Metroparks' Emerald Necklace glitters with activity the year round

The holidays are over. You're back to work. As the weekend looms, the visions of sugarplums are all but gone; replaced with a very real tin of broken gingerbread men, a blanket nest on the couch and endless Netflix binge options.
It doesn't have to be this way.

Whether this mild weather continues or Jack Frost covers the earth in a blanket of shimmering diamonds, the Cleveland Metroparks offers a host of activities for people of all ages and abilities year round. Try trekking amid your favorite forest that's completely new without its dense foliage or gliding through crisp air upon cross-country skis. When was the last time you went sledding?
"It energizes you," says the Metroparks' director of outdoor experiences Wendy Weirich of the bracing clear air. "You will be rewarded for motivating yourself to leave the couch," she adds.
"It's your world," says Weirich, urging us to replace cold and hibernate with invigorating and awaken. "Get out there and explore it in every season of the year."

Trekking it

"Landscape is more revealed in the wintertime," says Weirich of the parks' altered views courtesy of our deciduous forests. "You can see topography, historic foundations, structures." And there is no better way to explore them than on foot.
Before you pull your turtleneck over your head and murmur about all that cold and snow (that you know is coming), there's something you should know about the park's paved all-purpose trails.
"Those are plowed," says Weirich, adding that the paved trails are a top priority for snow removal. "They do their best to maintain them in the same way they maintain the roads." On clear sunny days, residual snow will often melt on the black asphalt, leaving a very navigable surface.

When winter gets hard, however, an ice and snow layer will endure. For such conditions, the enlightened opt for studded shoes or add-on footgear such as Yaktrax to persevere with a cold-weather hike during which you might run into … who-knows-who?
"You might see an owl. You might see a fox," says Weirich, noting that the bare trees make wildlife easier to spot. "You're going to be delighted."
Weirich also touts the unpaved hiking and bridle trails where the snow can sometimes actually provide traction. While prone to icy conditions that require extra caution, trails adjacent to water are particularly beautiful, she notes, as porous sandstone further enhances the visual experience in the colder temperatures.
Night snowshoeing "Wherever you've got sandstone cliffs in parks, water pours through and gets frozen," says Weirich, tagging the challenging Squaw Rock Trail in the South Chagrin Reservation, the rugged Deer Lick Cave Trail in the Brecksville Reservation and the paved and gentler Rocky River Trail in the Rocky River Reservation. "You're walking in this winter wonderland. It's really quite something."
Pump up an outdoor winter excursion with snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, which are permitted in a number of areas throughout the park system when there is a four-inch snow base. Snowshoes are available for rent at the Big Met Golf Course (which also has cross-country skis for rent), North Chagrin Nature Center and Hinckley Lake Boathouse and Store.
Snowshoe hikers and cross-country skiers are welcome to explore hiking, bridle, and any unplowed trails as well as portions of Big Met, Little Met, Shawnee Hills, Seneca, Mastick Woods and Sleepy Hollow golf courses. Guided snowshoe hikes are available and the same goes for cross-country skiing. For cross-country skiing and snowshoe conditions throughout the park, call 216-635-3270, or you can sign up for emails notifying you when an impromptu snowshoe or cross-country skiing program is added to the roster.
Ice fishing in the Cleveland MetroparksAnd now for something completely different
While most aquatic programs are shuttered in the winter, there are those among us who continue to surf Edgewater Beach no matter what the temperature. Fishing is another activity enjoyed year round. Of particular note is the Rocky River. On winter days when it is not murky, the river is dotted with people fly-fishing in hip waders despite the icy water. They're after steelhead trout.
"They leave lake Erie in October," says Weirich of the trout, adding that they run through April. She adds that the fluid rhythm of the fly-fishing enthusiasts is something to watch. "It's really beautiful."
Ice fishing is allowed in the park. Officials, however do not conduct formal ice fishing programs or monitor ice thickness. They encourage park visitors to assess conditions themselves. Wallace Lake in the Mill Stream Run Reservation is the most popular ice fishing designation. It is stocked twice each winter with rainbow trout. Other stocked lakes include Ranger Lake (also in Mill Stream Run), Shadow Lake in the South Chagrin Reservation and Ledge and Judge's Lakes in the Hinckley Reservation.
Ice Climbing Adventure field tripFor those who prefer to interact with water that's a bit more solid, this year the Metroparks is teaming up with the Peabody Ice climbing Club in Fenton, Michigan for an Ice Climbing Adventure field trip on Feb. 27. The $120 fee includes transportation, gear, training and the opportunity to climb two ice towers.
"This is the third year they've done this," says Weirich. "There are people out there that are some extreme winter lovers."
If the winter-loving portion of the proceedings entices, but the ice ax and crampons do not, try an overnight cross-country ski adventure in Alleghany State Park (Feb. 5 through 7), a snowy fat tire bike race (Jan. 30) or a new program that will appeal to a very specific contingent: Snoga.
"It's combination of snow and yoga," says Weirich. "They hike in the woods a little bit, stop and do some yoga moves, hike a little bit … "
Held at the West Creek Reservation on various dates, the initial warm up is inside the gorgeous Watershed Stewardship Center. Very severe weather will drive the entire program inside, but if conditions are right, snowshoes will be provided for the hiking portions.
Hand feeding the chickadees  
For those who didn't get around to hand feeding the chickadees over winter break, the all-weather program is still available at the Brecksville Nature Center on Saturdays and Sundays through Feb. 28 from 10 a.m. to noon. Also, a 1.5-mile Chickadee Feeding Hike will be conducted at the Rocky River Reservation on Jan. 24 from 10 to 11 a.m.
"It's connecting people to nature," says Weirich. "What’s more important than that?"
A family affair
Think "family winter activities" and sledding is at the top of the list, but Weirich recommends it as a wholesome therapy nearly anyone can enjoy.
"It turns you into a puppy," she says. "You just can't stop laughing. It's so much fun."
While there are sledding hills throughout the Metroparks, Weirich tags the Sulphur Springs/Miles Road Sledding Hill as having a bunny hill for the tots and a steeper incline for the teens. She describes the popular Old River Farm sledding area near Squire's Castle in North Chagrin as, "surrounded by pine trees and just beautiful."
For accompanying aunts, uncles, grams, gramps or anyone not feeling their inner puppy, maintenance staff often sets up "burn barrels" at sledding sites where folks may gather and sip from the thermos. Park staff gets the fires started in the morning and then leaves firewood.
"The public sort of keeps the fire going throughout the day," says Weirich. "It's one of these old fashioned things. We've been doing it for 90 years."
The success of each of these activities depends on one crucial element: the comfort of the participants, a fact that park staff cannot stress enough.
"Dress for the weather," advises Metroparks outdoor recreation manager Rachel Nagle. She recommends cold weather activity participants wear three non-cotton layers. The three W's include wicking, warmth and weather.
"The wicking layer is going to wick moisture away from their body. The warmth layer is going to insulate them, and the weather layer is going to protect them from the elements." Good footwear and socks that keep feet dry and warm are a must as well as gloves or mittens.
Tobogganing - Mill Stream Run ReservationThat last item isn't just a recommendation when it comes to the Metroparks' ever-popular toboggan chutes at the Chalet in the Mill Stream Run Reservation, where participants must also meet another criterion.
"All riders must be 42 inches tall and all riders must have gloves or mittens in order to ride the chute," says Amy McRitchie, Metroparks' concession manager.
The two chutes are open even when there is no snow on the ground and can operate at temperatures into the 50's (call 440-572-9990 and press 6 to check toboggan operation status). While riders zip down the chutes at speeds up to 50 miles per hour, the trek back up is not as taxing as it once was. In days of yore, sledders used to have to carry their toboggan back up the 700-foot incline. The task is now done by a lift.
"You do, however, still have to walk up those stairs," says McRitchie.
When it's time to warm up, hot chocolate, tater tots, soft drinks and even deep fried pickles are available at the concession stand inside the Chalet. Enjoy them while getting the score of the game from one of the large screen televisions or just warming up by one of the indoor or outdoor fires.
For those blinking doe-eyed at each of these suggestions, the upcoming annual Winteriffic event* this Sunday, Jan. 10, at the Chalet is a perfect one-stop-shopping opportunity to sample many of these activities (some of which are obviously weather dependent).
From noon to 5 p.m., there will be dog sled demonstrations, winter survival skill programs, ice fishing demonstrations, ice sculpting, snow bike demonstrations, winter crafts, snowman and fort building, snowshoe rental, horse-drawn wagon rides, sledding in the nearby Paw Paw Sledding Area and, of course, tobogganing on those zoomin' chutes.
"Winteriffic is a really cool event," says McRitchie. "People have the opportunity to see things they maybe had no idea were available in the Cleveland Metroparks as part of outdoor winter activities."
Lastly, Weirich urges northeast Ohioans to thoroughly enjoy what is theirs.
"Go out there and enjoy this property that you own," she says. "Go check it out. This is yours." Weirich adds that the cold weather activities can turn into the best kind of addiction.

"If you do it often enough, I think you get hooked."
Many of the Metroparks' winter activities and programs are weather dependent. While general self-guided activities are always free, fees apply to several of the guided programs. Registration is always recommended. More information is available online.

*UPDATE: Due to lack of snow, the following Winteriffic 2015 activities have changed: The snowshoeing activity will be replaced by slacklining. There will not be ice fishing demonstrations. Sledding activities have been cancelled. Call 440-734-6660 for more information.

Cleveland Metroparks is a sponsor of Fresh Water. 

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit for complete profile information.