While there’s plenty of fun to be had in skiing and riding around the Twin Cities, sometimes you want more vertical. You can find that, with a reasonable drive, by heading north to Duluth’s Spirit Mountain Recreation Area, which is a two to two-and-a-half hour drive north of downtown St. Paul, right off Interstate 35. It’s also close to St. Louis Bay and Lake Superior.
Its 175 acres of skiable terrain is greater than that offered by Welch Village (140) but less than Afton Alps (300). Lutsen Mountains, another 90 minutes to the north on Highway 61, claims 1,000 acres.
What makes Spirit worth the drive is its vertical drop. At 700 feet, that’s twice as high as what you’d find locally, though it’s less than you’d find (825 feet) at Lutsen.
There are four main areas on the ski hill. At the extreme left side of the skier’s left is freestyle terrain, including a halfpipe that was brought back in the 2014-2015 season after a hiatus. The freestyle trails (and one other trail) are served by the Big Air chairlift. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see some big air.
Slightly to the right of the freestyle terrain are the steeper slopes, which are served by the Gandy Dancer chair.
Continuing further to the skier’s right, you’ll head towards the easier terrain.
The Summit chair, which is the highest on the hill, can get you to the widest portion of the area. It serves both intermediate and beginner terrain.
The Spirit Express II is a high-speed lift that also serves beginner and intermediate slopes, including the wide-open beginner slope, “four pipe.” Timber Cruiser, an intermediate trail, provides a nice contrast by snaking through some some woods.
Though the attraction for Spirit is the downhill skiing and riding, there are other activities as well. Just to the south of the downhill area, though easily accessible from it, are 22 kilometers of nordic trails, maintained in partnership with the Duluth Ski Club. There are other nordic trails in the region as well.
Back in the downhill area, you’ll find snow tubing lanes. As is the custom at ski areas, you’ll have to buy a separate ticket to use for a specified amount of time. It’s open only on certain evenings, weekends, and holidays.
There is also a zip line, of sorts. The qualifier “of sorts” is required because it’s more of an aerial chair. Instead of putting a harness around your legs and then holding onto a cable, as you would in a true zip line, you sit in a chair, looking forward. The chair zips down the hill, stops, and then returns you to the starting point, riding backwards backwards. It’s normally closed during the winter, but if you go late in the ski season, you might be able to ski and zip in the same day. A separate ticket is required.
The alpine coaster, on the other hand, is open year-round. It allows you to experience some g-forces, roller-coaster style. Plastic carts sit on metal tracks that twist and bend their way to the base. Combine a top speed of about 25 mph with some hairpin turns, and you’ll get some thrills. You ride back to the top in the style of a roller coaster car that goes uphill: On a track. It’s a nice complement to the sedentary zip line. To quote from some promotional material, it is “not an alpine slide.” No, it isn’t. It’s more enjoyable than that. A separate ticket is required.
In the summer, people who ride mountain bikes can find the only lift-assisted riding in Minnesota. You may even spot some bikes on the snow during special events.
Though you may need to fill up the gas tank to get to Spirit, the drive is relatively easy. Once you leave the metro area, you’ll be on four-lane interstate highway lanes almost the whole way. Even the final approach is easy, with no steep descents on windy roads. In fact, it’s the most accessible “big mountain” skiing within a several-hour radius of the Twin Cities.
Day trips are certainly possible, but if you’d like to stay overnight, Duluth offers a number of hotels. If you bring small children, the Edgewater hotel has an indoor water park.
The Grand Chalet and River room, opened in 2013, offers food and beverage, restrooms, rentals, and a day lodge, all at the bottom of the Four Pipe.
You’ll also find the same services at the chalet at the top of the hill. It’s older, but provides good views of the water. There’s also a ski school.