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If phrases like “catching air,” “carving trails,” “opening tracks through the powder,” or “riding fresh groomers” make you giddy with anticipation, you’re in luck. Our Ultimate Ski and Snowboard Guide highlights the best winter playgrounds in the Midwest, including downhill skiing and snowboarding, miles of trails for cross-country skiing, and family-friendly activities like snowtubing.
Right, left, right, left, glide, slide, stop, lean on ski poles and listen to the snow-covered sounds of Mother Nature. The rhythm of cross-country skiing can be very calming.
In addition to being therapeutic, cross-country skiing is less expensive than some snow sports, provides an excellent cardiovascular workout, and is an outdoor activity the whole family can enjoy together (thanks to a very short learning curve).
Maybe one of the biggest draws, though, is that it offers plenty of freedom and exploration during the snowy winter months. You don’t need to be at a ski resort in order to participate. Part of the cross-country experience is venturing outside your comfort zone and blazing your own path through parks, in forests, and across frozen lakes. And if you prefer to ski on groomed trails, there are over 100 networks of groomed, track-set cross-country ski trails at least 10 km long in the state of Minnesota.
Many excellent groomed trails can be found in northern Minnesota. Some of the resorts along the Gunflint Trail and around the Ely area focus almost exclusively on cross-country skiing during the winter “The Gunflint Trail is my favorite place to cross-country ski in Minnesota,” says avid cross-country skier Eric O’Link. “The snow is always deep and the region is home to extensive networks of perfectly groomed trails that cater to skiers of all abilities. Add skier-friendly resorts and breathtaking scenery to the mix and you have the makings for an awesome ski vacation.”
The city of Bemidji also boasts a vast cross-country trail network. The skiing in Bemidji is so good, in fact, that the 28th Annual Minnesota Finlandia Ski Marathon will take place Feb. 14-15, 2009 at Bemidji’s Buena Vista Ski Area (Buena Vista offers 16 runs for skiers and boarders as well as 25 km of cross-country skiing.)
“The Finlandia is truly an international event, drawing elite skiers from around the world,” explains Cindy Habedank with Visit Bemidji. “The Minnesota Finlandia is a world-class athletic event, open to everyone.”
Bemidji residents definitely know how to make the most of winter, evident through fun winter events like the Polar Daze Festival set for Jan. 17, 2009. The carnival will include Golf on Ice, the Polar Plunge, broomball, a 5k walk/run, and turkey bowling. Bemidji also has a vibrant arts community (visual, theater, and music performances) and lodging options including six motels, a charming B&B, and vacation house rentals and resorts.
Another hot-spot for cross-country skiing is Lutsen (which, coincidentally, is also home to Lutsen Mountains, the largest ski/snowboard area in seven states with 90 runs, a 1,000-foot vertical drop, and spectacular views of Lake Superior). Guests staying at Bluefin Bay on Lake Superior can enjoy some of the best cross-country ski trails in the area, accessible right across Highway 61 from the resort. Over 250 km of groomed and tracked trails criss-cross the land throughout the nearby Sawtooth Mountains, Superior National Forest, and along Lake Superior. Bluefin guests can take a complimentary shuttle bus to many of the cross-country ski trailheads or over to Lutsen Mountains for a day of downhill skiing or snowboarding.
For skiers and snowboarders looking to stay a little closer to home, Hastings is the ideal weekend getaway.
“We’re located between two of the largest ski and snowboard areas in the Midwest—Afton Alps and Welch Village, both offering a variety of terrain from beginner to expert,” says Karen Spicer with the Hastings Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau. Ski and stay packages are available at both resorts, starting at $169 for weekend and holiday packages and weekday packages starting at $149 (based on double-occupancy).
There are cross-country ski trails at Afton State Park and along the Cannon Valley Trail, snowshoeing at Carpenter Nature Center and along the bluffs of the St. Croix River, and dog sledding just south of town at Hastings, Huskies & Horses. Hastings is also home to a variety of boutiques, antique stores, and gift shops, as well as lodging at inns, hotels, and motels.
For a ski adventure in Wisconsin, visit Granite Peak Ski Area, located at Rib Mountain State Park in Wausau. Skiers and boarders from across the Midwest travel to Wausau for 72 runs on the 700-foot mountain. Enjoy the newly remodeled Historic Chalet with a lounge featuring appetizers, microbrews, cocktails, and wine, live entertainment, 60 new runs, seven new lifts (including a Sun Kid Wonder Carpet), the Granite Ski and Sports Shop, Sundance Chalet & Grill, the Mountain Rental Shop with 2,000 Rossignol and Salomon skis and snowboards, and the Peak Performance Demo and Tuning Center. Wausau is truly a ski town at the base of a mountain, with a bounty of lodging, dining, shopping and entertainment options all within minutes of the slopes. Conveniently located on the other side of mountain from Granite Peak Ski Area, Nine Mile Forest offers 20 miles of well-groomed trails.
City of Lakes Loppet
A fun way for families, skiers, and anyone looking for an excuse to get out of the house and celebrate winter in Minnesota is the City of Lakes Loppet cross-country ski event, this year from Jan. 31 – Feb. 1. Unlike many ski races, the City of Lakes Loppet offers something for skiers of every size, shape, and skill level while featuring the beautiful trails and lakes of the Twin Cities.
Events on Saturday, Jan. 31 include the American Family Skijor Loppet where skiers are towed by dogs (not just classic pulling dogs, either, but the family pet!), a 5 km ski race for skiers 19 and under (with prizes), the Minne-Loppet race for skiers 12 and under, the Minnesota Youth Ski League SuperCarnival, the Toko/Finn Sisu Sprints described as “exciting four-person heats with two 180 degree turns in a one kilometer sprint,” and the Caribou Coffee Luminary Loppet, designed for anyone who enjoys a spectacle. This non-competitive “Tour of Light” is a popular event for all levels and ages of skiers and snowshoers who wish to see the beauty of 800 candles glowing on Lake of the Isles.
According to the City of Lakes Loppet official website, there will be festivities along the way, including bonfires, Caribou coffee and hot cider, ski and snowshoe demos, and more. For the hard-core skier, this is a great way to test your wax before the big race on Sunday!
Thousands of skiers will participate in the freestyle ski race on Sunday, Feb. 1,starting at Theodore Wirth Park, skiing approximately 33 km through woods, over parkways and across lakes, to a grand finish before cheering crowds on the streets of Uptown.
For skiers who aren’t quite ready for the freestyle race, the Hoigaard’s Classic starts at Wirth and finishes in Uptown, but avoids some of the toughest terrain of the freestyle event. The noncompetitive REI Tour is another option for families and first-time skiers at about 12 kilometers, offering a shorter distance with the same grand finish on Hennepin. For more information regarding volunteering, participating, or cheering on the participants during the City of Lakes Loppet, visit www.cityoflakesloppet.com
Bemidji Visitors and Convention Bureau
Bluefin Bay on Lake Superior
Boundary Country Trekking
1-800-568-1995 ext. 4
City of Lakes Loppet
Explore Minnesota Tourism
Granite Peak Ski Area
Hastings Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau
Hawks View Cottages & Lodges