Every Thursday during winter, classmates and I would pile into a school bus in the late afternoon to make the trip from Farmington to Welch Village, in Welch, Minn.
I never got really good at downhill skiing — I am too timid to let ’er rip — but I liked the creaking sound of snow under my skis, the sprays of powder I raised on the turns and the way the snow sparkled under the lights. I marveled at daring friends rushing down steep slopes. And there was always hot chocolate at the lodge. Skiing felt like a natural part of being a Minnesotan, the logical result of youthful exuberance meeting snowy winter nights.
Fortunately for those who feel the same way, there are lots of down-home places in our state to play in the snow.
Unlike ski resorts in much of the rest of the country, Minnesota’s are relatively inexpensive, aren’t bogged down with froufrou boutiques and exude a friendly vibe that welcomes skiers no matter their skill level or the quality of their gear. These places focus on the important stuff: lifts, runs and trails.
Welch Village remains among them. It includes nine lifts and 60 runs, a skiing kingdom compared with my day, though it always felt large enough to me.
Anyone who wants a family ski weekend that doesn’t break the bank can find plenty of places in the region, whether they seek vertical drops or cross-country trails through a forest.
It’s Minnesota, after all, and skiing is practically a birthright.
Since 2014, this Detroit Lakes spot has spit-shined its image with friendly staff, expanding snow-making capacity, and a growing number of acres (now 350) and runs (now 21). The terrain park gets changed up to keep regulars challenged, and a tubing hill sends people soaring, minus the skis.
Good to know: This park has heart. A Ski Angel program helps people hit the slopes with financial assistance, provided they volunteer at the resort. The annual Detroit Mountain Polar Fest, Feb. 6-17, features a team tubing contest and a fat-tire bike race.
The Mesabi Iron Range is no stranger to snow; this resort in Biwabik cranks up the snow-making machines to enhance the natural stuff. That makes for a long season on the 35 runs that shoot down the ridge, which offers a 500-foot drop and views of lakes Wynne and Sabin. Intermediate and beginner runs dominate, so this is a terrific spot for families. The terrain park is geared to beginners and the children’s sledding hill helps, too. The resort has a variety of lodging and dining options.
Good to know: The 60 kilometers of groomed cross-country ski trails once served as Olympic training grounds.
This North Shore stalwart has 95 runs across four mountains and a maximum vertical drop of 825 feet. Terrain includes bunny hills and tree ski runs for the backcountry adventurer. From atop the mountains — Ullr, Eagle, Mystery and Moose — views of Lake Superior sparkle in the distance. Lutsen includes lots of lodging options, too, from the trailside Eagle Ridge Resort and Caribou Highland Lodge to Lutsen Resort on the shores of the Big Lake.
Good to know: Tavern and music venue Papa Charlie’s kicks up the apres-ski options. Cloud Cult plays there Feb. 8, with ski and concert overnight packages available.
Five lifts, three tows and stunning views of the St. Louis River and Lake Superior make this Duluth spot a magnet for day-trippers and overnight guests. At 700 feet, Spirit Mountain has the state’s second-highest runs, plus cross-country trails and other entertainments.
Good to know: To spur winter tourism in Duluth, the Legislature created Spirit Mountain in 1974. Fittingly, it’s pure Minnesota, hosting snowmobile racing, snowboarding, fat-tire biking, an Alpine coaster and snow tubing in addition to downhill and Nordic skiing.
Closer to home
Welch Village (welchvil lage.com) is a fave, though Afton Alps (aftonalps.com) in Hastings has been upping its game since Vail Resorts took ownership in 2012. At Wild Mountain in Taylors Falls (wildmountain.com), 26 trails and four terrain parks shoot down river bluffs. More bluff runs can be had at Wabasha’s Coffee Mill Ski Area (coffeemillski.com).
Top spots for Nordic
Ski tips are pointing to Minneapolis as Theodore Wirth Park prepares to host a 2020 FIS Cross-Country World Cup race. Farther north, Nordic trails run through woods, minus the cityscape. On the Gunflint Trail, Bearskin Lodge (bearskin.com) is a top spot in Minnesota. It’s also one of the best cross-country ski resorts in the country; it recently came in No. 3 in a USA Today reader contest. Near the far tip of the trail, about 43 miles from Grand Marais, sits another winner, Gunflint Lodge (gunflint.com). The Sugarbush Ski Trail System (sugarbushtrail.org) lies along the North Shore, near lodging such as Bluefin Bay. Maplelag Resort (maplelag.com), near Detroit Lakes, charms with its family-style meals and quirky lodging options.
One of these gems is sure to turn you into a Minnesota skier, if you aren’t one already.