Lutsen, Minnesota

The days of snowboarding in the Midwest are limited, so you might want to take a trip to Lutsen, Minnesota. It’s widely thought to be the best ski area in the region. And the conventional wisdom may be just be right, with the most significant competition coming from the bare-bones experience of Michigan’s Mt. Bohemia.

Lutsen claims more vertical feet than anywhere in the region, at close to 1,000 feet. It’s spread over four different mountains, making it unique in the region. The tallest is Moose, with 986 vertical. That’s followed by Eagle (718), Mystery (632) and Ullr (506).

Moose and Eagle have great views of Lake Superior. If you go late in the season, you get not only to see the world’s largest freshwater body of water, you get to hear its waves lapping against the shore. That can make riding the slow lifts that much more enjoyable.

Mystery is noteworthy for its terrain park, and tree skiing. Eagle has some steep and narrow trails, punctuated by rocks at the entrance. If you’d rather shy away from that, Eagle has a few trails that are good for cruising. Seek out the trails served by the bridge lift, in particular. Ullr is strictly a beginner’s area, and not a very interesting one at that. The return from the mountain to the lift that serves Ullr works best if you keep up a lot of speed to get there. As such, Ullr’s not really good for never-evers or very low-level beginners. If you live in the Twin Cities, save your time and money by learning to ride locally.

Lutsen has a gondola, also unique to the Midwest. It can give you some good views of a river underneath and Lake Superior to the east. Oddly, it isn’t useful for making laps as much as it is to get from the main parking lot (at the base of Ullr and Eagle) to the top of Moose. The gondola is slow, and “Moose Return” (more on that in a moment) is the only trail served solely by the gondola. At least that’s what I’ve concluded so far. Taking the gondola at the end of the day is the most common way to descend Moose.

A downside of Lutsen is that snowboarders need to be careful about planning their time on the mountains, lest they end up hiking. I’ve written about this before (see Snowboarders Plan Ahead at Lutsen), but here’s an example. I wanted to get from Moose to Mystery, without downloading on the gondola. The path I chose during one spring visit, Moose Return, is a cat. With the snow in a slow condition, I lost speed and had to walk/skate quite a ways. But taking this route gave me an unusual treat. As I turned one corner, I saw a deer, standing about 75 yards away. It was gone before I could get out my camera.

The facilities are as up to date as many in the Midwest, which is to say, sometimes dated, though the 2013-2014 season ushered in the Caribou Express, a six-pack, high-speed lift on Moose Mountain. That cuts the chairlift time by more than half.

Moose Mountain, Lutsen

Moose Mountain, Lutsen (credit: Lutsen Mountains)

Moose also has one of the newest lodges in the region. It’s sleek, filled with light wood, and open. The light wood is a welcome change from the dark wood that gives a dungeon-like feel to many other lodges in the state.

I’ve already mentioned how Lutsen differs from Midwestern resorts in several ways. Here’s another: the drive there is interesting, too.

Trips to ski areas in the Midwest usually means driving through mile after mile of farmland. But going to Lutsen is not like that. Instead, you drive along the North Shore, Minnesota’s coast on the Great Lakes. Driving through mountain tunnels (I count at least 3) is not your typical Midwestern experience, but it’s something you do after heading out of Duluth, which is itself 2 to 2.5 hours north of the Twin Cities. If your car has a manual transmission, you may want to do some shifting as you go up (and less frequently, down) the road.

Lake Superior in winter

Lake Superior in winter

Highway 61, the road out of Duluth, sometimes hugs a wall of rock; at times it felt like I was driving I-75 through Georgia, not a road in the Midwest.

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