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We’re back from an refreshing Thanksgiving weekend trip to William O’Brien State Park! It’s been a while since I’ve had a cold weather overnight and it was great to dust off the skills and gear to extend the camping season. This 3 in 1 post covers:

  • Our Free Park Friday/Opt Outside group hike on the Minnesota Hiking Club Trail
  • Ways to stay toasty while simplifying your Winter camping gear and food prep.
  • Experimental watercolor painting with mittens and anti-freezing agents!

Lets go!

William O’Brien State Park


LENGTH 7.6 miles (6 mile Hiking Club Trail)
DIFFICULTY easy, flat, wide trails, with a couple of small hills
DATE VISITED November 26-27, 2021
MAIN FEATURES  William O’ Brien State Park sits on the Minnesota Wisconsin border, located on the ancestral lands of the Dakota and Ojibwe people. Throughout history, it has drawn trappers, fur traders and lumberjacks due to its land resources, expansive White Pine forests and access to the River. In the early 19th century, the lumber industry cleared out the White Pines in the area and sold the land. The park started as a land donation by Alice O’Brien, the daughter of the lumber baron, William O’Brien and expanded to over 10 times it’s original size from 180 acres to 1,880 acres between 1945 and 1986. Today, William O’Brien State Park park features 16 miles of hiking and cross country ski trails, boat access, and wide views of the St Croix River.

We’ve enjoyed William O’Brien State Park many times over the years: Hiking, snowshoeing, tent camping, staying in camper cabins and stopping in during an overnight paddling trip down the St Croix River. My favorite segment of trail is the stand of white pines that grows along the river, called the Riverside Trail.

Know before you go:
The colors are poppin, and so are the rifles. Friendly reminder to wear your bright colors during small and large game hunting season (blaze orange preferred). The season is longer than you might think, and I have been wearing orange since September.

Our hike also took place on Native American Heritage Day, during Native American Heritage month. This is an opportunity to learn about and reflect on the history and original inhabitants of the land we live and recreate on. I’m thankful for the conversations and resources that came out of the land acknowledgement during our hike, and understand that this work goes beyond just one day or month of the year. If you are looking for a place to start, I recommend listening to this episode of ‘This American Life – Little War on the Prairie’ and checking out Native Land Digital, which “creates spaces where non-Indigenous people can be invited and challenged to learn more about the lands they inhabit, the history of those lands, and how to actively be part of a better future going forward together.” – source Native Land Digital

Minnesota State Parks offer free admission on the Friday after Thanksgiving! FYI-most of the park offices are also closed on that day, so be prepared with water, self check in for camping and to use an outhouse instead of a flushing toilet.

Group Hike!

It’s tradition! For several years now, I’ve made it a point to hike on the Friday after Thanksgiving. It’s a great way to get out with family and friends on a day that Minnesota State parks waive their entry fees. I organized a meet up for our Women Who Hike Minnesota Group and was happy to see some old and new faces at the trailhead. It was below freezing at our 9am start, so we got moving and did introductions on the way. I love our WWH hiking community, and if you’re looking for a hiking buddies, we’ve got em! Not in Minnesota? Women Who Hike is a worldwide organization that empowers women on and off the trail- check us out!

Many of the women in our group are Hiking the Minnesota State Park Hiking Club trails and earning mileage patches along the way. If you haven’t heard of the program, I encourage you to check it out and read the MANY posts I’ve written about our beloved State Parks! This program is such a great way to see new places and the 1-6 mile long Hiking Club Trails typically highlight the “must see” features of the park. William O’Brien is also the only park in the system with TWO Hiking Club trails and separate passwords! The bonus winter trail is a treat, I’ve done it twice and it’s a beautiful walk through the woods. So, be sure to head back!

What I like about the William O’Brien hiking club trail, is that it’s a nice long amble through prairie and white pines, and you can relax and take your time. The downside, is that the signs aren’t always the most intuitive – and sometimes have locations and arrows that seem slightly off at trails with multiple intersections. I was having too much fun to take more photos, but if you are looking for a nice long hike with wide groomed trails, this park is for you!

My favorite part of the park is actually NOT on the hiking club trail. The Riverside Trail is carpeted with soft pine needles, follows the shore of the St Croix River and has plenty of views to enjoy year round. So, be sure to sneak in that short 1.6 mile loop before you leave the park, it’s a must see!

Camping Report

photo credit: Jessica Page [5:54 pm]

Happy Campsgiving! William O’Brien State Park’s Savanna Campground is open year-round. The Riverway campground is open from mid-April through mid-October. The campsites at this park are decently spaced apart and when the trees are full of leaves, offer more privacy than in winter. We were surprised by how many people were camping this weekend. Most campers were in RV’s, but we saw a few tents out there too. We made our reservations online at the park after driving around for a bit after our hike, selecting site #87 for it’s size and location. I would like to give credit to Andrea (the Goat) for LIGHTING UP our campsite and to Jessica (Prank) for her awesome iphone photography skills! Look at that cozy campsite!

Winter Gear

The great thing about car camping is that you can basically bring anything you want…but it’s also an opportunity to test your gear, adapt, get creative, and bring less.

For example, I knew we’d have an electric site, so I brought the electric tea kettle from my kitchen instead of a camp stove. The teapot was a luxury on the Gunflint Trail trip this summer and backpacking stoves can sometimes get fussy in freezing weather. It was something I already had on hand, used my campsite resources, was easy to operate with mittens and made hot water in a flash! Win win win.

Camp box photo from my summer trip to the Gunflint Trail

How I pack

I like the ease of packing everything in a clear plastic container that I can see into, when I’m car camping. It makes it easier to stay organized and quickly locate things when its cold and you have mittens on.

My food, thermos, teapot, sleeping pad, tent, extra clothes and reflectix (large metallic bubble wrap sit pad) go into the box. My 10 essentials, hygiene kit, puffy jacket, (2) extra chemical hand warmers, trekking poles, insulated mug, art kit and small reflectix go into my backpack so I can separate heavier camping gear from hiking gear if I want to travel light.

Sleep System

My winter sleep system for this trip consisted of 7 components: (2) pads, (2) bags, (1) fleece liner, (1) pair of insulated booties and a luxurious full sized pillow with a fuzzy flannel pillowcase (because I could!).

  1. Thermarest Z Lite closed cell foam pad-insulates your body from losing heat to the cold ground. This is the pad my sons have used for years.
  2. Big Agnes Two Track inflatable Winter Pad-air pads are typically colder than closed cell pads, but this one keeps me warm and I bring it on all my shoulder season backpacking trips despite its heavier weight, just because it’s so dependable.
  3. Fleece liner-I inserted both pads into a fleece sleeping bag liner so they wouldn’t slide apart and leave me cold in the middle of the night. This addition was new for this trip and it kept my pads together and the texture of the fleece kept me from sliding downhill or off my pad in the night. I borrowed this from my kids too.
  4. REI Seranna 25 degree mummy bag . Heavy at 3lbs, but it has a wonderful draft collar and hood that’s downright cozy.
  5. Enlightened Equipment Revelation Quilt 10 degree. This layer might seem like overkill, but I know my body, and slept snug as a bug without waking up cold. Yay! Read more in this post about how to calculate a double bag temperature rating.
  6. Enlightened Equipment Torrid Booties: these lightweight booties are great for keeping your tootsies warm- I upped my game by tossing in the hand warmers that I used earlier in the evening and it was like a big hug for my feet!
  7. My glorious full sized pillow! I recommend the Nemo Fillo Elite if you want a lightweight inflatable pillow with neck support.


The overnight part of this trip was a last minute decision, so that informed my food choices. I packed the following quickly the night before and even got to enjoy Thanksgiving leftovers!

Lunch: (3) turkey & cranberry sliders on Hawaiian rolls with pumpkin pie smooshed into a reusable silicone zip container.

Dinner: Thanksgiving in a bag. This is a made up recipe that consisted of adding the following to a reusable heat resistant zip top bag: 1/2 box of dry cornbread stuffing, a dash or two of instant potatoes, 3 pads of butter and a separate bag of roasted turkey leftovers that I put in a small lunch cooler just to be safe while it sat in the car. To prepare: Add turkey, stir. Add approx. 1 cup of boiling water, stir again, zip shut. Insert bag into a reflectix cozy to keep warm while rehydrating (pictured below), and let it sit for about 10 minutes. EAT! Serve with Good Earth Sweet and Spicy Tea and dutch apple pie smooshed into a reusable silicone zip top bag. I prefer potatoes to stuffing, but this was delicious! Mmmm.

Breakfast: Instant coffee mixed with hot cocoa mix- I like good coffee but this is what I bring on EVERY backpacking trip. It’s so easy. Mountain House Instant scrambled eggs with bacon: I had a bag of this laying around for a couple of years and decided to give it a try. Just add hot water and rehydrate according to the instructions, and you’ve got a hot, substantial breakfast in minutes!

Breakfast seating

Other Tips

Check out my other Winter and Winter Camping posts for more toasty tips. But a few more tried and true tips I’ll share here are to have a nice fire and plenty of hot beverages on hand. These are morale boosters and help keep you warm and hydrated inside and out. I also eat fattier, protein rich foods and try to have a snack before bed to keep my metabolism going. Last but not least…avoid cotton, change your clothes before bed, and don’t hold your pee. Don’t waste your body heat trying to keep damp clothes and excess body fluids warm. Trust me, it makes a difference. Here’s a bonus post with 10 Winter hacks to keep you warm.

I’m thankful for the gear and skills that have kept me warm on cold trips through the years, but my 3 faves on this trip were my easy peasy electric teapot, big chunk of reflectix to sit on, and my beloved full length down skirt that I rave about here!

What I didn’t use: I used everything I brought on this trip except for the two heavy winter coats I kept in the car and a pair of vintage insulated/quilted pants that I have never worn. My layering system worked great. I stayed warm, happy and will keep those extra items for colder trips.

Watercolor Kit: Winter Edition

My field art kit has come on every trip this year and I love it so much that it will get it’s very own dedicated post in the near future. As the cold weather approaches, I have been doing some research on how to keep the paint flowing when every liquid in the Northland wants to convert to ice. There are a few options out there, but many painters choose to use a water brush like this one, filled with high alcohol content liquid like Vodka or Gin. I’m not a drinker, so I didn’t have any of this laying around the house to test out. It sounds like isopropyl alcohol is not the best option without impacting color – so…off to the Wisconsin liquor store we went to search for the cheapest and tiniest bottle of vodka we could find!

Overall, the .99 cent 40 proof vodka held up ok in 29 degree air temps, 25 degrees with windchill. And it smelled so terrible, no one was even interested in a sip. It did have some visual effects that I attribute to the lower alcohol content and freezing. My brush clogged up a few times and I’ll probably search for some higher proof stuff as the temps get colder.

I’m still trying out different handwear. Mittens were the warmest, and kind of hilarious to paint with. The free lobster claw gloves I scored at a gear swap years ago, were slightly better for dexterity, not as warm and were even funnier to look at. I shall now call them my Spock gloves and tell EVERYONE to live long and prosper when I wear them. I’m the only one that thinks this is funny.

night painting by the fire

The sun sets at 4:30 this time of year, so, I tested my skills by painting by campfire light and spent the rest of the evening reading a book in my tent before a 9pm bedtime.

Photo credit: Andrea Breitung

Final Thoughts

Winter is a great time to slow, rest and start to dream about new adventures for the coming year. If you are looking for ways to extend the camping season and haven’t tried winter camping before, car camping at a park that is close to home is a great way to start. You don’t need a lot of expensive gear, just plenty of layers and a contingency plan in case you need to go to Plan B. Check out my other Winter posts here on the blog, if you are looking for some inspiration and fun ways to get out there and embrace it!

In other exciting news: I have 8 watercolor prints that just dropped in my new art print shop in time for the holidays, and I’m teaching a watercolor class through the Kula Academy on Dec 9th. I’m so excited to be able to share these creative endeavors here and hope they inspire you! More updates will be announced in the new year, and the best way to stay up to date on all of the deets is to subscribe via email – you can always unsubscribe if it’s not your cup of tea.

As always, I thank you for reading and your support, it means so much. Drop me a note below, I’d love to hear from you!

Happy trails!

~ WP

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2 thoughts on “Campsgiving at William O’Brien State Park

  1. Your Thanksgiving in a Bag sounds delicious! I’m also going to have to try that cocoa/coffee combo. Thank you for the winter camping tips!

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