With so many people of Scandinavian descent in Minnesota, it’s not too surprising to discover that folks here love Nordic (cross-country) skiing. In fact, the state hosts two of the nation’s biggest Nordic skiing events: Vassaloppet USA and the City of Lakes Loppet. You don’t have to be a loppet racer to get out and enjoy the Minnesota winter, though. The North Star State has thousands of miles of cross-country trails, many of which are regularly groomed, for all levels of expertise.
One of the nation’s premier cross-country facilities, the Vassaloppet Nordic Center boasts 15 kilometers of groomed trails in Central Minnesota, near Lake Mille Lacs. Some five kilometers are lighted for night skiing. In addition to snow-making equipment, the center also has a chalet with changing rooms, a small kitchen, a waxing room, and saunas.
Perched on the bluffs of the gorgeous St. Croix River Valley, Afton State Park offers 12 miles of scenic, groomed cross-country trails, including a 2.5-mile beginner loop. In addition to a warming house at the visitor’s center, this park on the edge of the Twin Cities metro area also has four miles of snowshoeing trails and a kids sledding hill.
Located in the heart of Minnesota’s Iron Range, Giants Ridge is a family-friendly resort that, in addition to its downhill facilities, offers 38 miles of groomed cross-country trails, two miles of which are lighted for night skiing. Originally designed for training the U.S. Ski Team, the trail system cuts through the beautiful Superior National Forest and hosts the largest high school cross-country race in the U.S.
At 4,900 acres, Elm Creek is the largest unit in the Metro Area’s Three Rivers Park District. The park boasts more than 11 miles of groomed trails, with snowmaking capability on a 1.6-mile loop, so you can ski even when nature’s not cooperating. More than three miles of trails are lighted for night skiing. Elm Creek also offers Nordic equipment rental, lessons, and concessions.
Just 20 miles north of Detroit Lakes in Western Minnesota, Maplelag is dedicated to cross-country skiing during the winter. With 70 kilometers of trails groomed for cross-country, ski-skating, and mountain biking, Maplelag challenges visitors to get outside. Host to Nordic Ski camps and competitions, Maplelag is a full-service, family-friendly resort that also offers Nordic lessons and ski waxing services.
Located on the border of Minneapolis and Golden Valley, Theodore Wirth is the largest park in the nationally-renowned Minneapolis park system. Over 15 miles of groomed trails criss-cross the park’s 740 acres. Equipment rental and lessons through the Loppet Foundation will get even novice skiers out on trails that offer views of the Minneapolis skyline, quiet, lakeside forest scenes, and connection to the Chain of Lakes trails. Intrepid urban skiers can ski from Golden Valley to the southern edge of Minneapolis without leaving the city.
Skiers who want to get away from it all and simply enjoy nature in its winter clothing should head to the Tofte area. There, the Sugarbush Trail association maintains more than 65 kilometers of cross-country trails in the Superior National Forest, northeast of Duluth. The remote forest offers stunning vistas of the Sawbill Mountains and Lake Superior as skiers revel in quietude. Because of its remoteness, there are no real amenities available on the trail, but local outfitters offer rentals not too far from trailheads. Beginners in the area can take lessons at the nearby Lutsen Mountains ski area.
Part of the Three Rivers Parks District, Hyland Lake Park Reserve is perhaps the best all-around ski destination within the Twin Cities Metro. In addition to its busy downhill facilities, the park boasts 9.5 miles of groomed cross-country trails, of which six miles are lighted. Advanced snowmaking equipment, rentals and lessons will ensure that skiers have as a long a cross-country season, as possible.
A 42-mile trail that curves through the bluff country between Fountain and Houston, Minnesota, the Root River State Trail offers gorgeous skiing through the hardwood forests and quaint towns connected by the winding Root River. The terrain is mostly level, though a few hilly spots can make parts of it a little more challenging. While there are no amenities on the remote parts of the trail, rentals, food and lodging can be found in the towns along the way. State ski permits are required.
Folks ready for a big cross-country adventure should head north to the Gunflint Trail. The system contains more than 200 km of remote, groomed trails. Despite its remote, pine-forested terrain, the trail is dotted with lodges, yurts and other places where skiers can find equipment, food, accommodation. Those who want to prepare before hitting the trails can hit one of the outfitters in Grand Marais for equipment and supplies.