I love to ski and while here in the Midwest we don’t have the amazing mountains of Colorado or Utah, Minnesota surprisingly has quite a lot of ski areas to learn on and hone your skills. I grew up skiing Minnesota’s often icy and cold ski areas, learning to ski at the tender age of three. For me, skiing is the best way to survive our notoriously long Minnesota winters and a way to get outside in the depth of our coldest months.
When I tell my non-native friends that I spend my weekends skiing in Minnesota, they are often surprised until I remind them that it was little suburban ski area Buck Hill in Burnsville, Minnesota where one of the best skiers in the world got her start, Lindsey Vonn. Taught at Buck Hill by the renowned Erich Sailer who also groomed slalom racer Kristina Koznick, Vonn put Minnesota on the map for many young ski hopefuls. Vonn eventually moved to Colorado to train on the bigger mountains but often looks back nostalgically on the icy, sometimes brutal conditions of Minnesota skiing where she got began.
Given my love for skiing, my husband and I started our own kids skiing when they were toddlers with weekly lessons at Buck Hill. Once the kids were in elementary school, we joined a Twin Cities based ski and snowboard club called Blizzard that brings us to a different ski area every Saturday from December through March. We have been members of the ski club for six years and have skied all over the state. While one ski area crosses the Minnesota border slightly into Wisconsin and the best ski area is near the Canadian border, all ski areas are within an hour to four and a half hour drive of the Twin Cities. Here is a list of my favorites in order.
Lutsen Ski Area
Located in Northern Minnesota near the Canadian border is Lutsen Ski Area, one of the largest ski areas in the Midwest. Nestled within the stunning Sawtooth Mountains with massive Lake Superior as a backdrop, Lutsen Ski Area encompasses four interconnected peaks, 95 runs, a gondola, and 825 feet vertical rise (not bad for the Midwest). Although it can be cold, it is by far the best skiing Minnesota has to offer and makes for a great family, friend or couple weekend trip. Besides skiing, there is also nordic skiing, snowshoeing, dog sledding and sleigh rides so there is plenty to keep you busy.
About a four and a half hour drive from the Twin Cities, Lutsen is best experienced over a weekend and there are tons of great lodging options available. You can stay mountainside, at the Lutsen resort or at a Lutsen Sea Villa along the edge of frozen Lake Superior. Lutsen has been a favorite ski area of mine since I was a kid. We usually go skiing in early March to escape the colder winter months however you never know when you may just luck out with warmer weather and good snow. Some friends of mine just got back from an early January trip and the conditions were outstanding.
Located about 25 miles from Minneapolis in the beautiful St. Croix River Valley in Hastings, Minnesota is my second favorite ski area, Afton Alps. Opened in 1963 by a group of hardy farmers who were passionate about skiing, today Afton Alps is part of the Vail Resorts Epic Family of ski areas. This means Afton Also is included in the Epic Pass and if you have one for the season you can ski at Afton Alps for free!
With over 300 skiable acres, 52 trails, 18 chair lifts and four terrain parks, Afton Alps has enough variety to keep any level of skier busy. It is a ton of fun and I love spending the day at Afton with my family. Since Afton Alps was acquired by Vail Resorts in 2012, a lot of improvements and renovations have been made to the ski resort making it feel almost like you are in the Colorado at a big mountain resort. They have truly done a great job! Check out the trail map.
Coming in at third place is Welch Village ski area located 37 miles southeast of Minneapolis in the tiny town of Welch, Minnesota. As you leave the Twin Cities and start heading out into farmland, you wonder how on earth there could possibly be a ski area worthy of skiing. But atlas, as you drive over the inundating hills of the desolate landscape there lies Welch Village with a summit of 1,060 feet. It may not be very high but Welch has over 140 acres of skiable terrain with 60 trails and awesome snowmaking ability in case Mother Nature hasn’t been too kind. I also love the fact that Welch has 5 Quad chair lifts (which is a bonus in Minnesota) and has over 16 short but somewhat steep black runs.
Other Smaller Ski Areas:
Besides the top three bigger resorts, there are a handful of smaller ski areas in Minnesota that are worth checking out as well.
Located about 66 miles south of Minneapolis in Mankato, Minnesota is Mount Kato, a picturesque ski area nestled within a river valley that has 8 chair lifts, 19 runs and a terrain park. I have often spotted bald eagles while skiing at Mount Kato so it has become one of my favorites for the smaller sized ski areas. They also usually have a bonfire going on the backside which smells nostalgic.
Located 49 miles north of Minneapolis in Taylors Falls, Minnesota along the Minnesota-Wisconsin border is Wild Mountain. With 20 runs, a good mix of blacks, blues and greens, as well as a decent terrain park, Wild Mountain is a fantastic place to ski and spend the day as a family. If you really want a pretend and get an out West skiing fix, do the double black diamond run, The Wall. Short but steep this run will make you wish it was longer.
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We are proud to announce that we are 💯% open for the season. Main Stage was completed today and will open tomorrow. Open 10am – 1AM Friday, Dec 14th. Chair 1 opens at 1pm and the MS rope opens at 4pm on Friday. 25-68" base 💥 3 fully set terrain parks with rope toes 💥 all runs open 💥 It's going to be a great season! #100percent #JustNorthEnough #wildmountain #snowboarding #skiing #onlyinmn #optoutside #taylorsfalls #yourstoexplore #minnesota #stcroixvalley #stayandwander
Across the St. Croix River, 12 miles away from Wild Mountain in Dresser, Wisconsin is Trollhaugen, another small ski area about an hour’s drive from Minneapolis. With 24 runs, four terrain parks and a quirky miniature troll statue inside the smaller chalet, Trollhaugen is loads of fun for families. If you are nice, perhaps the local greeter at Trollhaugen will give you a “fun meter” button for free!
Last but not least on the list is Buck Hill, the small ski area in Burnsville, Minnesota where Lindsey Vonn got her start. Less than twenty minutes from my house in Minneapolis, Buck Hill is a great place for kids to learn to ski. When my children were toddlers, we bought a family pass and went every weekend. While the kids did ski school, my husband and I skied down the two black runs that despite being short they are actually pretty darn good. With 16 runs, a magic carpet for the beginners and kids, and a freestyle park, it isn’t bad for a hill within the suburbs of Minneapolis. There is also Hyland Hills Ski Area in Bloomington, Minnesota as well.
Check out this post on the legend of Buck Hill, “Lindsey Vonn’s Career Began on a Ski Hill So Small, You Might Not Even See if Off the Highway“.
So you may wonder how I survive a Minnesota winter? I get out there and ski! When you can’t beat it, join it and hit the slopes.