Minnesota Skiing

Photo courtesy of Explore Minnesota Tourism

WINTER IS FINALLY HERE.

It’s time to embrace and celebrate the season in all of its glory. Minnesota is rich with fun winter activities—and what better way to play in the powder than during a winter trip? Pack your bags and load up the car. The snow, the slopes, the parks, the trails—they’re all calling your name. It’s time to lock in your bindings and answer the call.

1. DIFFERENT STROKES FOR DIFFERENT FOLKS, SOME HILLS MIX IT UP

Sometimes going on a winter trip with your friends or family can be a bit challenging. One person wants to go downhill skiing, another wants to be near groomed cross-country trails, and another is stoked to snowboard. And at some point, you’d all like to hang
out together.

Save yourself a headache and plan a trip to a destination with a variety of activities, such as Lutsen Mountains, Buena-Vista Ski Area, Coffee Mill Ski Area, or Giants Ridge Golf and Ski Resort.

Last winter, Anoka resident Megan Boeckmann went up to Lutsen with a group of 10 friends for a weekend getaway. Lutsen Mountains offers a little something for everyone, the perfect solution for a group with mixed interests. Boeckmann—who was a downhill skier before suffering a serious soccer injury—went cross-country skiing with her boyfriend, while the rest of the group hit the slopes for alpine skiing and snowboarding. Everyone met at the chalet for lunch, and the whole group went out later that evening to Papa Charlie’s.

“I loved the scenery in Lutsen,” Boeckmann says. “I love being outside in nature, and skiing is a great workout.”

With 90 runs and 22 kilometers of cross-country skiing, Lutsen Mountains has the most ski acreage, the longest runs, and the highest verticals in the state. Lutsen recently doubled the skiable terrain on the north side of Eagle Mountain, one of four separate peaks in the Sawtooth Range. A variety of lodging options are available in the North Shore’s Lutsen-Tofte area, from quiet, out-of-the-way bed and breakfasts to ski-in, ski-out condos and townhomes on or near Lutsen Mountains.

At Buena Vista Ski Area, located on the Continental Divide north of Bemidji, downhill skiers, snowboarders, snow tubers, and cross-country skiers enjoy 16 downhill runs, two terrain parks (one a junior park; the other more advanced) and 25 kilometers of cross-country trails. Horse-drawn sleigh rides are also available. The family-owned ski resort offers a 10 percent discount on lift tickets when visitors show a room key, voucher, or receipt from a participating hotel, motel, or inn.

After a cold day of whooshing through the white stuff at Coffee Mill Ski Area in the historic river town of Wabasha, relax at a bed and breakfast or hotel in the Lake Pepin area. Coffee Mill boasts the longest vertical drop south of Duluth and a unique coulee bowl arrangement offering protection from brisk winter winds. Each run is obscured from the next by an abundant growth of birch, oaks, and pines. After a full day of hitting the slopes, visit the nearby EagleWatch Observatory on the Mississippi River. Because the river doesn’t freeze, bald eagles congregate here from November through March.

Within the heart of Minnesota’s Iron Range, in the charming town of Biwabik, Giants Ridge Golf and Ski Resort offers some serious slope stylings. Besides 35 tree-lined runs, a massive terrain park (complete with a full-size bus buried in the snow), a 120-foot Magic Carpet conveyor lift, ski-in, ski-out accommodations, and 60 kilometers of groomed cross-country ski trails, winter sport enthusiasts can check out the new snowshoe trails. At the end of the day, unwind with a much-deserved massage in the Alchemy Medicinal Spa. Lodging in the Biwabik area ranges from inexpensive sports dorms to luxury condos.

2. SNOW AND SENSIBILITY: FAMILY-FRIENDLY SKI AREAS

Taking your family skiing can be a fun and entertaining experience, and a vacation the kids will remember for years to come. What’s more you could be introducing your children to a sport they’ll continue to love long into the future.

Some areas, such as Kensington’s Andes Tower Hills (west of Alexandria), offer plenty of resources for kids. A tubing park (with four runs) is open on the weekends, and for skiers and snowboarders, there are 15 runs, a terrain park with a half-pipe, and over 15 kilometers of classical cross-country trails. Fun events include “Breakfast on the Trail,” where guests ski into a Saturday morning sunrise, round the bend, and glide over to the warming shack; and “Full Moon Ski,” a monthly guided night adventure held during the height of the full moon, finished off with a cup of hot chocolate back at the chalet. Area accommodations include chalets, bed and breakfasts, cabins, rental homes, and condos.

Family-owned and operated Wild Mountain Ski and Snowboard Area is all about catering to families. From a terrain park with an impressive Super Pipe and halfpipe to 25 runs of varying difficulty to the most recent addition—Wild Chutes Snow Tubing—Wild Mountain knows that children with different ages have different interests. Every hill is the start of a new adventure, whether on a snowboard, skis, or a snow tube. Wild Mountain is located in Taylors Falls, an hour’s drive from the Twin Cities area.

Get down the mountain on skis, a snowboard, or a snow tube at Mount Kato, located one mile south of Mankato in the scenic Minnesota River Valley.

Whichever ski slope you choose for a winter adventure, all ski hills offer lessons. There are lessons for those who want to improve their skills; and lessons for those who have never tried skiing or snowboarding before.

 “Minnesota has some of the best instructors and ski clubs in the country,” says John Gleason, a professional ski instructor with SkiJammers. Gleason teaches skiing along with his wife, Carrie, in addition to being part of a recreational ski racing league, Ski Challenge. A self described “ski junkie,” Gleason can’t stress enough the importance of lessons.

“I don’t recommend learning from a parent or friend,” he says. “Professional instructors have training and experience to make learning easy and fun.”

When it comes to kids and lessons, look for a fun learning environment. “Explore the many options. You know your child. It will be obvious which program is the best fit,” Gleason comments.

He also points out that adults and kids learn differently, so they shouldn’t try to learn together. “After the lessons, take time to ski as a group and start planning the next trip.”

Photo courtesy of Explore Minnesota Tourism

3. SKI BOOTS AND SWIMSUITS—STAY AT AN INDOOR WATERPARK

Mix a little summer into your winter trip with a stay at a hotel featuring an indoor waterpark. Numerous hotels with indoor waterparks are located in the Brainerd Lakes Area near ski trails and hills—providing indoor and outdoor fun. Cross-country skiers can take the whole family on the traditional track-set and skate-ski trails of the Northland Arboretum, with a lighted trail for night skiing. Ski Gull, overlooking Gull Lake in Nisswa, is a family-friendly skiing, snowboarding, and tubing destination. There are 14 runs (more than half for beginners), lift tickets are extremely affordable, and lessons are offered. Ski Gull is just minutes from Nisswa and the Brainerd/Baxter area, where a wide variety of lodging options are available.

4. HOT SPOTS FOR SNOWBOARDERS

“Nothing feels as amazing as a snowboard in a fast-carved turn. It’s like you’re hanging weightless in space…your body is one with the surface. It’s near nirvana,” says die-hard snowboarder T Lee, a Minneapolis resident who grew up waterskiing, skateboarding, and teaching alpine skiing before transitioning over to snowboarding (she learned with her son).

“In my opinion, our snowboard parks are some of the best,” says Lee, who regularly rides with a local women’s group called SnowBroads. “We have a handful of nationally rated riders that have cut their teeth at our parks. When young riders can take dozens of hits per night on the same snowboard park features, it makes for really strong, consistent skills.”

At Afton Alps, you can hit two different freestyle parks in one run. Shredders love the rails, boxes, and jumps—and often take full advantage of night snowboarding and skiing. Afton Alps also has the largest demo center in the Twin Cities, a SnowTube Park, 48 trails, and three Wonder Carpet Conveyors. Off-site lodging is available through Afton Alps, as well as motels, hotels, and bed and breakfasts in Afton and nearby Stillwater, Cottage Grove, and Hastings.

Welch Village Ski and Snowboard Area, located between Red Wing and Cannon Falls, features steep slopes, wide lanes, expansive open spaces, and a terrain park designed by Snow Tools, the company that designed the terrain at the X-Games. Guests can stay at six slopeside bunkhouses (bring a sleeping bag and pillow) or at quaint bed and breakfasts and historic hotels.

Music playing in the terrain park at Spirit Mountain in Duluth gets boarders pumped to drop in for kickers and jibs. The “Big Air Terrain Park” features two full-size halfpipes (with 9 to 11-foot walls) and a recently added kiddie terrain garden, “Port Gitchi Gummi.” Spirit Mountain has the Midwest’s longest run (about a mile long), and a snowboard park with a half pipe, small rail section and 12 jumps, in addition to a large tubing park, luge run, and 15 miles of cross-country skiing. Spirit Mountain has ski-in, ski-out accommodations. Other lodging options in Duluth include B&Bs, inns, hotels, motels, resorts, beach homes and cottages on the shores of Lake Superior.

A variety of freestyle terrain makes Steeplechase Ski and Snowboard Area a popular choice for riders. Located near Oronoco, there are 19 trails and slopes, five lifts, and snowtubing hills. Lodging is plentiful in the nearby city of Rochester.

5. STAY AT A B&B THE NEXT TIME YOU CROSS-COUNTRY SKI

You obsessively check the weather forecast, hoping and wishing for good weather. When the meteorologists predict snow, snow, and more snow, you’re ecstatic.

You are a cross-country skier, and snow is an invitation to play.

“Minnesota has a huge variety of expertly groomed ski trails,” says New Brighton resident Bruce Adelsman, who skis nearly every day in the winter as part of his job managing the cross-country ski site www.skinnyski.com. “Because of the vast number of trails, you can find something that matches your desire—quiet trails, big hills, skiing right in the heart of the Twin Cities, or skiing at a number of cross-country ski resorts.”

The next time the snow flies, consider planning a getaway to Historic Bluff Country of southeastern Minnesota. Stride—one skinny ski at a time—deep into wooded forests, over rolling hills, and along scenic lakeshores and rugged river gorges. In Cannon Falls, there are quaint bed and breakfasts along the level, easygoing Cannon Valley Trail. During your trip, visit the Cannon River Winery and charming antique shops in the historic downtown area.

A trip to a historic inn or B&B along the relatively level Root River State Trail—running through the rural communities of Fountain, Lanesboro, Whalan, Peterson, Rushford and Houston—includes outstanding scenery of soaring limestone bluffs. The trail towns include restaurants, bed and breakfasts, inns, and unique shops. Five miles west of Lanesboro, the trail connects with the Harmony-Preston Valley StateTrail, passing through wooded areas and farmland. In Harmony (the largest Amish community in the state), stay at a motel or 19th century inn. In Preston, stay at a nationally-recognized B&B, inn, or cozy cottage.

Experience more challenging terrain along the hilly Mississippi National Trails in bluff country. During your cross-country ski trip, stay in one of the charming rivertowns of Winona, Wabasha, Lake City, or Red Wing, known for their 19th-century architecture, antique shops, authentic local specialties, and numerous bed and breakfast and historic inns.

Photo courtesy of
Explore Minnesota Tourism

6. TRY A DOGSLEDDING ADVENTURE

Long before airplanes and snowmobiles existed in polar regions, sled dogs pulled cargo and people through deep snow in harsh climates. For hundreds of years, sled dogs have aided in hunting and trapping, and helped deliver everything from mail
to medicine.

Today, few people are dependent on dogs for basic survival, but mushing and dogsledding is still alive in a number of venues throughout the state—in Ely (the dogsledding capital of Minnesota with half a dozen dogsled outfitters), along the Gunflint Trail, and along the North Shore.

“Dogsledding is the most wonderfully exhilarating way to be in the outdoors with dogs,” says Linda Fredericksen, a DNR Becoming an Outdoors Woman program instructor who teaches dog mushing classes, in addition to working with the Three Rivers Park District and doing demonstrations for local events. “It’s addictive.”

Dogsledding adventures range from short rides (for an hour or a day) to multiple-day journeys complete with mushing instruction and hands-on experiences. For those who don’t want to lead their own team, several resorts offer one to two hour outings, where the musher does the work while you snuggle into a cozy sled and enjoy the ride. Outdoor enthusiasts eager for a more rugged winter adventure can go camping in a remote location. Sleep under the stars, in a quaint lodge, or in a warm and insulated yurt.

During a dogsledding trip, experienced guides will teach you to harness and hook up the dogs, maneuver the sled, and stay warm and safe.  Take in amazing, pristine winter scenery from the back of your sled. Let your mind drift as these high-energy dogs run and run and run.

People of average physical fitness and in reasonably good health—from elementary age children to seniors—can enjoy the thrill of the ride (of course, sitting in a touring sled is a little less strenuous than driving your own team). Participants should like being outdoors in winter and being around dogs. A sense of humor and a good attitude also helps. 

 “My hope for those I teach is that they go away with an invigorated spirit, a greater love for the outdoors, and a deeper love and understanding of sled dogs,” Fredericksen says. 

And touring a region of the state by dogsled isn’t as chilly as one might think.

“If dressed properly, almost any winter condition can be enjoyable,” Fredericksen points out. “Dogsledding is work, so you are always moving, which helps keep you warm. Many people think they’ll just be on the back of a sled, but to be really engaged with your dogs, you need to be stopping and talking to them and praising them for a job well done, which requires movement.”

Many who embark on dogsledding adventures have the experience of a lifetime. Writer Robert Service summed up his experiences with a poem:

“Have you known the ‘Great White Silence,’ not a snow-gemmed twig a quiver? Have you broken trail on snowshoes? Mushed your huskies up the river? … Then harken to the wild—it’s calling you.”

To find a list of dogsledding outfitters, go to www.exploreminnesota.com.

7. SNOWSHOEING ALONG THE GUNFLINT TRAIL

Whether you desire an outdoor adventure or simply some peace and quiet, the Gunflint Trail (or just the “Trail” as the locals call it) in northern Minnesota is the perfect vacation destination. On the Gunflint you will find the heaviest snows of deepest winter, along with wilderness, wildlife, miles of cross-country trails, and expansive territory to explore on snowshoes.

There are nine separate snowshoe trails—25 miles worth of marked, groomed trails—along the Gunflint Trail. Snowshoeing is easy to learn (it’s similar to walking, only with wider strides) and not very expensive to try. Some lodges rent snowshoes or provide them free of charge to their guests. This enjoyable winter sport is a fun way to get out in the fresh air and enjoy winter.

Snowshoes especially prove their worth when the snow is deep, allowing you to cover untamed backcountry terrain. Stomp through areas that are too slushy to walk through or too icy to ski across.  Possibly spot a majestic, beautiful moose along the scenic 63-mile trail (moose sightings are common), get a good, gentle workout, and enjoy the activity’s peaceful, meditative nature. Snowshoeing isn’t a rush-rush sport—it’s more about appreciating your surroundings at a leisurely pace than speeding across the snow. Linger outside a little longer to watch spectacular displays of the Northern Lights.

When it’s time to head inside, stay at friendly Northwood’s lodge, cabin, or bed and breakfast, where you can soothe your muscles in a hot tub or sauna, relax with a massage, enjoy a gourmet meal, or curl up in front of the fireplace with a glass of wine. In the morning, grab breakfast and make the first tracks in the snow as you enjoy a beautiful sunrise.

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