run warm water on the outside. It will pop out with the top of the luminary facing up. Use a screwdriver and hammer to tap a hole into what was the bottom of the ice mass and pour out any water that didn’t freeze solid. That will create a cavern for a candle or tea light. The ice may have frozen solid and it will take longer to create the light cavern.

This is the old-fashioned and probably least expensive way to make a luminary. Online you’ll see instructions for placing a smaller one-gallon bucket on the inside of the five-gallon bucket, which creates a space for adding the candle or light. The smaller container is weighted with rocks and is duct-taped into place before water is added to the larger container. Sometimes greenery and berries are stuffed down the wall of the larger container which freeze into place and make a really beautiful luminary.

Keep an eye on your luminary in the event a raccoon or larger animal decide to knock it over. Your best and safest light source is a LED tea light, which can be found inexpensively at any dollar store. Don’t use a glass container which will break when it is frozen. Also, wear warm gloves under rubber gloves when you are working with the ice.

Again, trial and error will lead to what could be your neighborhood’s most beautifully lit yard. Meanwhile, if you’ve never seen a luminary, check out your Minnesota state parks. They are all over the place.

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