Bruce Adelsman is an avid cross-country skier whose passion takes him to trails around the region.
Among those he’ll ski this winter: Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis, Hyland Lake Park in Bloomington, Lebanon Hills Park in Dakota County, Lake Elmo Park Reserve in Washington County, and the famed Birkie Trail in northern Wisconsin.
But he pays a price — literally — to ski those five gorgeous trail systems because each requires a separate trail pass ranging from $20 to $75. His total outlay: $235.
“I could end up with six or seven different passes this winter,” said Adelsman, of New Brighton. “It certainly is confusing, there’s no doubt about it. It’s not an easy system if you just want to go somewhere and ski.”
“Most skiers end up deciding where they will ski most frequently and buy passes for those places,” said Adelsman, 52, who runs skinnyski.com, a website for cross-country ski enthusiasts. “If they decide to go elsewhere, they may buy just a daily pass.”
Costs differ wildly, and the minimum age for those needing passes varies from 12 to 16 to 18, adding to the befuddlement.
It wasn’t always this perplexing. Decades ago, skiers often needed to pay a fee to enter a park, but skiing usually was free. However the need to pay for growing trail-grooming costs fostered the ski pass.
In 1983, the Legislature created the Great Minnesota Ski Pass, a statewide pass that funneled money to local governments, park districts, ski clubs and state parks to maintain ski trails.
The concept was wonderfully simple: Skiers just needed one pass to access most trails in the state.
But the one-size-fits-all system wasn’t perfect. In 2003, Three Rivers Park District, the largest seller of ski passes with 10 popular parks in the Twin Cities area, instituted its own ski pass, and in 2004 pulled out of the state ski pass system.
District officials wanted to boost cross-country ski opportunities with lighted trails and snowmaking equipment. They decided to scrap park entry fees.
“Our board decided it didn’t want people to have to pay to get into the parks,” said Tom McDowell, the park district’s associate superintendent. “They said that by paying taxes, our residents already paid to get into the parks. So we eliminated that entrance pass and made up for the loss of revenue by charging for other activities.”
Hiking, biking and picnicking remained free, but park users who wanted extras, like shooting archery, horseback riding, using off-leash dog parks — or cross-country skiing — had to buy passes.
“The idea was that people would pay a fee to offset a portion of the expenses to provide that service,” McDowell said. “We got a 15 percent increase in usage of the parks.”
The district spent millions adding lighting to several ski trails and snow-making equipment at Hyland Lake and Elm Creek parks to guarantee skiing even with Mother Nature skimps on snow. Those parks are among the most popular skiing destinations in the metro.
“I don’t know of any other player in cross-country skiing that has made anywhere close to the investment that the park district has,” McDowell said.
The result: To access all of those trails, including the trails with artificial snow, skiers must buy a $9 daily pass or a $75 annual Three Rivers ski pass. A state ski pass costs $20 and wouldn’t generate the money needed to provide the extensive groomed trail system at Three Rivers.
(A season pass to access Three Rivers trails excluding the ones with artificial snow at Hyland and Elm Creek parks costs $55.)
Even with the highest-cost ski pass around, the Three Rivers pass — along with ski lesson fees and equipment rental — only generates about 70 percent of the operating costs for skiing, McDowell said.
“It’s still a subsidized activity,” he said. The district sells around 10,000 season passes each winter, depending on snow conditions.
McDowell, a skier, is sympathetic to the potential confusion of Twin Cities skiers who must buy multiple passes if they want to ski different trail systems.
“Some people say, ‘Jeez, why don’t you consolidate these things and come up with a universal pass?’ But the state has no snow-making facility or the extensive grooming that the park district has invested in. It would be difficult to come up with a single pass that would be fair to all the parties.”
But the Great Minnesota Ski Pass still provides access to more than 700 miles of trails, plus all state park trails and remains a must-have for many Minnesota skiers. Ramsey, Washington and Anoka counties are among those that only require the state pass to access its trails.
The $20 season pass ($6 daily) raises about $285,000 yearly that is funneled through 40 grants to local governments and ski clubs — many in northern Minnesota — for trail grooming expenses. And about $75,000 goes to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to help offset ski trail grooming at state parks.
“Every dollar of the Ski Pass goes to a dedicated ski account that is only used to pay for trail work,” said Andrew Korsberg, DNR state trails coordinator. “None goes to administration or the general fund.”
But skiers aren’t paying the full cost for grooming those trails, either, he said. The Ski Pass revenue pays for only a portion of trail grooming.
Sales of the state Ski Pass vary yearly depending on snow conditions, ranging from around 5,000 in a bad year to 20,000 in a good one. Last year, the state sold 11,800 passes.
Meanwhile, many skiers, including Adelsman, have become accustomed to paying to play. Buying multiple passes supports the trails and the sport he loves, Adelsman said.
“If you want to go downhill skiing, you pay a fee for that. It’s the same for cross country-skiing.
“There are so many beautiful trails to ski.”
Doug Smith is a retired Star Tribune outdoor writer. He is at email@example.com.