This photo was taken at Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park in the fall of 2008. It captures trees reflected in a pool (or puddle) of water dotted with leaves. Who knows what you'll find when you get out with your Minnesota state parks permit?   LISA BRAINARD/BLUFF COUNTRY READER
This photo was taken at Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park in the fall of 2008. It captures trees reflected in a pool (or puddle) of water dotted with leaves. Who knows what you'll find when you get out with your Minnesota state parks permit? LISA BRAINARD/BLUFF COUNTRY READER
While we're in the heart of winter, take some time to formulate plans - and maybe even goals - for your outdoor quests this year.

In an ideal world, you'd be outside right now skiing or snowshoeing. But these types of activities have been a bit slow, I think, due to the continued ultra cold temps. If that's your situation, you may be itching to "get back to it" when warmer weather returns.

In that case you're not alone, but part of a growing trend. People seem to be getting back to nature and enjoying the outdoors to a greater extent . . . well, if not during this so-called "winter of discontent," then at least during last year, 2013.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reported increased use of state parks in 2013, recently issuing a press release citing a number of interesting statistics.

Sales of year-round permits were up 2 percent from 2012, totaling 136,300 in 2013. The release stated that tally "is also up 21 percent from 2008, when Minnesota voters approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. The Parks and Trails Fund receives 14.25 percent of the sales tax revenue and may only be spent to support parks and trails of regional or statewide significance."

Courtland Nelson, director of the DNR's Parks and Trails Division, said, "We got off to a slow start last year due to the cold, wet spring, so it was gratifying to finish 2013 ahead of 2012."

Other signs that participation in outdoor recreation at Minnesota state parks and trails is increasing include these statistics from the release.

• Sales of one-day state park permits have increased 15 percent since 2008.

• Site nights have increased 10 percent since 2008. (A site night is tallied when an overnight camping or lodging unit is occupied for one night.)

• Participation in interpretive programs has increased 37 percent since 2008.

• Participation in the Legacy-funded "I Can Camp!" programs has increased 110 percent since the program began in 2010.

• Unique views of state parks pages on the DNR website increased from 8.2 million in 2012 to 8.4 million in 2013.

Nelson attributes the increase in the popularity of Minnesota state parks to a general trend of more families "stay-cationing" to save money, programs and special events designed to attract visitors to parks during the "off-peak" seasons and continued high satisfaction ratings on customer service from visitors. Of note, "trip satisfaction is currently as high as it has been since measurements began 25 years ago; 83 percent of visitors surveyed in 2012 rated their experience in the 'excellent' range."

Nelson also credits Legacy-funded outreach efforts, including an active presence on Facebook and Twitter; the addition of virtual tours online; and the installation of touch-screen information kiosks at Rosedale Center, the Minnesota Zoo and other family-oriented locations throughout the Twin Cities.

There are 76 state parks and recreation areas in the Minnesota Parks and Trails Division. Forestville/Mystery Cave south of Wykoff, Lake Louise near LeRoy, Beaver Creek Valley near Caledonia, Whitewater near St. Charles and Great River Bluffs south of Winona. Those are five great reasons right there to get an annual parks pass.

I daresay if you live within our core Reader distribution area you'll likely find one of these parks within 75 to 100 miles - and many are far, far closer.

Go to www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks website for all kinds of state park information.

First, you'll need a permit to enter any - and all - of the state parks and state recreation areas.

A year-round permit provides unlimited access to all 76 Minnesota state parks and recreation areas for a full year from the month of purchase.

The website notes another permit advantage. "By purchasing a permit, you help maintain and improve the natural resources, facilities and education and outreach programs that make Minnesota's state parks among the best in the nation."

As already noted, permits are valid for one year from the month of purchase. Plus, you can receive a discount on a permit for other vehicles you own.

You can "try out" a park for a $5 one-day permit.

All kinds of questions are addressed regarding permits. For example, read this: "Daily vehicle permits that are purchased for one day expire at 10 p.m. and are dated the day of purchase. If you are camping overnight - or staying in a cabin or camper cabin - your daily permit will be dated with the following day's date and your vehicle may remain in the park until camping checkout time.

I think you can find any permit information you need on the site. So get prepared for warmer weather and have your permit in hand. After all, you can buy it any time and it's always good for a year.

And who knows? You might even be inspired to take a walk, try out snowshoes, cross-country ski or find a special event yet this winter. Do your part to keep to keep the usage - and your enjoyment - of Minnesota state parks increasing.