By Mpls.St.Paul Magazine / Inspired by Gavin Kaysen’s My North
Who needs mountains when you have the best combination of terrain, snow and homespun ski culture in the world? From Lake Superior-facing double black diamonds to city-slicking ski race havens, Minnesota ski areas have something to offer just about any skier or boarder on any day. So, take Gavin Kaysen’s word for it and get yourself to one of these ski areas—where you’ll be guaranteed good times, good people and good snow.
Lutsen Mountains, Lutsen
At 1,088 feet, Lutsen is the closest thing to big mountain skiing you’ll get in Minnesota. An hour north of Duluth on Highway 61, it’s the perfect mix—plenty of snow, plenty of steeps, and plenty of epic Lake Superior views. It’s even got a brand-spanking-new valley-spanning Dopplemayr gondola. Either stay lakeside at one of Minnesota’s classic lodges, Lutsen Resort, and drive up the hill every day, or stay up in the mountain, so you’re walking distance from the storied watering hole/music venue Papa Charlie’s.
Hyland Hills, Bloomington
Home to one of the most feared ski teams in the upper Midwest, Team Gilboa, Hyland Hills is barely 10 minutes outside of downtown Minneapolis, and what it lacks in vertical drop (185 feet), it makes up for with its full-fledged ski jump. Complete with a brand new, super-modern chalet, Hyland is the perfect place to take some morning laps or hit one of the best-maintained terrain parks in the state. And that’s all before packing up the gear and heading five minutes down 494 to Mall of America for lunch and an afternoon of drops in Nickelodeon Universe that aren’t self-propelled.
Buck Hill, Burnsville
Not a far cry from Hyland in terms of proximity to the Twin Cities, Buck might not have a ski jump, but it does manage to find 310 feet of vertical drop. Over the years, it’s put that drop to perfect use: ski racing. The Buck Hill Ski Team is the brainchild of Erich Sailer—an Austrian who was lured to Buck in the late ’60s to help start the program—and has produced racers ranging from Kristina Koznick to Lindsey Vonn.
Giants Ridge, Biwabik
When you first drive through it, the bucolic Bavarian hamlet of Biwabik feels more like you’re in the Swiss Alps than the heart of the Iron Range. The open faces and rocky crags of Giants Ridge extend the comparison. The resort’s 35 runs and 50-foot vertical drop might seem average on paper, but the terrain itself feels immense. If you’re looking for a break from the slopes, there are 30-plus miles of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails, more than 2,000 miles of groomed snowmobile trails, plus groomed trails for fat biking.
Welch Village, Welch
Nestled into the Cannon River Valley just a little more than an hour south of the Twin Cities on Highway 61, the drive to family-owned Welch Village is incredible, but not as incredible as the skiing. Their meandering, wooded bluff topography produces the perfect mix of lengthy blue cruisers and hold-on-to-your-butt blacks, any of which would give a Colorado black diamond a run for its money. A post-skiing stop at on-site Jaxx Bar is a must.
Afton Alps, Afton
Drive to Afton Alps through the flat farmland surrounding it, and you may start to question your directions: There’s no way a downhill ski area could be in land that flat. Even once you see the sign for the Vail Resorts-owned property, you’re left to question where the hill is. That is, until you make your way down into the ravine that houses it. Once there, you’ll find a world of throwback chalets and speedy, diverse runs that make the most of their 350-foot vertical drop.