In deep winter, the Minnesota landscape becomes its best self. Snow brings the North Woods and its critters into sharp relief. Crisp air makes the world, from nighttime stars to daytime lake views, shine brighter. Fresh flakes add sparkle.
Then there are the experiences that exist only in the coldest season. Ski slopes zip to life, bolstered by man-made flurries. Backwoods trails get groomed for cross-country adventurers. Thermoses fill with hot chocolate, ready to warm outdoor athletes.
Have you been waiting to play in great heaps of snow? Or do you prefer to take in your winter scenes from a window, cozied up by a fireplace glowing orange with embers? Either way, the state offers some stellar places to strap on the boots, click into skis or boards, and then relish the monochromatic scene and embrace the season.
Overnight: Hit the slopes, then a bed
Leave it to hardy Minnesotans to carve runs out of the North Woods with axes, ropes and sheer will. Giants Ridge got its start in 1958 when ski enthusiasts on the Iron Range tired of driving long distances to the slopes, so they created their own. Their mountain — a 500-footer — now has 35 downhill ski runs, and is encircled by 60 kilometers of Nordic ski trails. The resort that sprang from the locals’ ingenuity — or stubbornness, or both — has evolved into a beloved year-round destination (golf is the main summer draw). The result of that slow evolution: a wide selection of places to hang up the skis, from charming hand-hewn log cabins to townhouses and lodge rooms.
Location: In Biwabik, about 200 miles north of the Twin Cities.
Prices: A peak-season adult lift tickets costs $56/day.
Details: giantsridge.com; 1-800-688-7669.
The top dog in Minnesota ski resorts claims four peaks with 95 runs, two terrain parks and the highest vertical rise in the Midwest, at 824 feet. A robust ski school helps ease newbies down the hill. Experienced skiers and boarders can make for the forested backcountry trails, cliff drops and jumps. And for those who prefer a cozy chair by the fireplace? Rooms at ski-out, ski-in Eagle Ridge Resort and Caribou Highlands Lodge have fireplaces.
Location: In Lutsen, on the North Shore, about 250 miles northeast.
Prices: Peak-season lift tickets are $82/day for adults.
Details: lutsen.com; 1-218-663-7281.
Some vantage points at this spot above Duluth make it look like you could ski forever. But that snow-covered, curving stretch of white down below is not the end of some epic run — it’s Lake Superior. Views from the top of this mountain are spectacular, taking in the big lake and the St. Louis River. The peak has its own majesty, rising 700 feet into the crisp sky and hosting 22 runs. Spirit Mountain’s Mini-park, a beginner’s terrain training ground, gets kids ready to take on the Lone Oak Tow Park and other more advanced freestyle terrain areas. Lodging partners, including Mountain Villas on Spirit Mountain, offer discounted tickets.
Location: In Duluth, about 150 miles north.
Prices: Peak-season adult lift tickets are $55/day.
Details: spiritmt.com; 1-800-642-6377.
Day trip: quick pass to powder
Numbers tell the story here: 48 runs (including three fresh ones), 18 lifts and four terrain parks make Afton among Minnesota’s most massive ski destinations. Vail Resorts bought the property in 2012, resulting in pumped-up snow-making machines, a swank lodge and, new this year, a menu item fresh from Colorado: the famous Epic Burger, named for the Epic season pass good for all the company’s resorts, including Whistler Blackcomb, Park City, Breckenridge and Heavenly (see this week’s Lake Tahoe story).
Location: North of Hastings.
Prices: Adult lift tickets start at $50/day.
Details: aftonalps.com; 651-436-5245.
If you want chairlifts with no lines and downhills free of human obstacles, consider a visit to relatively quiet Coffee Mill Ski and Snowboard Area in Wabasha. Its bowl is carved from Mississippi bluffs and hosts an array of runs, from black diamonds to gentle slopes, accessed by two lifts.
Location: In Wabasha, Minn.
Prices: Adult lift tickets start at $18/day.
Details: coffeemillski.com; 1-651-565-2777.
Nordic: Gliding among the trees
Location, location, location. That old trope about real estate holds true for vacations, too, and Gunflint Lodge is a prime case in point. Far up the Gunflint Trail, with a view of Canada across Gunflint Lake, the resort occupies a beautiful spot in the deep woods. Foxes trot onto the lake, deer walk the footpaths and wolf howls resound at night. Plus, it is situated for easy access to Upper Gunflint ski trails, a 100-kilometer network. Most cabins have kitchens; Justine’s, a high-end white tablecloth dining room, and the more relaxed Bistro, with a wood bar and deer-antler vibe, both pour on the culinary delights.
Location: About 300 miles northeast to Grand Marais, Minn., and up the Gunflint Trail.
Prices: $15 day-pass for skiing. In winter, cabins begin at $199/night for a one-bedroom.
Details: gunflint.com; 1-800-328-3325.
At this North Woods retreat, snow reliably billows onto its nearly 70 kilometers of trails due to a mysterious alchemy involving a slight rise in the land. Fans like its funky feel, stemming from a mishmash of salvaged stained glass, displays of old signs and an assortment of lodging options, including a former sauna turned cabin. The resort is also beloved for its laid-back, communal vibe. Meals are served family-style. Cookies, fruit, hot chocolate and other drinks are available all day. A Saturday night talent show is a popular tradition.
Location: About 220 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, 20 miles northeast of Detroit Lakes, Minn.
Prices: Rates for adults begin at $273 for a weekend package (two nights, six meals and trail passes) in an accommodation with access to a shared bathroom. There are also options with private bathrooms and access to a shared shower ($404) and those with private bathrooms and showers ($467).
Details: maplelag.com; 1-800-654-7711.