By Mpls.St.Paul Magazine / Inspired by Kaylin Richardson's My North
Two-time Olympic ski racer Kaylin Richardson is one of the best big mountain freeskiers in the world, yet she grew up in the Minneapolis suburb, Edina—not exactly a city known for its mountain terrain. She’s not the only Minnesota-born mountain skier to reach international acclaim on the Olympic stage, either: her contemporaries Lindsey Vonn, Kristina Koznick and Cindy Nelson have all achieved mountains of success despite growing up in a state without many. That’s because although Minnesota hills might not have the height of the Rockies, they’ve still got some seriously steep drops. Here are five places in Minnesota where you can ski stomach-in-your-throat steeps that rival anything you’ll find out west.
The only Minnesota resort situated on an actual mountain, Lutsen was the brainchild of George Nelson, whose Swedish immigrant grandfather settled on the rugged patch of the Sawtooth Mountains in the 1880s. The family was running Lutsen as a summer resort by the time George left for WWII, and when he got back he convinced them to clear out some ski runs to make Lutsen a year-round destination. By the 1960s, Lutsen was a bonafide staple of Midwest skiing, with runs as epic as its Lake Superior views. Lutsen’s mammoth ski runs even produced an Olympian, George’s daughter Cindy. With a vertical drop of 1,088 ft. and a 10,560 ft. longest run, all of Lutsen’s nearly-100 runs are among the best in Minnesota, including a handful of double black diamonds like Bobcat, Cowabunga and Expert’s Cutoff.
With only two lifts and 14 runs, Coffee Mill doesn’t boast much of a footprint. But one of those runs, O’Chute, just might be the most ferocious ripper in the state. And the others are lengthy, tree-lined cruisers akin to what you’d find in the Rockies. What makes Coffee Mill’s 425 ft. vertical drop (the longest south of Duluth) so gnarly? It’s carved into a natural bowl in the Mississippi River coulee, making for steep, highly vertical terrain. Adding to the ambiance? A thoroughly ‘70s chalet, replete with vintage pinball machines and classic rock that you can hear blasting all the way down the hill.
In 1963, a resourceful group of farmers in the flatlands of Hastings conceived a brilliant workaround to skiing without any hills: just go down! And so they set about carving a ski area into a 300-acre parcel of the St. Croix River Valley. Industry giant Vail Resorts bought Afton in 2012, and since then it has blossomed into the biggest ski area in the metro area with 52 runs and a respectable vertical drop of 350 ft. But even though it’s gone corporate, Afton maintains its homespun character with rugged terrain that actually suits all types of skiers and boarders. Technically you can start at the bottom of the mountain, but we recommend taking advantage of the topography and skiing down into the resort from the Highlands Chalet.
Outside of Miesville, in the small village of Welch, resides a beautiful slice of Mississippi River coulee. On it sits Welch Village Ski Area, and some of the best pure ski terrain in the state. Leigh Nelson and his brother Clem launched Welch in 1965, and the Nelson family still operates the resort (Leigh’s grandson Peter is the current GM) that has evolved from a handful of runs and some homemade snow-makers into a 60-run behemoth with a solid vertical drop of 360 ft. and a long-run of nearly 5,000 ft. But the real secret to Welch’s success is its steep coulee terrain, which gives you challenging runs like “Chicken” and “Dan’s Dive,” or the black- and double-black diamond runs unearthed when Welch opened up its back bowl in 2009.
Don’t let the fact that Giant’s Ridge only has 35 runs fool you. Nearly one-third of its terrain consists of lengthy black diamonds, and with a 500 ft. vertical drop, it’s one of the tallest resorts in the state. Heck, if you ski the Helsinki to Lillehammer to Helsinki race, you can make it from top to bottom without ever touching a blue. How did this come to be? You can thank a group of Biwabik-area families who grew tired of skiing the dregs of old mine dumps in 1958. They decided to rip a bunch of trees off the bluffs overlooking town, fashion a rope tow from the engine of an old Mack truck and create what became a top-three resort in the state. The mix of long, tree-lined runs and open faces conveys the feel of big-mountain skiing. Meanwhile, the Bavarian spirit of Biwabik cozies up the mood. The whole operation moves at modern speeds with two new high-speed lifts.