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Snowmobilers' paradise

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Park Rapids is the destination of choice for snowmobilers.

Abundant snowfall and well-kept trails are enticing snowmobile enthusiasts to the region.

After several winters of paltry snow, this year's conditions are yielding an economic boost to area businesses.

Craig Hosler, owner of Two Inlets Country Store, greets an average of 600 to 700 snowmobilers each weekend. He counted 60 snowmobiles parked outside of his store at one time.

"People come out. They like their riding," Hosler said. "We definitely, up here, have the best snowmobile trails in the state."

Riders hail from across Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska.

"They come from quite aways," Hosler said. "A lot of these guys say they have no snow."

Bone-chilling weather isn't a deterrent any more, he noted, thanks to technically advanced winter clothing and heated handlebars.

Several groups return year after year — if there's snow.

"We need those kind of people," he said.

One group always visits over Super Bowl weekend, calling themselves "The Snowmo-bowlers."

The Hoslers have a year-round cabin for rent that sleeps four.

"When there's snow, we get a dozen calls a week to rent it," Hosler said.

"These last two weeks have been phenomenal," agrees Chad Case, owner of Emmaville Store.

Situated at the junction of Paul Bunyan State Forest and Two Inlets State Forest snowmobile trails, Emmaville is another popular pit stop for fuel and snacks.

It's been such a busy winter, the Cases are planning to reopen the cafe on weekends.

They estimate they see about 200 snowmobilers from all across the Midwest.

"We're getting groups of four to 12 to 15," Case said. "I see a lot of new faces."

They are hearing "a lot of positive feedback" about the trail system.

"Definitely keeping busy. Hotel is booked full," said Alex Roman, who helps manage the business. "This is the best year they've had in five-plus years. It's been nine years without snow."

Current guests at the hotel say they haven't been to the area in 20 years.

"We have a lot of snow here," Roman said. The first snowfall dumped about 18 inches, with fresh powder falling on a weekly basis. "The snow is fabulous."

Case said he regrets selling off his snowmobiles.

"I'll have one before next fall," he promises.

The Park Rapids Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce does its part to draw visitors, handing out trail maps and referrals to walk-in traffic. They also mail their Discovery Guides to snowmobile clubs or individuals considering a Northwoods trek.

"We annually attend Hay Days — the largest snowmobiling event in the country — each September and coordinate efforts to invite people to the area," said Nicole Lalum, executive director of the Park Rapids Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. "Our social media presence in our target markets regularly reminds viewers that we're ready to welcome them."

The chamber is also a member of MnUSA, the snowmobiling association of Minnesota.

"Snowmobiling traffic has increased due to the amount of snowfall we've received and the excellent shape our trails are in," reports Lalum. "That means more people are regionally traveling into our area and offloading at places like Two Inlets Store and the Stompin' Grounds. But there has also been an uptick in overnight stays. Our year-round lodging members are seeing an increase in visits from mostly south and metro, where many trails are still unrideable."

As the official destination marketing organization in the region, the chamber "spends marketing dollars and staff time to ensure we invite visitors year-round to our area to enjoy the many amenities we have," Lalum said.

An estimated 800 to 900 people are expected this weekend for the USXC Snowmobile Race Park Rapids 106.

In early February, USXC racing returns to the area. The I-500 Winnipeg to Willmar is a four-day competition that passes through Hubbard County.

"That's gonna bring a lot of racers and spectators," Case said.

A wave of ice-fishing tourists may be next.

Lake ice was slow to form this winter, but now Hosler said "people are calling to see how ice conditions are. We're finally getting the fishermen, too."

The area's numerous lakes are an advantage for ice anglers.

"We have so many lakes, if fish aren't biting, you can go to a different lake," said Hosler.

"I think Minnesota is totally dependent on weather. There's so much to do in this state, depending on the weather," he points out. "What are you going to do in North Dakota? Watch the wind blow?"

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