The snow guns are spewing. Chairlifts are firing up. A new ski season is upon us in Minnesota, where thousands of downhill skiers and snowboarders are looking forward to a long winter. Whether you're an experienced alpine athlete or a first-timer, Minnesota has a ski area to fit your skill set -- or lack thereof. Here's a rundown on a dozen areas in the state or nearby, with beginner, intermediate and expert terrain included in the mix.
Cheap ticket: Elm Creek Winter Recreation Area
Lifts, snowmaking and a beginner-level hill make Elm Creek in Maple Grove a good spot to learn how to ski or snowboard. The lift ticket is cheap -- $15 -- and the park offers a variety of lesson options via its SnowSports Academy. Private and group lessons are available for both adults and kids. Cross-country and snowshoeing trails, a tubing hill and a hot-cocoa-equipped chalet offer alternate activities for families (763-694-2050; www.threeriversparks.org).
Olympic legacy: Buck Hill
Before moving to the mountains as a teenager, Olympian and World Cup ski racer Lindsey Vonn grew up bashing slalom gates on Buck Hill's small slopes, as did many other world-class skiers. The Burnsville ski area has short runs and a scant vertical drop. But terrain parks, three chairlifts and more than a dozen trails keep suburban skiers entertained. There are classes and race clinics. There's a tubing hill, too, if some of the family wants to slide instead of slalom. Lift tickets are $38 (adult) for a full day; $26 for nights (952-435-7174; www.buckhill.com).
Snowboard in the City: Wirth Winter Recreation Area
In addition to its miles of cross-country ski trails, Minneapolis' Theodore Wirth Park has an "urban snowboarding" area with jumps, rails, boxes and other terrain-park features. The park offers learn-to-ride classes, tubing, open snowboarding (and skiing), and hosts camps and competitions throughout the winter. Rental equipment is available. A season pass costs $100 (763-522-4584; www.theodorewirth.org/snowboarding.cfm).
Beginners welcome: Como Park
Beyond polar bears and its gleaming glass conservatory, St. Paul's classic city park has a small ski hill. Como's rope-tow lift and lighted ski slope is an accessible and sensible place to learn to ski or snowboard, and there are lessons geared toward kids.
Snowmaking machines and grooming keep the slopes manicured and smooth for learning to carve. The park has a chalet, ski and snowboard rentals, and lessons taught by instructors certified by the Professional Ski Instructors of America. Hourlong private lessons, $25; multi-week group lesson package, $90 (651-488-9673; www.stpaul.gov/parks).
Ski Bloomington: Hyland Ski & Snowboard Area
Three Rivers Parks' main downhill area offers three chairlifts and 10 trails on a wooded slope that takes about 30 seconds to descend. But like nearby Buck Hill, Hyland makes up for its small slopes with a terrain park and multiple competitive teams and programs for kids and adults interested in getting involved with ski racing, freestyle skiing and snowboarding without having to drive out of town. Adult lift tickets are $29 for the day, $27 at night (763-694-7800; www.hylandski.com).
Day trippers: Wild Mountain, Welch Village, Trollhaugen, Afton Alps
Longer runs and steeper slopes are accessible via a short drive north, east or south of the Twin Cities. The longtime day-trip standbys of Wild Mountain, Afton Alps, Welch Village and Trollhaugen are similar-sized hills with comparable terrain and lots of options for beginner through expert skiers. They all have fun cruisers, terrain parks, a few steep expert runs and meandering beginner slopes. Lessons, competitions, rental packages, chalet dining -- it's all standard at each area.
Geographically, Wild (near Taylors Falls, Minn.; 651-465-6315; www.wildmountain.com) and Trollhaugen (Dresser, Wis.; 1-800-826-7166; www. trollhaugen.com) are closest for metro residents. Both also have enjoyable apres-ski scenes, with ample food and drink options. Welch (between Hastings and Red Wing) is about an hour's drive south of Minneapolis (651-258-4567; www.welchvillage.com). And Afton (east of Woodbury) is a quick drive for St. Paulites (651-436-5245; www.aftonalps.com).
Overnighters: Spirit Mountain, Giants Ridge, Lutsen Mountains
Load up the minivan and head north! Minnesota's best skiing and boarding requires at least a two-hour drive and usually entails an overnight stay. Slopeside lodging is available at all three. With four mountains, milelong runs, woodsy trails and true expert-level terrain, Lutsen Mountains on the North Shore is hands down the state's best skiing (1-218-663-7281; www.lutsen.com). Giants Ridge Ski Resort in Biwabik, Minn., has 35 downhill runs, two terrain parks and seven lifts (1-218-865-3000; www.giantsridge.com). Duluth's Spirit Mountain offers Lake Superior views, 22 trails and one of the best terrain parks in the Midwest, including a half-mile-long slope with rails and jumps, as well as a 350-foot halfpipe ready to carve (1-218-628-2891; www.spiritmt.com).
Stephen Regenold writes about the outdoors and adventure travel at www.GearJunkie.com.