Learn How to Cross-Country Ski in Minnesota

By Brian Fanelli

Cross country ski aerial Paul Vincent
Cross-country skiing in the Minnesota wilderness / Paul Vincent

It’s a sunny, 20-degree morning at Theodore Wirth Park in north Minneapolis, and I’m headed to my first-ever cross-country skiing lesson. A steady stream of cross-country skiers and fat bikers rushes through the park. Everyone looks straight out of the “Star Trek” wardrobe department—thermal tights, reflective ski goggles, the lumbering moon gait of heavy winter boots. Winter activities have always felt somewhat like space exploration to me, but never more so than now.

Snow-covered hills careen off into the distance like the surface of some faraway world as I arrive at Theo’s eye-catching new activity center, The Trailhead. If the park is an alien planet, The Trailhead is the wood-burning spaceship that got us here. The building’s sleek, angular design juts into the sky like an ice shard, capped off with a distinctive mix of dark gray metal and orange-tinted wood. The blend of materials lends the futuristic-looking building a surprising sense of warmth and history.

Trailhead center at Theodore Wirth Regional Park in Minneapolis_Waqar Ahmad
The Trailhead at Theo Wirth is an architectural wonder / Waqar Ahmad

Near the entrance, steam rises off a curious group of swimsuit-clad people huddled around a fire pit. Behind them, I see a small black trailer with 612 Sauna Society painted on its sides in crisp, white lettering, and the pieces fall into place.

Inside, The Trailhead is flooded with sunlight. Skiers and bicyclists in shiny, tight-fitting athletic gear mill about the massive, open room, and the whole place hums with the inviting white noise of conversation and laughter.

I make my way to the adventure shop and check in for my lesson. A ski shop attendant sizes me up for rental equipment, and I make small talk with a few of the other skiers in my group—all beginners—until our instructor comes over to start the show. He’s a svelte, salt-and-pepper-haired guy with the laid-back charms of the Mississippi headwaters. He gives us a brief tutorial on the basics of clipping into our skis and how to hold our poles, and we head into the park to start our lesson.

After a few minutes going over the basic movements and concepts behind cross-country skiing, we put on our skis and start practicing as a group. It’s shaky at first, but soon my body falls into a rhythm. Left foot, right arm, glide. Right foot, left arm, glide. It’s more challenging than I expected, but shuffling along the trail is both fun and, as I get the hang of it, satisfying. Every so often I pause to catch my breath, take in the scenery and share a brief moment of exhausted solidarity with my trail neighbors.

The lesson ends with an optional, exploratory loop through the park. My body is completely spent, but I push myself to join. I fall more than once, and every muscle in my body is screaming for a break, but I can’t seem to pull myself away. A vast canvas of pristine white snow spreads in front of me, and with each stride I’m struck by the unique winter magic of heading out together into some great northern expanse.

I’ve lived in winter climates my whole life, yet somehow this was my first cross-country skiing experience. Some of that is because of a deep, innate desire to curl up reading books and watching my cat sit on the radiator all winter, some was the fear of embarrassing myself, and some other part of me felt like it would be similar enough to snowshoeing, so why bother?

But as I discovered, and skiers already know, cross-country skiing is a singular winter experience unlike anything else. It’s challenging and meditative, silent and rhythmic, beautiful and humbling: The perfect way to embrace a Minnesota winter in all its snowy wonder.

Cross-country skiing destinations

Couple cross country skiing at Whitetail Woods in Farmington_Paul Vincent
Whitetail Woods Regional Park in Farmington / Paul Vincent

The stat that tends to get trotted out about Minnesota’s abundance of cross-country (also called Nordic) ski trails is that we’ve got more miles of trails than a trip from St. Paul to Los Angeles. I don’t know how we landed on that particular measure, but I can say with certainty that Minnesota has a ton of cross-country trails, many of which are arguably world-class.

Destinations that are serious about cross-country skiing have made themselves virtually weather-proof by making snow when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate. Theo Wirth, Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove, Hyland Lake Park Reserve in Bloomington, the Vasaloppet Nordic Center in Mora, Mt. Itasca near Grand Rapids and St. Mary’s in Winona all make snow to ensure the longest ski season possible.

Northern Minnesota

The crown jewel among Minnesota’s many cross-country skiing destinations is the Gunflint Trail in far northeast Minnesota. You may already recognize it from summer trips to the Boundary Waters, and its splendor is just as impressive in the winter. Sub-divided into three 70 km trail systems, the Gunflint Trail cuts a well-groomed path through some of northern Minnesota’s most beautiful and remote wilderness.

Cross-country skiing on the Gunflint Trail 399 x 600
The Gunflint Trail is a cross-country skiing mecca in northeast Minnesota

Ski the trail from end to end on a lodge-to-lodge tour (call Boundary Country Trekking and let them handle the logistics), or simply venture out for a day trip on one of the many smaller loops. No matter how you ski the Gunflint, you’re in for an unforgettable adventure.

Just north of Detroit Lakes, Maplelag Resort is Minnesota’s premier cross-country skiing resort, with nearly 70 km of trails on the property. Groomed for classic (parallel), skate skiing and fat biking, Maplelag has something for every winter explorer. After a long day on the trails, unwind with a therapeutic massage and a soothing dip in the state’s largest hot tub (yes, really).

At Glendalough State Park in central Minnesota, skiers can explore 8 miles of gently rolling hills while getting an unbeatable look at the landscape’s sublime transition from prairie to northern hardwood forest. With one of the last large tracts of undeveloped lakeshore in western Minnesota, Glendalough is a scenic escape from the outside world—and all of its stresses. For truly remote relaxation, cap off your cross-country trip with a magical night (or three) in the park’s rustic camper cabins or yurts, open all winter long.

Twin Cities & Southern Minnesota

Cross country skiing at Saint Mary's University in Winona on Feb. 6, 2016   400 x 600
A family of skiers at Saint Mary's University in Winona

In the Twin Cities, the aforementioned Theodore Wirth Park offers more than 15 miles of cross-country trails throughout its 740-acre grounds. Or head to the massive, 4,900-acre Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove, which proves you don’t need to stray far from the city to get away from it all. Venture out on the park’s gorgeous, 11-mile cross-country loop during the day, or visit at night to explore 3 miles of ethereal, lighted trails. Like Theo, Elm Creek also offers equipment rentals, lessons and concessions.

In southeast Minnesota, the 60-mile Root River State Trail system offers gorgeous and relatively easy skiing on a former railroad route beneath dramatic, limestone bluffs. Known by geologists as the “driftless” region, the deep river valleys and soaring bluffs in this part of the state are a striking sight to behold. While the trail itself feels wonderfully secluded from the outside world, rest assured you’re never far from civilization: The trail passes through nine small towns on its journey through Minnesota’s Bluff Country, including the state’s charming bed-and-breakfast capital, Lanesboro.  

Cross Country World Cup Comes to Minneapolis

Cross country ski race at Theo Wirth, Minneapolis
The world's most elite skiers will gather at Theo Wirth Park for the World Cup in March 2020

Of course, Theodore Wirth Park isn’t just a place where newbies like me get our ski legs. Its trails are some of the best you’ll find anywhere, and on March 17, they will prove their pedigree as host to the 2020 Coop FIS Cross-Country Ski World Cup.

This momentous occasion will mark the first time in nearly two decades a World Cup cross-country event will take place on American snow. Just how did the race choose Minnesota? Much of the credit belongs to Olympic gold medalist and Minnesota native Jessie Diggins.

Diggins made history at the 2018 Winter Olympics when she and teammate Kikkan Randall secured Team USA’s first-ever gold medal in cross-country skiing. Her dramatic Olympic win catapulted Diggins onto the world stage, but like any good Minnesotan, she worked quickly to bring her home state along for the ride. Now, along with longtime sponsor Fastenal and the Loppet Foundation, she’s bringing the spotlight back to Minnesota.

“Hosting the World Cup is our chance to show skiers from around the world how Minnesota embraces winter—through sport and through our hospitality,” said Diggins when the news was announced.

The World Cup race will cap off the four-day Fastenal Parallel 45 Winter Festival (March 14-17). In addition to the World Cup event, the festival will also feature downhill “Snowball in Hell” SkiCross and BikeCross races, a Parallel 45 Cup race series for the country’s top junior, collegiate and citizen racers, and a free four-day block party complete with food trucks, beer tents and live music.

Learn more about the event at mnworldcup.com.

More Outdoor Adventures