Skiers at the few cross-country trails open in the metro area are probably feeling like shoppers hitting their favorite holiday store on Black Friday.
The lack of snow so far this winter has left skiers, snowshoers and high school cross-country athletes clogging trails at the only metro parks open for winter activities: Theodore Wirth Regional Park in Minneapolis, Hyland Lake Park Reserve in Bloomington and Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove.
Their secret for staying in business: snow-making equipment.
But the weather hasn’t hampered downhill skiing enthusiasts across Minnesota, especially Up North, where resorts and trails recently received a welcome 2 feet of snow.
“There is a lot of work to be done when you are dealing with 24 inches of snow, which is work we like to do,” said Jim Vick, marketing director of Lutsen Resort, located on Lake Superior near Grand Marais. “With the news of the snow, we expect to see a surge of folks looking for a winter wonderland.”
Contrast that with cross-country ski destinations in places like St. Paul, Hastings, Jordan and Rochester, which have less than 2 inches of snow and are doomed to dormancy until Mother Nature drops at least 6 inches for grooming.
It appears that won’t happen for at least another two weeks, according to the National Weather Service. The only thing resulting from last week’s unusual December rain, followed by the plunging temperatures, was a sloppy, icy mess on local trails.
Tom Knisely seemed almost giddy when talking about the amount of traffic swooshing over the trails at Hyland and Elm Creek parks, which have more than 4 miles of open cross-country trails. But he said he did feel bad that the weather wasn’t cooperating for other winter parks.
“If there isn’t snow in your backyard or nearby park, don’t worry and come to our parks,” said Knisely, a spokesman for the Three Rivers Park District. “Besides Theodore Wirth, we are the only games in town.”
Moving snow-making equipment to another park isn’t feasible, he said. The biggest roadblocks are regulations and the difficulty of pulling water use permits for snow making with the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), he said.
The trails at Theodore Wirth have been open for a month because Minneapolis Parks and Recreation partners with the Loppet Foundation to make snow and groom trails there. While the recent rain pushed back the opening of the park’s tubing hill and snowboard terrain area, both are expected to open today.
Several metro golf courses that convert to cross-country trails have remained empty this winter. They include Hiawatha and Columbia in Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota’s Les Bolstad course in Falcon Heights. In Rochester, the trail at Eastwood Golf Course is closed, as well as two other cross-country trails and two sledding hills.
Inclement weather canceled a snowshoe event that was to be held Saturday at Fort Snelling State Park because trails were too wet and sloppy, DNR spokesman Harland Hiemstra said. Though there wasn’t any snow on cross-country trails at Afton and William O’Brien state parks in Washington County and on snowmobile trails at the Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area in Jordan, all trails remain open for hiking, he said.
“There are lots of opportunities to get out and enjoy this time of year, even without snow,” he said.
Resorts doing brisk business
Since temperatures started to drop this fall, downhill ski businesses from Buck Hill in Burnsville to Spirit Mountain in Duluth have had little trouble making snow and keeping nearly all their runs open.
In 2013 Afton Alps, south of Afton near the St. Croix River, added 22 energy-efficient snow-making guns and 50 low-energy tower snow guns. The ski resort has a state-of-the-art snow-making pump house, with larger diameter pipes capable of pumping water twice as fast when temperatures permit.
Chris Sorensen, general manager at Afton Alps, said 40 of its 48 runs were open and that oncoming colder temperatures make it easier to refresh snow. He joked that Afton Alps was doing better than the rain-soaked Michigan resort where he once worked.
Before Lutsen received 2 feet of snow last week, 75 percent of its runs were already in full swing. Vick said he expected the resort to be 100 percent open in a week, along with cross-country and snowmobile trails in the area.
“The guests now at our resort are having a snow moment you hope for when you go on a skiing vacation,” he said.
November’s cold temperatures, followed by warmer weather in December, was a combination ideal for snow-making, said John Nelson, general manager of Mount Kato Ski Area in Mankato. The resort makes 98 percent of the snow for its 19 runs. Mankato has had 18 inches of snow so far this season, which provided a 48-inch base.
Some people have inquired if they could go cross-country skiing at Mount Kato, but Nelson said they don’t have areas large enough to accommodate them.
“This weather is perfect for us and skiers. They like the snow, but then want warm weather to ski in,” he said. “This is a good start to the season.”