Illustration by Steve Thomas • Special to the Star Tribune
Crisp air, outdoor spaces, sunshine pouring down (on the best days). Now is the time to hit the slopes and trails, and not just because snow is flying. With social distancing the new normal, open-air activities far safer than indoor ones, restaurants closed and movie theaters dark, skiing and snowboarding have never looked so good. After an abbreviated season last winter and changes designed to keep visitors safe, ski destinations are ready to welcome Minnesotans now. Let’s go.

Top five reasons to ski at Duluth’s Spirit Mountain

Spirit Mountain wins over a snowboarder with its jump lines, halfpipe and Lake Superior views.

By Troy Melhus Special to the Star Tribune

Twenty years snowboarding in Minnesota and I’d never ridden Spirit.

Like most Midwest shredders, I knew about Spirit Mountain — all about it. I’m a snowboard instructor, and Spirit Mountain annually boasts a halfpipe and terrain park considered among the best in the region.

I figured I’d just get there, well, someday.

Then news last December shook every local powderhound down to their ski boots, and spurred a visit: Management at the 175-acre ski area — this municipal jewel created in 1974 by the Minnesota Legislature as a tourist draw for Duluth — announced that a challenging seasonal start and resulting cash crunch could close the nearly 50-year-old slope. (Duluth bailed out the resort to keep it open last year and is lending financial support again this season.)

So there I was last winter, finally. I perched atop the black diamond Gandy Dancer run, overlooking the Great Lake, and squinting so far off into the distance that I could practically see the Earth curve.

I had just one thought on this bluebird day: What took me 20 years to get here?

•••

Why this sudden change of heart? Let’s start with the view. Maybe it sounds obvious — but sometimes the obvious exceeds expectations. From the top of Spirit Mountain, the view is, simply, breathtaking.

Lake Superior is majesty. Poets have written about it, photographers have captured it, and, of course, it’s been immortalized in song (you know the one). From this bird’s-eye peak, the lake reveals its vast, cool beauty. To gaze out at the sheets of ice in winter, stretching toward an infinite horizon, is to take in the awe of nature itself.

I could have taken 100 runs on the day I visited, but the view stopped me cold every time.

•••

Now let’s talk about that terrain park and jump line.

Yes, jump line.

As awesome as the view was, it also quickly became obvious: Snow sport enthusiasts don’t come here just for the view.

A jump line in skiing and snowboarding refers to how a series of various terrain features — such as rails, obstacles and, yes, jumps — connect for a smooth, flowing ride from the top of a lift to the bottom of a run.

My day at Spirit was spent mostly doing laps on this jump line, from the top of Big Air Chair until my legs went noodle at the base. Every run was a dealer’s choice, with the features spaced evenly and safely. There were plenty to choose for whatever level of skill I wanted to unpack. Big air? Go there. Table top? Unpack the dishes. Successive adrenaline-filled jumps with speed? It was all there.

Those of us who love big air love it for one reason: There is a moment in every great jump when gravity and rationality clearly diverge — a defying moment when your inner chi realizes it’s been off the ground longer than Mother Earth would normally allow. Think roller coaster, and you get the idea. This is the moment we adrenaline junkies live for, and that rush lives in the Spirit Mountain jump line, multiple times over.

I have ridden all over the country, from the glaciers of Alaska to the peaks of the Rockies and beyond. The jump line at Spirit holds its own to any terrain line out West.

•••

The halfpipe fares just as well. I’ve ridden the Olympic halfpipe in Park City, Utah, and shredded the 22-foot walls on the Burton Open halfpipe in Vail, Colo. Every big halfpipe run is scary — again, that’s the point. As halfpipes go, Spirit Mountain’s 15-foot, finely groomed, smooth walls gave me just as much hold-my-breath-and-tuck-OMG pause as any icy wall I’ve ripped.

And Spirit Park is just the beginning here. Because, actually, the resort has more than one park.

Spirit Park has seven jumps, 16 jibs (rails and features) and halfpipe. Lone Oak Tow Park boasts 16 jibs, a jump and a fast track tow rope. The 18-Line & Shark Park offers boxes, pipes and rollers. At Spirit, there’s a trick for whatever skill you want to polish.

For those who love to play on the snow, this is a top spot in the Upper Midwest.

•••

Jumps aren’t everything and, truth is, if there’s anything on snow I love more than a trip through the park, it’s a cruiser. The best days on the mountain begin or end with a first chair or sunset cruiser run. For me it’s like setting my Zen purpose.

While certainly one side of the mountain brought the thrills, chills and spills, the other side delivered that purpose: long, slow twists and turns allowing a gentle slip and slide to the bottom of the Spirit Express II, multiple times over.

Here is what struck me as maybe the greatest surprise of all about Spirit Mountain.

I know why it took me 20 years to get here.

I was always worried, frankly, about the size: 22 runs, 175 acres. (By comparison, Afton has 300 acres and Lutsen has about 1,000.) Simply put: There is a certain joy for those of us in the Midwest when we find a run that actually lasts longer than the chairlift ride.

The runs at Spirit have mapped the lines in a way that maximize the area’s vertical drop of almost 700 feet — remarkably satiating my Heartland need for a run longer than 30 seconds.

Spirit Mountain is bigger than it looks — it’s a big deal.

And not just because of the view.

Troy Melhus is a nationally certified snowboard instructor and writer.

Cross-country’s hidden gems

During a winter of social distancing, head to trails you just might have all to yourself.

By Doug Shidell Special to the Star Tribune

“If you are the last person in the warming house, please turn down the heat and turn off the lights,” the sign read.

My wife, Vicky, and I did both tasks and closed the door, then scanned the ski trails through the North Woods outside Park Rapids, Minn. They were immaculately groomed, but a combination of rain and freeze/thaw weather had glazed them over with ice. Skiing was out of the question, so we chose to hike the narrow, mile-long snowshoe trail. It wound through deep woods to an open marshland where chickadees and cedar waxwings browsed on winter berries, then through rolling woodlands back to the warming house. It wasn’t skiing, but we were outside, in the woods, and moving.

Two weeks earlier, I declared that I had to get to a “winter wonderland.” The Twin Cities metro area was brown except for a few kilometers of man-made ski trails, and I was desperate to experience winter. Itasca State Park looked good. We would head there — but the journey had to include our favorite class of ski trails: small systems, usually on county-owned land, and maintained by local ski clubs.

These trail systems are designed to give local Nordic enthusiasts a place to ski. They depend on volunteers for trail grooming and donations at the trailhead for supplies. Some have buildings at the trailhead, others just a parking lot. All of them have meticulously groomed trails, a source of pride for the grooming crews, and many morph into training centers for local kids.

They also have a laid-back vibe as demonstrated by the “last person in the warming house” sign. We found that at the Soaring Eagle ski trails off Hwy. 71, between Itasca State Park and Park Rapids (itascatur.org). The Itascatur Outdoor Activity Club cares for the trails, grooming them every Friday during ski season and after a snowfall of more than 2 inches. This winter, the warming house will be closed due to the coronavirus.

As much as I love what man-made snow has done for Nordic skiing in the metro, and for my mental health in Minnesota’s off-and-on winters, those trails often feel like outdoor gyms. They are crowded with skiers.

The small club-maintained trails are different. Soaring Eagle gave us the chance to ditch the skis when conditions were poor and opt for a hike instead.

Wolf Lake, near Brainerd, Minn., with its classic groomed trails through hardwoods and mature pines, draws a mix of skiers, some in wool pants and fur hats, others gliding along with the latest in high-tech equipment (brainerdnordicskiclub.com/wolf-lake).

We stopped frequently on the Wolf Lake trails just to listen to birds or study animal tracks. Afterward we ate at Prairie Bay Restaurant in Baxter, Minn., where the menu includes wood-fired pizza, house-smoked brisket and a truffle butter-basted mushroom dish.

With all the stops to ski — or hike — it took us a couple of days to reach Itasca State Park, and by the time we arrived we were content just to get outside and see snow. The trails were icy, so we donned winter boots and hiked the shore of Mary Lake, in the southern third of the park. The day was bright and we chose the sunny side of the lake for our hike, so stopping to let the sun shine on our faces became the focus of the day. Later we visited the source of the Mississippi River and had it to ourselves.

More under-the-radar trails

We’ll branch out again this year, especially because COVID-19 makes socializing in the crowded metro ski chalets off-limits.

If we have local snow, we’ll return to Timberland Hills near Cumberland, Wis., with trails along ridges and through valleys. There’s a beginner’s loop on this trail system, but also challenging loops that have drawn Olympic gold medalist Jesse Diggins to the system. Signed posters in the warming house attest to her fondness for Timberland Hills (timberlandhills.com).

We’ll also stop at the Balsam Branch trails in Amery, Wis. The trailhead is a parking lot with no building, and the trails are a little easier to navigate (co.polk.wi.us/trailcrosscountryskiing).

The trail system in Mora, Minn., with its two-story warming house and sauna, is also on our radar (moraskiclub.org). It is near our favorite stopping-off spot, Banning State Park, near Sandstone, Minn., where skiers can check out the historic quarry site, then glide through aspen-birch woodlands and tamarack wetlands (tinyurl.com/y6dkxwnq). Farther north, in Duluth, the Korkki Nordic trails also beckon.

Fueled by donations

We leave a donation at every trail system. For us, an afternoon of skiing is more valuable than a matinee movie, so our donations reflect that mind-set. We also chat up the local volunteers. They’re more than happy to share their trails and fill you in on local events and dining options.

This year will be a different because of COVID-19. While Gov. Tim Walz’s latest executive order will keep warming houses closed through Dec. 18, we don’t know what other precautions local clubs will implement. (Check their websites before you go.)

We do know that state and federal guidelines consider skiing safe if we follow social-distancing guidelines. If our experience is any indication, these locally maintained ski trails will offer plenty of opportunities to get some exercise and enjoy nature in a safe setting.

Writer Doug Shidell lives in Minneapolis. His novel, “On His Own Terms,” is available as an e-book on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Five tips for carving out a ski season

Here’s what you need to know to ski safely this season despite the coronavirus pandemic.

By Kerri Westenberg Star Tribune

Goggles, face masks and foot gear that practically ensures social distance: All of this means that skiing is relatively COVID-safe. The activity just might also keep us sane. As winter revs up, Minnesotans are buckling down to combat another coronavirus surge. Skiing’s fresh air and outdoor exercise could help get us through the dark days.

After last season, the reputation of the sport could have gone downhill as fast as a young Lindsey Vonn racing at Burnsville’s Buck Hill. Ski resorts in Austria spurred the outbreak of the coronavirus in Europe as skiers gathered at popular spots and then returned home to their various countries. But it wasn’t the Alpine skiing that caused the spread. It was the après-ski scene — crowded bars and dance parties where the coronavirus was a hidden guest.

We now know that the activities around skiing, from traveling to a distant mountain to dining in a crowded restaurant, posed the real risk to unsuspecting skiers last year, not zipping down a hill in fresh air or cutting a path through a forest on cross-country skis. That knowledge is guiding this year’s pandemic protocols. After shutting down early last season, ski areas in the Midwest are making changes designed to keep the coronavirus at bay.

You can ski now, but your experience will be different, from riding lifts to dining to gearing up. Here is what to expect.

Embrace the safety basics, even if you are outside. That gaiter or face mask worn for warmth is essential this year. You’ll need a face covering when you’re in line for a lift, grabbing to-go food and any time you’re within 6 feet of someone else. If you don’t have a mask, you won’t get to ski. The Minnesota Ski Areas Association recommends bringing two face masks in case one gets wet. On and off the mountain, stay 6 feet from other people who aren’t in your family. If you feel sick, stay home.

Make reservations — for everything. This season, ski areas will limit the number of people on their slopes.

Even with 1,000 acres, Lutsen Mountains on the North Shore will make social distancing easier by selling fewer lift-tickets per day; reservations are strongly encouraged. The resort website has a calendar that details availability.

Before Gov. Tim Walz issued his latest executive order eliminating indoor dining through at least Dec. 18, Lutsen required reservations for all of its restaurants, which had been at 50% capacity. Presumably, that practice will resume after the order lifts. Rental equipment must be purchased online and rental forms completed online in advance.

Like Lutsen Mountains and most other ski destinations, Detroit Mountain Recreation Area in Detroit Lakes, Minn., also requires reservations for everything, from tubing to skiing.

Ski areas are also welcoming or requiring cashless transactions.

Ride the lift with your family. The chairlift policy at Afton Alps reflects a shift everywhere. Lift-line mazes will be larger to accommodate the greater distance between skiers. Guests will be asked to ride with members of their own party. Two singles can ride on opposite sides of the four-person lift. At Lutsen, the windows will remain open on the Summit Express Gondola.

Use your car as your base camp and snack bar. Lodges and chalets will be closed, except for restroom use. When ski destinations ask you to gear up in your car instead of the lodge — oh, and eat lunch there, too — that’s a precaution that will help keep you free of the coronavirus while still enjoying a day on the slopes. Some restaurants and snack bars at ski areas will be open, but only for to-go orders.

Detroit Mountain plans to have heated tents available and an outdoor booth selling to-go meals. At Giants Ridge in Biwabik, guests are invited to set up their own tents for the day.

Check a ski area’s protocols before you go. Rules may be in flux as the season proceeds. Know what to expect before you go. Here are the top ski spots in Minnesota:

Afton Alps: Hastings, 651-436-5245, aftonalps.com

Andes Tower Hills: Kensington, 1-320-965-2455, andestowerhills.com

Buena Vista Ski Area: Bemidji, 1-218-243-2231, bvskiarea.com

Buck Hill: Burnsville, 952-435-7174, buckhill.com

Coffee Mill Ski Area: Wabasha, 651-565-2777, coffeemillski.com

Detroit Mountain Recreation Area: Detroit Lakes, 1-218-844-7669, detroitmountain.com

Giants Ridge: Biwabik, 1-800-688-7669, giantsridge.com

Lutsen Mountains: Lutsen, 1-218-663-7281, lutsen.com

Mount Ski Gull: Nisswa, 1-218-963-4353, mountskigull.com

Mount Kato: Mankato, 1-507-625-3363, mountkato.com

Powder Ridge: Kimball, 1-320-398-7200, powderridge.com

Spirit Mountain: Duluth, 1-218-628-2891, spiritmt.com

Welch Village: Welch, 651-258-4567, welchvillage.com

Wild Mountain: Taylors Falls, 651-465-6365, wildmountain.com