Generations of skiers can recall the clunk of the red doors closing and the distinctive whir of heavy-duty cables that pulled Lutsen Mountains’ signature red gondolas over the Poplar River Valley with Lake Superior shimmering on the horizon. A scenic ride no matter what the season (hikers used it, too), it finished dramatically with a sharp rise up a Moose Mountain cliff before releasing passengers near the Summit Chalet.
This season’s skiers can zip up the mountain in gleaming $7 million, high-speed gondolas that cut the milelong ride from 10 minutes to less than four. The cars also hold eight rather than four people, and boost the lift’s capacity from 300 to 1,000 riders per hour.
Lutsen’s new gondolas aren’t the only fresh surprise awaiting skiers in the region this winter. Other changes on the slopes include a Magic Carpet (picture a moving sidewalk that goes uphill) at newcomer Detroit Mountain in northwestern Minnesota and a new snowboard feature, originally used in Park City, Utah, at Afton Alps along the St. Croix River. Here’s what else is new this season at area ski resorts, including recreation such as fat-tire biking. Most places that don’t offer their own lodging have partnered with nearby hotels for stay-and-ski packages.
Iron Range and North Shore
At Lutsen, the new gondola can be expanded with extra cars to carry 2,400 people per hour. That capacity could come in handy. The owners intend to broaden the mountain resort experience by adding to its 95 runs spread throughout 1,000 acres across Ullr, Eagle, Mystery and Moose mountains. This season’s focus is on the new gondola and expanding its can’t-beat-the-view Summit Chalet, but permits are pending to expand west into Superior National Forest land and to eventually double the number of runs over the next 10 to 15 years.
“Most of the Western resorts are on Forest Service lands,” said Jim Vick, director of sales and marketing at Lutsen Mountains. Expanding the resort would give visitors more than a three-day-weekend’s worth of trails to explore. The resort already claims the state’s biggest thrills with sheer drops and double-black-diamond runs for experts, woods to traverse and a vertical drop of more than 800 feet that ensures a heart-pumping workout.
For now, the high-speed gondola will maximize ski time during daylight hours and prevent bottlenecks at dusk as skiers clear off the mountains. Lutsen runs are not illuminated, but it features the most ski-in ski-out lodging in the state with Eagle Ridge and Caribou Highlands, and an ever-growing live music scene to fill the evening hours. Plus there’s that Great Lake view you won’t find out West.
“You can see 100 miles across the lake, and it’s blue all winter,” Vick said (1-218-663-7281; lutsen.com).
The state’s second-highest runs can be found on Duluth’s 700-foot Spirit Mountain, which spans 175 acres and has views of the St. Louis River and Lake Superior. Five lifts and three tows take visitors to 22 runs and progressive terrain parks. Guests can rent onsite mountain villas and tackle 22 kilometers of Nordic ski trails, tubing runs or the year-round alpine coaster and zip line (1-218-628-2891; spiritmt.com).
At Biwabik’s Giants Ridge, alpine skiers and boarders zip down 35 runs and a terrain park carved into 500-foot-high Iron Range hills overlooking Wynne and Sabin lakes. It’s also a good place to try out fat-tire biking or go Nordic skiing on 60 kilometers of trails. Rentals are available for both sports. There’s also a tubing hill and a new sports pavilion that opened late last winter near the Helsinki chairlift. A two-story, 30,000-square-foot event center and ski chalet will be built throughout this winter to bring rentals, the ski shop and food and beverage services under one roof (1-866-409-6650; giantsridge.com).
New to the scene
Detroit Mountain, the state’s newest ski resort, opened in 2014 with a 15-run ski hill, terrain park and tubing tucked into 200 acres among the Leaf Hills outside Detroit Lakes. Two 22-foot Itasca State Park white pine trunks anchor the sturdy main lodge, with kids’ programs based in a heated yurt. Beginners can use the new Magic Carpets at Potential Park, the “bunny hill.” The resort has also added a Burton Riglet Park, which teaches children how to snowboard with mellow snow features, and a Strider snow bike park, where kids can head downhill on no-pedal balance bikes with skis attached to the wheels. The resort, which welcomes mountain bikers in the warm season, also rents fat-tire bikes for winter touring and grooms 60 kilometers of Nordic trails (1-218-844-7669; detroitmountain.com).
Closer to metro
With one of the state’s best snow-making fleets, Taylors Falls’ Wild Mountain usually ranks as the first ski destination in the state and one of the first in the nation to start humming for the season. The rural destination about an hour north of the Twin Cities takes advantage of St. Croix River bluffs with 26 ski trails and four terrain parks that range from easy rails for beginners to big-air jumps at Main Stage for intermediate to advanced boarders. Its tubing park includes a double lane for larger groups that want to link up and slide together for more speed (651-465-6315; wildmountain.com).
Just across the Wisconsin border from Taylors Falls — less than 15 minutes away — Trollhaugen Outdoor Recreation Area offers another option and features 24 runs, 10 lifts, a terrain park and tubing. No cross-country trails are planned for the 2015-16 season (1-715-755-2955; trollhaugen.com).
Several ski areas north of the Twin Cities provide straightforward ski-board-tube operations with about 14 to 16 ski runs, terrain park features, vertical drops of 300 feet or less and a handful of tubing lanes. Among them are the Alexandria area’s Andes Tower Hills (1-320-965-2455; andestowerhills.com), Ski Gull near Gull Lake north of Brainerd (1-218-963-4353; skigull.com), Bemidji’s Buena Vista Ski Area along the Continental Divide (1-218-243-2231; bvskiarea.com), and Powder Ridge (1-320-398-7200; powderridge.com) rising from central Minnesota farm country in Kimball.
To the south
Owned by Vail Resorts, Afton Alps north of Hastings offers the state’s second-biggest ski destination.
In the past few years, Afton Alps has added $10 million in improvements that include 60-foot big-air jumps, a new lodge, expanded terrain parks and features shipped in from Park City, Utah, such as an S-curve rail. Skiers can perfect their skills on 50 runs with a drop of 350 feet across 300 acres of St. Croix River-carved bluffs. Skiers can purchase local passes or special Epic passes that can be used at Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone and other Rocky Mountain resorts (651-436-5245; aftonalps.com).
Welch Village, encompassing 140 acres of Cannon Valley hills west of Red Wing, has reshaped and amped up its terrain park, bringing in a Colorado design firm that works with parks in Vail, Beaver Creek and Jackson Hole.
Welch Village’s vertical rise of close to 400 feet includes 60 ski trails and nine lifts (651-258-4567; welchvillage.com).
Tucked into the steep coulees and Mississippi River bluffs south of Wabasha, Coffee Mill Ski and Snowboard Resort claims the highest vertical drop south of Duluth. Runs that plunge 440 feet offer a view of the river while chairlift riders may get an eye-level view of eagles that spend winter soaring the valley.
The Coffee Mill name refers to a rock formation shaped like a coffee bean grinder, so distinct that steamboat captains would watch for it on trips up the Mississippi River (1-651-565-2777; coffeemillskiresort.com).
The hills are gentle at Mount Kato, but skiers can spread out with 19 runs and eight chairlifts, a newly remodeled chalet and a refreshed terrain park with features that include the return of a Volkswagen for tricks and jumps (1-507-625-3363; mountkato.com).
St. Cloud-based travel writer Lisa Meyers McClintick (LisaMcClintick.com) wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities.”