It’s starting to ring true, that old joke about Minnesota having two seasons: winter and road construction. Less than six months after Lutsen Mountains closed last winter’s ski runs, snow-making machines jump-started this season at Wild Mountain near Taylors Falls on Oct. 21.
“The excitement has been huge so far,” said Amy Frischmon, a staffer at Wild Mountain, shortly before Thanksgiving weekend when Mother Nature added to the bounty of snow. While they have often needed to close in mid-March, “we were able to stay open into April the last two years.”
Thanks to the double hit of cold (and snowy) winters plus more investment in snow-making equipment, winter enthusiasts can get more bang from lift tickets, trail passes and new gear.
Anyone eager to strap on skinny skis can likewise find recreation areas such as Bloomington’s Hyland Lake Park Reserve or Maple Grove’s Elm Creek, which laid down their own snow to open loops earl for Nordic skiers. A shift in geography — usually heading north — can also extend the season. While Duluth had a headline-making launch before true winter, the Arrowhead region’s Gunflint Trail typically gets 90 inches of snow.
Before any road trip, it’s always wise to check current conditions. The Department of Natural Resources tracks trail reports and snow depths statewide (dnr.state.mn.us/snow_depth).
Here’s a sampler of where to go for winter fun, from bird festivals and frozen water to moonlit snowshoeing and flying kites.
Party time at Buck Hill (Friday) and Afton Alps (Dec. 21)
Dig out your most obnoxious renditions of Rudolph and Frosty for the Ugly Sweater Christmas Party at Buck Hill in Burnsville. Hastings’ Afton Alps hosts its own Ugly Sweater Day and a Ski with Santa on Dec. 21. Both destinations also have New Year’s Eve bashes. Afton plans a torchlight parade down the slopes and fireworks at 9:15 p.m. Check the Minnesota Ski Areas Association for details on upcoming events, races and info on the passport program that allows fourth-graders to ski or board free. (skiandboardmn.com)
Fishing prep (Saturday and Sunday)
Learn how to build your own ice fishing rod with this two-day workshop from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Tettegouche State Park. Call 1-218-353-8809 to register. (dnr.state.mn.us/stateparks)
Moving on from 2019 (Dec. 31)
Close out the year with a candlelit New Year’s Eve walk through Fort Snelling State Park from 4 to 8 p.m. (dnr.state.mn.us/stateparks)
First Day Hikes (Jan. 1)
Start the new year with “First Day Hikes” at more than a dozen state parks — from Blue Mounds in southwest Minnesota to Gooseberry Falls in the northeast (dnr.state.mn.us/stateparks).
Learn new skills (Through Jan.)
Use a long winter weekend to learn a new skill at Grand Marais’ North House Folk School. The Craft of Birch Ski-Making runs Jan. 2-5 along the shore of Lake Superior. Other outdoor-related workshops include making hide and canvas mukluks (Jan. 16-19) and crafting a laminated canoe paddle (Jan. 30-Feb. 2). Check for availability. (northhouse.org)
Nordic races underway (Jan. 4)
Central Minnesota’s Vasaloppet Nordic Center in Mora has snow-making machines and 15 kilometers of groomed trails (5K are illuminated). The Jan. 4 First Chance Race launches the winter race series, which includes its popular Vasaloppet races ranging from 13 to 54 kilometers Feb. 8. Races continue Feb. 9, with a 20K classic, Miniloppet for kids, fat-tire biking and skijoring (vasaloppet.us).
Scale the Ice Fest (Jan. 3-5)
Gather ice picks and crampons for the 15th year of the Sandstone Ice Festival about 90 miles north of the Twin Cities. The weekend includes demos of new climbing gear at Robinson Quarry Ice Park, winter camping clinics, an outdoor gear swap, and speakers and evening programs at the Audubon Center of the Northwoods. (sandstoneicefest.com)
Human- and dog-powered (Jan. 11)
Two-hundred bikers will crunch along a 15- or 26-mile course that follows the Sawtooth Mountains ridgeline for the North Shore’s Norpine Fat Bike Classic. The event near Lutsen starts and finishes at Cascade Lodge (norpinefatbikeclassic.com). About 40 miles north, the Gunflint Mail Sled Dog Race begins at Trail Center Lodge with 12-dog teams tackling 100 miles or eight-dog teams covering 65 miles. Spectators can watch the race from several resorts along the Gunflint Trail, which averages 90 inches of snow each year and a broad network of trail (gunflintmailrun.com).
Rolling on fat tires (Jan. 11)
Bloomington’s Hyland Lake Reserve hosts a full day of races, beginning with the Twin Cities Orthopedics Ski Rennet all morning, skijoring in the afternoon, and capped with the Fat Bike Rennet (threeriversparks.org/rennet).
No barrier to fishing (Jan. 18-20)
It’s “Take a Kid Ice Fishing” weekend. Any state resident can fish for free when with a child 15 or younger. A related event is at 1 p.m. Jan. 19 at Half Moon Landing on the Mississippi River near Kellogg, Minn. Call 1-507-312-2308 to register.
Run through St. Paul (Jan. 25)
Thumb your nose at winter with a 5K, 10K or half-marathon, part of the Winter Carnival’s 35th Securian Winter Run through St. Paul. The half-marathon is part of the Minnesota Distance Running Association’s Grand Prix series of 14 races. (wintercarnival.com).
Kites everywhere (Jan. 25)
Join the sea of giant kites shaped like sharks and whales, cats, dogs and more as they soar above spectators at the Lake Harriet Winter Kite Festival. Families can try out ice fishing, snowshoeing and fat biking. (minneapolisparks.org)
Dogs ready to race (Jan. 26)
Watch teams take off from Duluth in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, part of a series that includes Alaska’s Iditarod and races in Norway and Russia. Hundreds of volunteers support the elite teams traveling up the North Shore to Grand Portage and back, commemorating the route John Beargrease and his dog team used to deliver mail until the 1890s. (beargrease.com)
Climb anew (Jan. 31-Feb. 2)
If you miss Sandstone, look for 20- to 30-foot ice formations to climb in a former quarry that forms a natural amphitheater at West Duluth Ice Park. Duluth Climbers Coalition hosts the Duluth Ice and Mixed Fest, full of climbing and more winter-related fun. (duluthclimbers.org)
Skiing by candlelight (Feb. 8)
Take advantage of the full moon with more than a dozen candlelit snowshoe or ski outings at state parks, including Jay Cooke near Carlton, Lake Carlos near Alexandria, and Frontenac near Lake City. (dnr.state.mn.us/stateparks)
Fat bikers hit the trails for the 45NRTH Whiteout (10K, 20K or 30K races), winding among former mining pits of the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area. (cuyunalakesmtb.com)
Dogs in the metro (Feb. 9)
Excelsior brings back its Klondike Derby, an eight-dog, 40-mile race first organized in 1937 along the shore of Lake Minnetonka. (klondikedogderby.com)
Coming together for birds (Feb. 14-16)
Excursions during the Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival guide up to 150 participants through the “Arctic Riviera” to look for birds such as hairy redpolls, snow buntings and great gray owls in the spruce, tamarack and cedar bogs. The site is an hour northwest of Duluth. The welcome center opens mid-December through mid-March, and a boardwalk built in 2018 leads visitors 900 feet into the Warren Nelson Memorial Bog. (saxzim.org)
Snow-kiters (Feb. 28-March 1 )
The Mille Lacs Kite Crossing event brings together close to 100 top snow-kiters from more than a dozen U.S. states and Canada for a 28-mile endurance race across Lake Mille Lacs and back again. (Facebook @MilleLacsKiteCrossing)
Appreciating owls all weekend (March 6-8)
The International Festival of Owls celebrates all things related to these winged creatures — including artwork of owls from around the world — in Houston, Minn. It’s home to the International Owl Center. (festivalofowls.com)
St. Cloud-based writer Lisa Meyers McClintick has freelanced for the Star Tribune since 2001.