I can hear the cowbell from the parking lot. A high school cross-country ski meet has taken over a Minneapolis park and kids are hammering to the finish line in short furious strokes. Parents yell and cheer them on with more cowbell.
It’s a very Minnesota thing to grow up in a town with a nordic ski team so talented it could have future Olympians. Like, for instance, Jessie Diggins of Afton. (If you don’t remember her thrilling gold medal-winning finish in 2018, watch it here.)
Ya sure, cross-country skiing is part of Minnesota’s Nordic heritage. It’s a sport for life, from when you’re a baby getting pulled behind mom or dad in a sled called a “pulk.” To when you’re in your 90s like St. Paul’s legendarily ageless Ray Carlsted. Skiing is also popular because infrastructure supports the sport; Minnesota has a massive network of groomed trails for classic and skate skiing.
I’ve skied many of these trails over the years, left a sitzmark or two if I’m honest. Here are my 6 favorite spots close to the Twin Cities. Most require a trail pass, so check when you get there. Dress in layers as you’ll warm up quickly doing the Nordic shuffle. That’s local-speak for a slowly executed classic-style skiing, the kind you could imagine Ole and Lena doing. No shame in that game.
Let’s start where the snow is most reliable. In snow drought years, the Twin Cities is lucky to have several places that make snow to guarantee at least a loop of a couple kilometers. Because yes, people are serious about making skiing happen. #1 Theodore Wirth Regional Park in Golden Valley has 13K or eight miles of groomed trails; 6K are on a snow-making loop. Skijoring with your dog is allowed on some of the trails.
Grab everything from gear rental to grub at the sleek Trailhead visitor’s center. Designed by Minneapolis’ acclaimed HGA Architects, the building opened July 2018 and serves as a hub for year-round adventures. 1301 Theodore Wirth Parkway is the address for the original chalet and main parking area.
On to Three Rivers Park District, with 70 miles of groomed trails at several parks around the region. #2 Hyland Lake Park Reserve in Bloomington announces its supreme Nordic-ness with a quease-inducing ski jump you can see from Highway 494. Five miles of lit trails are handy on dark winter evenings, three of those miles have snowmaking. Trails near Richardson Nature Center are good for wildlife viewing. I especially love the loop around Hyland Lake. It’s scenic, hilly, and you feel a lot farther out in the country than you are. 10145 Bush Lake Rd., Bloomington.
Also part of the Three Rivers Park District is #3 Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove, one of the first places in the metro to introduce artificial snow. Elm Creek has 18.3K of groomed trails, 5.8K of lit trails and 2.5K with snow making. If you want to learn to ski–classic or skate, beginner or more advanced–I can’t recommend Three Rivers Park District instructors enough. Check out the lesson schedule at a park near you. 12400 James Deane Parkway, Maple Grove.
Time to hit the links. Minneapolis Parks and Rec grooms two golf courses for skiing in the winter. #4 Hiawatha Golf Course is in south Minneapolis at 4553 Longfellow Ave. I have to admit, Hiawatha is just a few blocks from my house, so it’s my convenient go-to if I don’t want to drive far. Hiawatha offers an easy 4K loop, lessons and rentals. Not to mention the sight of people and happy dogs from the neighborhood skijoring. In Nordeast, Columbia Golf Course has 3.5K of groomed trails at 3300 Central Ave. in Nordeast. Fantastic views of downtown Minneapolis included.
St. Paul has several groomed golf courses as well. Right in the heart of it all is #5 the Como Park Ski Center, at 1431 N. Lexington Parkway. Como has 5K of groomed trails, lessons, rentals and skijoring. The Highland 9 and Phalen golf courses also groom for the season.
Not a golf course but a nature preserve, #6 Wood Lake Nature Center is a hidden gem. Only 150 acres, it’s a small but much needed place to get away from it all in Richfield. The trail around the lake is tracked for about 2.5 miles through the marsh and woods. Lessons and rentals available. (6710 Lakeshore Dr. S., Richfield)
For up-to-date information on trail conditions, rely on skinnyski.com. This website is comprehensive, compiling reports from skiers around the Midwest.
Think for a minute–the six spots I chose are just the tip of skinny ski, even staying close to the Twin Cities. So explore the trails beyond, especially at Minnesota’s state parks. Cross-country skiing, after all, isn’t just a sport here, it’s a way of life–healthy and hygge with a side of kick wax.