On a bluebird morning last March, I slid off the chairlift for my family’s first run of the day at Lutsen and surveyed the wintry scene. To the south, the Midwest’s only mountain tram was already running at full speed, disgorging black diamond types from bright red gondola cars. To the east, sunlight glazed the granite surface of Lake Superior, as glacial chunks of ice bobbed and rippled at the shoreline. In the sky overhead, a hawk drew circles around the frozen pines. And at the top of the aptly named “Big Bunny” run, my kindergartner was screaming his head off, begging to go back to the car.
“But we just got here,” I explained to the youngest and most fearless skier in our family, the kid whose physical daring and thrillingly low center of gravity had finally convinced us we were ready for our first family ski vacation—an excursion that now seemed in danger of becoming the most expensive 15 minutes we’d ever spent outdoors. Wiping snot on his polar fleece, he caught his breath long enough to explain the problem. “You didn’t say it was going to be a mountain,” he said accusingly. He’s probably not the first overconfident Midwest skier to be thrown off balance by seeing Minnesota’s most familiar resort from a much loftier point of view. Five hours north of the glaciated golf-course terrain of the Twin Cities, the Sawtooth Mountains live up to the name, rising more than 1,000 feet over the surface of Superior and giving generations of Minnesota kids their first experience on ski runs that last longer than the chairlift ride to the top.
Though Lutsen is the state’s oldest resort, it’s looking like a surprisingly fresh alternative to more expensive Rocky Mountain retreats thanks to a new western-style Summit Chalet on Moose Mountain, glowing reviews from winter sports writers (including The New York Times, which called it “king of the Midwest Hills”), an acoustic and authentic North Shore nightlife, and the increasing pain in the ass that is air travel. “We’re five hours from Minneapolis and St. Paul, and in the old days, people used to say, ‘I could fly anywhere I want to in that amount of time,’” says Jim Vick, Lutsen Mountains’ marketing director. “Now you can’t fly anywhere in five hours. And you’re not going to be very relaxed when you get there.”
After pricing out a family ski package in Park City, Utah, where I met my first real mountain, we came to the same conclusion and set out from a slushy, gray St. Paul one morning to find the North Shore blanketed in blue-white snow by mid-afternoon. In fact, the Lutsen area gets more than nine and a half feet of snow on average, ensuring a ski season that lasts into April. More seasoned skiers also rave that 92 runs spread across Lutsen’s four mountains—Ullr, Eagle, Mystery, and Moose—make it possible to ski from every compass point, switching positions to chase the best conditions throughout the day.
In spite of these natural assets, downhill skiing didn’t come to the North Shore until George Nelson, grandson of the Swedish immigrants who first homesteaded the area in the 1880s, came home from World War II. A veteran of the 10th Mountain Division, he’d survived cold weather training in Leadville, Colorado (where he tried one of the first tow ropes in the country), and heavy artillery in the Italian Apennines, and he had a vision for transforming his hometown hills. By 1945, he’d persuaded his father to winterize their family’s iconic summer resort, and in 1948, the state’s first rope tow started up at Lutsen with just two runs, “Chickadee” and “Hari Kari.” Though Nelson had high hopes, even he was surprised by how good the conditions turned out to be. “I did not know that we had the best hills and terrain in the upper Midwest. I’m not even sure we had maps,” says Nelson, who still marvels at the fact that his daughter Cindy went on to compete in three Olympics. “She was from the smallest hill of anyone in the world, and here she was, winning the downhills, which was just amazing.”
"If you’re not too worn out, there’s actually stuff to do after dark, including sleigh rides, comedy shows, and live music performances at various pubs and restaurants around the mountain."
Though Nelson, now 86, sold the ski business in the 1980s, he has fond memories of hitting the slopes with all five of his kids—a Minnesota tradition he’s very pleased to see snowball the way it has. “Kids will pick it up in nothing flat, and it’s just wonderful to watch them go,” he says. It’s true. Once the kindergartner realized we weren’t going home, he plunged down the Big Bunny and never looked back, hopping on the chairlifts a half-mile ahead of us and waving happily on his way down. The only tears we saw the rest of the trip came when it was time to get back in the car.
If You Go
Sign up for lessons: Putting a kid on the top of a mountain and hoping he’ll figure out how to ski is not actually recommended. (Our three boys had already had a handful of lessons at local ski hills prior to our trip.) Fortunately, Lutsen’s Snow Sports Learning Center does a great job of catering to new skiers and snowboarders with half- and full-day group and private lessons. Make reservations early during high-traffic holidays to guarantee you’ll get in.
Don’t forget your skinny skis: Downhill is the big draw for the majority of tourists, but Cook County’s cross-country terrain is world class, with more than 400 kilometers of groomed trails, the largest Nordic ski trail system in North America. One day when the weather report called for bone-chilling lake- effect winds, we took cover within snow-white forests on trails that were groomed for both classic and skate-style skis. Before you go, check out volksski.com, a website where you can log your distance, report conditions to other skiers, and record new trails you’ll want to return to. Enjoy the view from the top: Even if you aren’t ready to take “The Plunge,” one of Lutsen’s many double black diamond runs, don’t miss out on the amazing view from Moose Mountain. Leave your skis at the bottom of the hill and take the tram up for lunch at the Summit Chalet, which offers 100-mile views over Lake Superior. The soup’s not bad either.
Stay out late: If you’re not too worn out, there’s actually stuff to do after dark, including sleigh rides, comedy shows, and live music performances at various pubs and restaurants around the mountain. Lutsen’s commitment to having live music every night of the week has helped to build a critical mass of musicians, singers, and other creative types on the North Shore—many with CDs they’d be glad to sell for the car trip home.
Find a pillow: Lutsen boasts of having more than 3,000 places to lay your weary head within 20 miles of the slopes, with options that range from ski in/ski out lodging at Caribou Highlands and Eagle Ridge, to the old-world charm of Lutsen’s shoreline resort, to condos and townhomes between Tofte and Grand Marais that offer shuttle buses to the hills. Spots closest to the mountain tend to fill quickly during school vacations, so plan accordingly.
Extend your weekend: Perennial discount packages such as Lutsen’s “3 nights for the price of 2” January special and half-price lodging and lift tickets during midweek definitely add to the destination’s popularity with families. Most specials make it possible to pay a little less and stay a little longer, a perfect excuse to dig deeper into all the other winter activities the area has to offer, including dogsledding and classes in everything from knitting to blacksmithing at North House Folk School in Grand Marais.
Lutsen Mountains: Co. Rd. 5 and US 61, Lutsen, 218-406-1320, lutsen.com