Yes, it’s still winter. The days are slowly getting longer, but there’s a month to go yet before Daylight Saving Time fully brightens up the evenings. There’s still snow on the ground, and it’s cold. Without the twinkling holiday lights that have long since been packed away, winter can start to feel a little dreary by this point.
You can find some light by grabbing a pair of sturdy boots—or snowshoes or cross country skis, if the occasion calls for it—and heading to one of the many state parks and forests that host candlelight hikes at this time of year. Exploring the wooded trails by candlelight on a crisp winter night is a whole different experience from hiking them on a sunny, summer afternoon. The winter woods are quiet and peaceful, and the candle luminaries cast a soothing, soft glow over the snow.
Candlelight hikes have been around for a long time, but they’ve grown significantly in popularity in recent years. Paul Holtan, communications specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), noted that a couple of candlelight hikes last year attracted more than 2,000 people, in some cases necessitating changes in organization to better control parking and traffic issues.
This increase in popularity can be attributed at least in part to greater exposure thanks to social media. However, Holtan said the family atmosphere of candlelight hikes keeps people coming back.
“They’re very family friendly,” he said of the candlelight events. “Almost all of them offer something beyond the skiing and candlelight hike. They usually have bonfires. In some cases they have grills. In many cases our Friends groups [volunteers who help support the mission and activities of state parks]set up refreshments where they sell hot chocolate, and some of them sell hot dogs and things like that. They’re just a very festive atmosphere, and I think that’s what attracts people to them.”
The candlelight hikes are also suitable for people of all ages and skill levels.
“There’s no big hills or sharp curves,” Holtan pointed out. “These are all on our easiest ski trails or hiking trails. They’re excellent for beginners or people who don’t have a lot of experience.”
Seventeen candlelight hikes have been scheduled at DNR properties across the state in February, and each is slightly different. A comprehensive list on the DNR website includes specific activities offered at each event. Holtan encourages people to consult the list beforehand so they know what to expect.
“The vast majority of them offer both skiing and hiking or snowshoeing, but some are snowshoe only and some are just for skiing,” Holtan said.
A few events offer unique features; for example, the trails at Governor Thompson State Park are accented with glowing ice sculptures for the park’s February 18 candlelight hike. At Kettle Moraine State Park, members of Northern Cross Astronomy will be on hand February 11 with their telescopes to help guests view the constellations in the clear winter sky.
Holtan also encourages people to check the website or the DNR’s Twitter handle, Wisconsin DNR (@WDNR), for current status reports of each candlelight hike.
“They are weather-dependent,” Holtan cautioned. A lack of snow is not generally cause for cancellation—in such cases, a snowshoe trek simply becomes a hike. But the events can be canceled due to ice or severe wind chills.
Wind chills or not, Holtan reminds all participants to dress warm and perhaps pack their own thermos of hot cocoa to sip along the trails. He also encourages families—particularly those with young children—to arrive a little early, ahead of any crowds.
“You might even want to make a whole day of it,” he said. “You may want to consider arriving a little early and having a picnic dinner, especially if you’re traveling a ways.”
The DNR website also issues a reminder that in order to ensure safety, events may be restricted at times when parking capacity has been reached. Such restrictions are more likely to occur at properties located closer to well-populated areas. Therefore, Holtan advises families to consider visiting the smaller, more rural state properties.
“We’re encouraging people to venture out and attend events at properties where they may not have been before and that aren’t quite as busy as some of our other properties,” he said.
And remember, state parks are open until 11 p.m. every day. If you should happen to miss a scheduled candlelight event, you can always bring your own light and take your own peaceful nighttime hike through the woods.
(Photos courtesy of Wisconsin DNR)