Seek the Perfect Minnesota Slopes

By Lisa Meyers McClintick

Family on top of Lutsen Mountains
A family on top of Lutsen Mountains

Nothing inspires that “I’m King of the World!” sensation quite like riding Lutsen Mountains’ red gondola high above the Poplar River and over the rocky crest of Moose Mountain.

Yes, I said mountain. Minnesota may be known for its lakes and prairies, but the North Shore’s Sawtooth Mountains offer spectacular 1,000-foot drops and some of the Midwest’s biggest and best ski runs, with a bonus of dark green forests and Lake Superior’s steely winter blues as the backdrop.

In addition to Lutsen, more than a dozen other downhill destinations, often built along scenic rivers bluffs or rolling hills, can be found in every part of the state.

The newest ski destination, Detroit Mountain, opened in 2014 with a lodge and 15 runs. It’s among a growing number of ski hills that also build runs designated for tubing.

If you haven’t gone snow tubing in a while, modern parks may surprise you with effortless “magic carpets” (picture a human conveyor belt) and clip-in towing systems that gently deliver riders to the top without mitten-shredding tow ropes. Tubing hills also build banked lanes to keep riders from colliding—unless they’ve purposely linked tubes to pursue a shriek-worthy speed record.

A handful of ski areas also offer cross-country trails, which are especially welcome for groups where not everyone is skilled at schussing downhill. All the ski hills and resorts have kids’ programs, learning packages and workshops for first-timers and rusty skiers, leaving few excuses not to seek out some downhill excitement.

Northeast Destinations

Ski lift at Giants Ridge in Biwabek
Ski lift at Giants Ridge in Biwabik

If you’re seeking a long weekend getaway with a variety of routes and terrain, northeast Minnesota’s Arrowhead region boasts a trio of popular ski destinations.

Three ski-in, ski-out properties nestle into Lutsen Mountains, which guarantees stellar scenery and weary bodies by day’s end with one of its 95 ski runs stretching for 2 miles. You’ll also find 60 acres of skiing through trees and progressive terrain parks on all four mountains. Lutsen closes last each winter, and late-winter visitors can take advantage of more daylight. Chairlifts shut down just before dusk when a music scene takes over for evening entertainment.

If you love skiing at night—especially under a full moon—check out Giants Ridge in Biwabik and Duluth’s Spirit Mountain. Spirit Mountain offers some on-mountain lodging with 22 runs and a terrain park groomed into hills shaped by the St. Louis River and Lake Superior. Winter visitors also can go tubing or take the Timber Twister down the mountain for a quick, brisk ride. Nearby, Duluth's smaller Chester Bowl Ski Area is great for beginners.

Giants Ridge overlooks Wynne and Sabin lakes and the rugged landscape of Minnesota’s Iron Range with 35 runs, plus 60 km of trails for Nordic skiers. Snow machines keep Nordic trails open even when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate.

Head for the Hills

Ski Welch
A snowboarder hits a grind at Welch Village terrain park

In southern Minnesota, Mississippi River bluffs offer 425-foot drops that add excitement to the 14 runs at Coffee Mill Ski Area near Wabasha. As a bonus, you can round out a day with eagle watching along Lake Pepin.

About 20 minutes west of Red Wing and tucked into the Cannon River Valley, Welch Village ranks among Minnesota’s biggest ski areas with 60 runs that drop 360 feet. Mankato’s Mount Kato has 19 runs with a 240-foot vertical drop.

In central Minnesota, both Kimball’s Power Ridge and Nisswa’s Ski Gull provide close to 300 feet in vertical drop, plus more than a dozen runs and terrain parks. If you keep heading north, you’ll find 15 km of Nordic trails plus 16 runs at Alexandria area’s Andes Tower Hills, and 16 runs and 25 km of Nordic trails at Buena Vista Ski Area near Bemidji.

Mt. Itasca Winter Sports Center near Grand Rapids also goes beyond downhill, boarding and tubing with ski jumping, plus extensive training for Nordic skiers and biathlon participants who compete nationally.

Urban Adventures

Skier Jumping at Hyland Hills in Bloomington
You don't need to leave the Twin Cities to leave the ground / Hyland Hills in Bloomington

Afton Alps in Hastings has steadily targeted young snowboarders and expanded under ownership by Vail Resorts. It added 60-foot big-air jumps, expanded to six terrain parks and built a new lodge with bean-bag chairs and a burrito yurt for young athletes. For traditional skiers, there are 48 runs with a drop of 350 feet thanks to bluffs carved by the St. Croix River. Wild Mountain in Taylors Falls also takes advantages of the bluffs for its 25 runs and 300 vertical feet.

You can ski the runs that helped groom Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn and hone racing skills at Burnsville’s Buck Hill. Sixteen runs cross the hills, along with one of the state’s biggest tubing parks. The terrain park sets up with giant airbags a few times a winter for boarders who want to practice freestyle tricks with a guaranteed soft landing, and you can even ski in the summer on Buck Hill's artificial turf.

Other popular Twin Cities destinations include Hyland Hills Ski Area in the heart of Bloomington and Maple Grove’s Elm Creek Winter Recreation Area. Hyland has a small drop of 174 feet, but its 14 runs are a favorite for beginners and snowboarders with multiple terrain areas. It’s also a destination for serious ski jumpers to rocket down Bush Lake’s 70-foot jump. Hyland opened a new, larger chalet in 2016.

Elm Creek also features gentle downhill runs, a terrain park, tubing runs and everything else related to winter, from 19 km of Nordic ski trails to skijoring (skiing with dogs) and snowmobiling.

For more details on Minnesota ski and snowboard areas, check out the Slopes page.