Skiing Lutsen, the Midwest answer to Aspen
Making the best of low elevations and short runs, Midwestern skiers become masters of the chairlift. Not that this is a bad thing. Just ask decorated downhiller Lindsey Vonn, who honed her champion’s technique lapping the lanes at tiny Buck Hill in a suburb south of Minneapolis. But the pride of Midwestern ski resorts lies another 250 or so miles north of Buck Hill, in Lutsen, Minn.
On the north shore of Lake Superior, Lutsen Mountains is the region’s largest resort, with 95 runs spread across four mountains. From the tops of these peaks, skiers have the vast expanse of Lake Superior stretching to the horizon, like a limitless Lake Tahoe.
Last ski season, Lutsen added a new gondola that whisks skiers in cherry red capsules from the top of one mountain to another, like a smaller version of the Peak 2 Peak Gondola at Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia. Lutsen’s 825-foot vertical rise doesn’t compare to anything in Utah, Colorado or even New Mexico, but, in lieu of Aspen Snowmass in Colorado or Boyne Highlands in Michigan, two of our favorites, my family and I made the long, wintry trip to find out how the best of the Midwest compares with the rest by the following four critical metrics.
The good thing about remote — and Lutsen is remote; you hit Duluth, and it’s still another 90 minutes north — is, from a skier’s perspective, the climate. Back in December 2015, when grass was growing in Chicago and frost barely blanched Minneapolis, Duluth and points north were well into accumulating the snow for which people like us drive 11 hours.
We spent one night in Minneapolis then continued on to Duluth, where we stretched our legs by fat-tire biking in the snow along a lakeside trail (rentals at Continental Ski & Bike; www.continentalski.com) and rehydrated with a local ale at Fitger’s Brewhouse (www.fitgersbrewhouse.com), lodged in a 19th-century brewery.
Following Minnesota Highway 61 of Bob Dylan fame, the rocky north shore of Lake Superior between Duluth and Lutsen is dotted with attractions worth detouring for, including the dramatically sited Split Rock Lighthouse and Gooseberry Falls state parks, where the latter’s namesake cascade flows behind ice curtains and around ice-glazed boulders.
Turning lakeward at the snow-flocked sign for Lutsen Resort, we felt we’d nearly driven to Canada. And we had. The border is another 60 miles on.
Value is a major selling point of any Midwest ski vacation — even one two states away.
Prior to arrival, we booked a two-bedroom log cabin at Lutsen Resort with knotty pine interiors, a wood-burning stove and a grill on the deck just an agate’s throw from Lake Superior. For about $200 a night, the deal included lodging and lift tickets for three. For the sake of comparison, I forked over $175 for a one-day lift ticket during a trip to Vail, Colo., later that winter.
The cabin provided solitude, privacy and immediate access to snowshoeing trails in the woods. A five-minute walk away, the rustic main lodge, where guests gather after dinner beside the stone fireplace to hear a local guitarist or play rousing sets of pingpong in the game room, served our social needs. While the sports bar turned out to be the magnet for most families, the refined-but-unfussy Lakeside Dining Room distinguished itself with Minnesota staples like wild rice soup and potato-crusted walleye.
Spread across four mountains — Eagle, Ullr, Mystery and Moose — Lutsen Mountains offers more variety than any Midwestern ski area. The new Doppelmayr gondola makes it easier to get between the two furthest peaks, Eagle and Moose, while joyriding above a stream-cut canyon where we could peer down through the pines and spot the occasional deer.
Buried under 10 feet of lake-effect snow annually, the ski area offers runs on almost every side of its mountains. The blue run groomers were wide and breezy and perfect for the intermediate me, while the interconnecting glades and steeps diverted my teenager. Lutsen’s 1,000 acres provided variety enough over three days, and its lack of commercialism — no one tried to sell us a picture of ourselves skiing — made the experience more about nature than status.
Lutsen does not have a faux Bavarian ski village at its base, or loads of shops selling Patagonia jackets or gelato. It doesn’t have pedestrian streets magically warmed to melt the snow as you shuffle between art galleries. It does have an apres-ski spot in the resort hub called Papa Charlie’s, which frequently stages live music shows, but not much of a town. Instead, it neighbors Grand Marais, about 18 miles north along the shore, where we struck out in search of our ski town experience.
Grand Marais in winter is dark and quiet and tremendously slippery in unsalted parts. Summer draws droves of travelers, but in winter enough of the shops stay open — we enjoyed the old-fashioned five-and-dime Joynes Ben Franklin as well as the gear store Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply — to satisfy retail urges. We shared burgers at the Gun Flint Tavern (www.gunflinttavern.com) and brought back Nalgene growlers of Trailbreaker Belgian Wheat from Voyageur Brewing Company (www.voyageurbrewing.com) to enjoy by our own fire one last night before reversing course and making the long, meandering but ultimately worthwhile trip back south.
Elaine Glusac is a freelance writer.
If you go
Lutsen Mountains (www.lutsen.com) is open daily through April 9 and on weekends for the rest of April. Lift tickets cost $82 per adult. Multi-day packages save $5 each additional day. Ski & Stay packages include on-mountain lodging and start at $139 a person for two nights of lodging and two days of skiing.
Just down the hill, Lutsen Resort (www.lutsenresort.com) offers accommodations in the lodge, in condos and in cabins. It also has packages that bundle overnights and lift tickets. Regular winter lodge rates start at $79 and cabins, which sleep four to six people, at $249.
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