Good skiing close to home in MinnesotaPublished 11:50am Friday, February 4, 2011
Whenever I drive along Minnesota’s North Shore during the winter months, I get an almost overwhelming urge to put on snowshoes and plunge into the frozen woods for a day of studying animal trails, watching for birds and enjoying the quiet.
It makes me want to pack along a tent and a stove and sleeping bag, and spend a night in the deep cold, just too see what it’s like.
I mentioned this to my friend, Bob, earlier this week as we drove south along Highway 61 near Tofte, the deep blue of Lake Superior off to our left and the big woods on our right. I could feel Bob’s stare even though I was concentrating on the road. “Not me,” he eventually said. “But that sounds about right for you.”
Fortunately for me, and perhaps for Bob, we had no snowshoes along. We were packing a trunk full of skis, boots and poles — not to mention duffel bags full of warm clothes — on our way home from Lutsen.
Minnesota downhill skiers generally practice their hobby on one of two extremes: The grand western vacation to Big Sky, Vail or some other top-shelf resort on one hand, the short runs and easy access of Minnesota ski area like Buck Hill and Mt. Kato on the other. One extreme is costly, time-consuming and not something most people can afford to do more than once a year, if that. The other extreme is, for those who’ve been skiing a few year, just not all that interesting.
Lutsen represents a lovely middle ground. Far enough away that it’s a real vacation, but near enough to be accessible, Lutsen is big enough to offer some real variety, small enough and varied enough to make any family comfortable.
And while it’s not the Rockies, the scenery from the top of the hill over frosted trees and Lake Superior stacks up well against anywhere in the United States.
We got to Lutsen late Sunday night, having just missed eight to 10 inches of fresh snow that fell there over the weekend. That fresh fall added to a nice base in what has proven to be a good early snow season on the North Shore.
Neither Bob or I has much taste for groomed runs, and we hit the jackpot on Monday and Tuesday. The paths through the trees on Moose Mountain had been lightly skied over the weekend, and there were still pockets of fresh snow here and there. It is not every year that there’s enough snow to cover the rocks and stumps in those wooded areas, but this year is one of the good ones.
There was plenty of tree skiing to keep us happy for a couple of days. For those who prefer to reduce their risk of impact, there are also some long (by Midwestern standards) groomed runs, as well as a selection of moguls and steeps.
Early in the week in late January is also a good time to go skiing in northern Minnesota (or any resort) if you don’t particularly like crowds. We had the rare (as in, it’s never happened to me before) pleasure of parking no more than a couple of hundred yards from the main lodge and not once, in two days, had to wait in a line. It was like owning our own resort.
OK, it was not warm, and that is part of why early February is a quiet time. Temperatures were below zero when we left our hotel each morning and warmed into the single digits or low doubles by mid-afternoon. But, hey, we are Minnesotans. We can take a little cold, right?
Cold was indeed a small trade-off for two days of excellent skiing and excellent scenery — especially when neither time nor money made a “bigger” trip possible.
It had been several years since I had been to Lutsen. It was nice to be reminded that Minnesota has a great alternative to the small hills and to the mountains.