When it comes to cross-country skiing, Minnesota might not have the quaint ambience of New England or the splendor of the Rocky Mountains, but the skiing tradition here, boosted by the state’s strong Scandinavian heritage and some 2,000 kilometers of trails, is second to none.
And now the Twin Cities has something few places anywhere can boast: guaranteed snow — even when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate.
This season, cross-country skiers have been flocking to Hyland Lake Park Reserve in Bloomington to traverse a new 5-kilometer trail covered with 2 feet of artificial snow — one of the largest such trail systems in the nation. And combined with the 2.5 kilometers blanketed with fake snow at Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove, and another 3K of trails at Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis, the Twin Cities is in rare company.
“There isn’t anywhere like it in North America,’’ said Bruce Adelsman of New Brighton, who runs skinnyski.com, a local website that caters to cross-country skiers. “We are the premier place with snow-making trails. It’s a huge deal for our community.’’
Three Rivers Park District operates Hyland and Elm Creek and invested $5.75 million in the Bloomington facility to add snow-making and lights to the new trail, which twists through rolling woods near Hyland Lake. About $1.5 million came from Legacy Amendment funds.
The project was completed just last month, too late to jump-start the ski season in November, as it will in the future. But snow-making capability means the deep snow deposited by machines at Hyland and Elm Creek will remain long after other trails are bare.
“We’re really a Nordic center nationally now,’’ said Jonathan Vlaming, Park District associate superintendent. “We are a ski destination for 100 days a year. On average, the district’s other trails offer only about 60 days of skiing.
“If we do get a big January thaw, the other snow may go away, but we’ll have it here.’’
And though there has been decent natural snow this season, that hasn’t been the case in recent years.
“We have had more frequent brown winters,’’ Vlaming said. “For Nordic skiing to really continue to be popular, it really helps folks to know there will be consistently good snow for skiing.’’
Officials saw what happened when they added snow-making at Elm Creek in 2004.
“As soon as we opened, it was at or over capacity,’’ Vlaming said. Skiers, including high school ski teams, descended on the trails. “We were pretty much the only game in town for several years; we had people coming from all over the metro to ski during the brown winters. People said, ‘Please build a second one, farther south.’ ’’
Hyland, a popular, centrally located ski destination with 9.5 miles of trails, made sense, he said. The park district already had a large, new visitor center to handle crowds. A pipe system was installed to pump Hyland Lake water to 15 portable snow-making machines, and lights were added to the trail for night skiing.
The new trail has three loops, for beginners, intermediate and experienced skiers, including a steep hill to climb that Vlaming calls “heart attack hill.’’ Last week, high school racers mixed with citizen racers and recreational skiers on the trails.
“People are very excited,’’ Vlaming said. He predicted the man-made snow will mean an additional 50,000 visits to the park.
Meanwhile, Ramsey County has proposed a $4 million project to add snow-making to about 2.5 kilometers of ski trails at Battle Creek Regional Park. Those trails also would have lights for night skiing.
“There’s no way to predictably run a [cross-country ski] program without some ability to supplement natural snow,’’ said Greg Mack, Ramsey County Parks and Recreation director. “Our local athletes need a consistent place to train in the east metro. There’s nothing now.’’
Said Adelsman: “People on the east metro desperately want something.’’ (Trollhaugen in Dresser, Wis., has long put man-made snow on 2 kilometers of trail there, attracting cross-country skiers from Minnesota.)
Ramsey County intends to kick in $1 million and is seeking $2 million from the Legislature and $1 million from private sources. The plan also would be to provide man-made snow for an existing sledding hill and a proposed downhill skiing hill.
County workers used one snow-making machine this winter to make snow for 1 kilometer of trail at Battle Creek as part of a demonstration project. “We’ll have 12 to 18 inches of snow on the trail.,’’ Mack said. “That will carry us through the January thaw that always happens.’’
Vlaming, meanwhile, said Three Rivers has no current plans to add snow-making to any of its other trail systems. A grand opening celebration at Hyland is set for Jan. 25, with free ski passes, free ski rentals, free ski lessons and a citizens tour of the trail.