Think you have to head west to get your skiing fix? Think again. Not only do you not have to travel across the country to slalom the slopes or skate the trails, you don’t even have to drive far from the Twin Cities. Some 100 cross-country ski-trail systems lie within an hour’s drive of Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as a handful of well-groomed, well-managed hills for downhill enthusiasts.
Afton Alps, carved out of the bluffs sloping down to the St. Croix River, rates as the largest downhill-ski run within an hour of the Twin Cities. The park covers 300 acres and includes 48 trails, a 350-foot vertical drop, and an impressively long run of 3,000 feet. The slopes are accessible for all levels of skiers, with the majority of them clocking in at beginner or intermediate ratings. Snowboarders and tubers are also welcome, as are first-timers (lessons are available) and racers.
Address: 6600 Peller Ave. S., Hastings
Welch Village Ski and Snowboard Area
Spread across a steep bluff overlooking the Cannon River valley, Welch Village may be the best hill available to Twin Cities skiers, short of driving to Giants Ridge or the North Shore. There are 60 trails spanning 140 acres, and the longest run measures 1,300 feet. The park has a nice variety for both beginners and experts, and consistently gets high marks for its well-groomed trails. Snowboarders are welcome, and the Village regularly holds races and offers lessons and family specials.
Address: 26685 County Rd. 7 Blvd., Welch
Buck Hill is a tiny slope—just 50 acres with 15 trails—jammed up against a busy freeway, but two things position it as one of the area’s most popular hills: a convenient location and an aggressive racing program that has produced such skiers as World Cup and Olympic champions Kristina Koznick and Lindsey Vonn. The park has a 310-foot vertical and its longest run measures just over 1,000 feet. Snowboarders and tubers are welcome, and lessons are available.
Address: 15400 Buck Hill Rd., Burnsville
William O’Brien State Park
Landscape is William O’Brien’s selling point: a mix of restored prairie, oak savanna, and woodlands on the bluffs overlooking the St. Croix River. The 12 miles of trails are groomed for classic cross-country and skate skiing, and range from easy to difficult. A fun perk to the park (if you can score them) are the three heated cabins available to rent for overnight excursions. As at all state parks, skiing at William O’Brien requires a Minnesota ski pass for those 16 and older ($6 a day; $20 a season).
Address: 16821 O’Brien Trail N., Marine on St. Croix
Afton State Park
Afton is similar to William O’Brien in nature—prairie and oak savanna on the bluffs overlooking the St. Croix Valley—but differs in its trail offerings. A beginners’ loop is 2.5 miles long, but the rest of the trails are rated intermediate or expert. In fact, the park boasts some of the longest and hairiest twisting down-hill challenges among Twin Cities cross-country ski trails. The 18 miles of trails are groomed for classic skiing only. That’s too bad for skaters, but it does give the place a secluded, backcountry feel. Four camper cabins with electricity and heat are available year-round for weekend adventures.
Address: 6959 Peller Ave. S., Hastings
Battle Creek Regional Park
Perched on the Mississippi River bluffs just east of St. Paul, Battle Creek Regional Park offers a variety of hilly, winding, and wooded trails. The eastern section of the park has 3.6 miles of classic trails ranging from easy to difficult, with plenty of possible combinations. The western section has nearly 8 miles of mostly difficult trails, groomed for both skate and classic skiing. About 2.5 miles are lighted for nighttime skiing. A Minnesota ski pass is required.
Address: 75 S. Winthrop St., St. Paul
Fort Snelling State Park
Located in the bottomlands at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, Fort Snelling State Park is about as flat as it gets—the perfect park for shuffling along while watching for deer, fox, owls, and other wildlife. The park has 12 miles of easy trails groomed for classic skiing, with the most popular trail circling Pike Island.
Address: 101 Snelling Lake Rd., St. Paul
Lebanon Hills Regional Park
A sprawling park of woods, wetlands, and lakes, 2,000-acre Lebanon Hills is the largest park in the Dakota County system. More than 14 miles of trails for both classic and skate skiing wind around, up, and down lakes, ponds, and hills. Most trails are easy, although one loop has some tough slopes. Equipment is available for rent at the visitor’s center. A Dakota County cross-country ski pass is required for skiers 18 years of age or older ($5 a day; $20 for the season).
Address: 860 Cliff Rd., Eagan
Carver Park Reserve
One of the best-kept secrets in the Twin Cities, Three Rivers Park District’s Carver Park lets you get away from the crowds, even on weekends. Its 12 miles of trail, groomed for both classic and skate skiing, dart through open prairie and oak and pine forest, and past lakes and marshes. Loops range in difficulty from beginner to advanced, with a few tough hills thrown in for good measure. Skiers ages 12 and older will need a Three Rivers cross-country ski pass ($4 a day; $50 for the season).
Address: 7025 Victoria Dr., Victoria
Theodore Wirth Winter Recreation Area
This Minneapolis park is a surprising 700-acre oasis of secluded forest in the middle of the city. One moment you feel you’re in wilderness, the next you see a stunning view of the Minneapolis skyline. Wirth offers 15 miles of trails groomed for both classic and skate skiing. The park’s snow-making capabilities means you can ski even when snow is lacking. After a day on the trails, unwind and refuel with soup and sandwiches at the chalet. Skiers ages 13 and older will need a Minneapolis Park and Recreation ski trail pass ($8 a day; $45 a year per family).
Address: 1301 Theodore Wirth Pkwy., Mpls.
Elm Creek Winter Recreation Area
There’s plenty of variety—and opportunities for backcountry solitude—at 4,900-acre Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove, the largest unit of the Three Rivers Park District. The park has more than 11 miles of trails groomed for both skate and classic skiing, three miles of which are lighted for nighttime skiing and 1.5 miles available to get a coating of artificial snow when needed. Loop difficulty ranges from beginner (including most of the lighted area) to expert. On evenings and weekends, hot drinks, burgers, and fries are available for purchase at the Elm Creek Chalet, which also rents ski equipment. Two camper cabins equipped with electricity and heat are available to rent for $50 a night. Skiers need a Three Rivers ski pass.
Address: 12400 James Deane Pkwy., Maple Grove
Lake Maria State Park
Lake Maria’s 14 miles of trail are a roller coaster of winding hills. While there’s plenty of action, none of it is particularly difficult. The loops take in oak woods (including some old growth) and lakeshore. Only two miles are groomed for skate skiing, the rest is reserved for classic. If you want to make a weekend adventure of it, reserve a camper cabin and haul in your gear and food by sled. Cabins have wood stoves for heat, but no electricity.
Address: 11411 Clementa Ave. NW, Monticello
Woodland Trails Park
Woodland Trails Park has more than nine miles of trails. It’s a 330-acre oasis in Elk River, and it’s renowned for its skier-friendly design. The trails take in plenty of hills as well as some flat terrain, weaving in and out of prairies and dense woods. The loops include some steep climbs and descents, and are groomed for both skate and classic skiing.
Address: 20135 Elk Lake Rd., Elk River