Twenty years snowboarding in Minnesota and I'd never ridden Spirit.
Like most Midwest shredders, I knew about Spirit Mountain — all about it. I'm a snowboard instructor, and Spirit Mountain annually boasts a halfpipe and terrain park considered among the best in the region.
I figured I'd just get there, well, someday.
Then news last December shook every local powderhound down to their ski boots, and spurred a visit: Management at the 175-acre ski area — this municipal jewel created in 1974 by the Minnesota Legislature as a tourist draw for Duluth — announced that a challenging seasonal start and resulting cash crunch could close the nearly 50-year-old slope. (Duluth bailed out the resort to keep it open last year and is lending financial support again this season.)
So there I was last winter, finally. I perched atop the black diamond Gandy Dancer run, overlooking the Great Lake, and squinting so far off into the distance that I could practically see the Earth curve.
I had just one thought on this bluebird day: What took me 20 years to get here?
Why this sudden change of heart? Let's start with the view. Maybe it sounds obvious — but sometimes the obvious exceeds expectations. From the top of Spirit Mountain, the view is, simply, breathtaking.
Lake Superior is majesty. Poets have written about it, photographers have captured it, and, of course, it's been immortalized in song (you know the one). From this bird's-eye peak, the lake reveals its vast, cool beauty. To gaze out at the sheets of ice in winter, stretching toward an infinite horizon, is to take in the awe of nature itself.
I could have taken 100 runs on the day I visited, but the view stopped me cold every time.
Now let's talk about that terrain park and jump line.
Yes, jump line.
As awesome as the view was, it also quickly became obvious: Snow sport enthusiasts don't come here just for the view.
A jump line in skiing and snowboarding refers to how a series of various terrain features — such as rails, obstacles and, yes, jumps — connect for a smooth, flowing ride from the top of a lift to the bottom of a run.
My day at Spirit was spent mostly doing laps on this jump line, from the top of Big Air Chair until my legs went noodle at the base. Every run was a dealer's choice, with the features spaced evenly and safely. There were plenty to choose for whatever level of skill I wanted to unpack. Big air? Go there. Table top? Unpack the dishes. Successive adrenaline-filled jumps with speed? It was all there.
Those of us who love big air love it for one reason: There is a moment in every great jump when gravity and rationality clearly diverge — a defying moment when your inner chi realizes it's been off the ground longer than Mother Earth would normally allow. Think roller coaster, and you get the idea. This is the moment we adrenaline junkies live for, and that rush lives in the Spirit Mountain jump line, multiple times over.
I have ridden all over the country, from the glaciers of Alaska to the peaks of the Rockies and beyond. The jump line at Spirit holds its own to any terrain line out West.
The halfpipe fares just as well. I've ridden the Olympic halfpipe in Park City, Utah, and shredded the 22-foot walls on the Burton Open halfpipe in Vail, Colo. Every big halfpipe run is scary — again, that's the point. As halfpipes go, Spirit Mountain's 15-foot, finely groomed, smooth walls gave me just as much hold-my-breath-and-tuck-OMG pause as any icy wall I've ripped.
And Spirit Park is just the beginning here. Because, actually, the resort has more than one park.
Spirit Park has seven jumps, 16 jibs (rails and features) and halfpipe. Lone Oak Tow Park boasts 16 jibs, a jump and a fast track tow rope. The 18-Line & Shark Park offers boxes, pipes and rollers. At Spirit, there's a trick for whatever skill you want to polish.
For those who love to play on the snow, this is a top spot in the Upper Midwest.
Jumps aren't everything and, truth is, if there's anything on snow I love more than a trip through the park, it's a cruiser. The best days on the mountain begin or end with a first chair or sunset cruiser run. For me it's like setting my Zen purpose.
While certainly one side of the mountain brought the thrills, chills and spills, the other side delivered that purpose: long, slow twists and turns allowing a gentle slip and slide to the bottom of the Spirit Express II, multiple times over.
Here is what struck me as maybe the greatest surprise of all about Spirit Mountain.
I know why it took me 20 years to get here.
I was always worried, frankly, about the size: 22 runs, 175 acres. (By comparison, Afton has 300 acres and Lutsen has about 1,000.) Simply put: There is a certain joy for those of us in the Midwest when we find a run that actually lasts longer than the chairlift ride.
The runs at Spirit have mapped the lines in a way that maximize the area's vertical drop of almost 700 feet — remarkably satiating my Heartland need for a run longer than 30 seconds.
Spirit Mountain is bigger than it looks — it's a big deal.
And not just because of the view.
Troy Melhus is a nationally certified snowboard instructor and writer.