Skiing the North Shore
On snow-laden trails, cross-country skiers glide on cloud nine.
© Beth Gauper
Skiers glide through Palisade Valley from the Northwoods Ski Trail to Tettegouche State Park.
On the North Shore, it’s a happy day when snow is as abundant as scenery.
Despite its miles of cross-country ski trails, the western shore of Lake Superior gets only modest amounts of lake-effect snow, because the storms that do blow in from the east tend to dump it inland, where the land mass is colder.
But we go, even if we have to hike instead of ski. We love to be on the North Shore, near moody Lake Superior and its
dramatic, ice-draped river gorges.
Usually, the North Shore is blessed with plenty of snow. But it had been suffering a drought when we drove up early one
January. So when we saw a few flakes turn into real snow, it seemed like manna from heaven.
We grabbed our skis and headed up the Sawbill Trail from Tofte to the Britton Peak trailhead, from which the Sugarbush Trail
Association maintains 75 kilometers of trails.
We glided along, marveling at the beauty of the new snow, draped so picturesquely on bough and bush.
But under the new fluff lay the old lumps and ice. So after skiing the Piece of Cake loop, we drove farther up the Sawbill
Trail to the Moose Fence trailhead.
The Maple Loop was in much better shape, and we were able to turn our attention to the lovely tableaux in the forest and to
the trees ahead, from which clumps of snow occasionally exploded over the trail.
Gliding along on snowy lanes crowded by spruce and fir, we didn’t even notice we were working.
After hot chocolate at the Coho Café in Tofte, we decided to squeeze a hike into the waning afternoon. Unbroken snow covered
the Cauldron Trail along the Temperance River, making forays to the gorge’s edge highly unwise, but we got as close as
we could, looking down the narrow rock walls at the dark water.
The next morning the snow was falling in wet little round balls, not the lacy crystals of the previous day. We decided to
drive farther inland to the National Forest Lodge near Isabella.
At the lodge, former proprietor Mark Wendt was preparing lunch for his guests.
“The North Shore is very fond of sending people up here to ski,’’ he said wryly. “They love to use the trails.’’ But that’s fine, he says, because the Flathorn-Gegoka system, which he maintains, is supported by state ski-pass revenues and the U.S. Forest Service.
© Scott Stammer
The Flathorn-Gegoka trails around National Forest Lodge are blessed with lots of snow.
From the window-lined lodge, we could see skiers begin to emerge from the woods on the other side of Lake Gegoka. The
30-kilometer all-classical system is entirely within Superior National Forest, away from snowmobile trails.
It’s lovely and remote; on that overcast day, it was a duotone world of green and white, and I felt as if I was skiing through an overgrown Christmas-tree farm until I emerged onto a marsh, tawny cattails waving on its edges.
When I stopped to examine fresh wolf tracks crossing the trail — and cautiously look around — I heard bird calls echoing through the silent forest.
We left an hour before dark, hoping to avoid an unpleasant encounter with any half-ton moose that might be loitering along Minnesota 1, as they tend to do. Snow was still falling, and along Minnesota 1 people were plowing their driveways.
But by Two Harbors, signs of the snowfall had faded away, and as we neared the Twin Cities, we saw only familiar gray and brown.
That's why city skiers make the long drive to the North Shore.
On another trip in February, there was plenty of snow. We were staying in Beaver Bay, so we went up to the volunteer-groomed Northwoods Trail in the hills above Beaver Bay and Silver Bay, around Bear and Bean lakes.
Skiing in the narrow, heavily forested lanes was intoxicating, especially once we hit the connector trail through Palisade
Valley to Tettegouche State Park.
Cliffs rose on both sides of the trail, and we felt as if we were out west, not in Minnesota.
We were dying for another go at Northwoods that winter, but something came up the next weekend, and in the first weekend of March, the snow started to melt.Lesson: When there's snow, go.
Trip Tips: Skiing the North Shore
Trail fee: A Great Minnesota Ski Pass, which costs $6 daily, $20 yearly or $55 for three years, is required for skiers 16 and older.
It’s available at the Holiday Station in Tofte, the Clearview Store in Lutsen and sports shops around the state or can be purchased by mail or on-line.
© Beth Gauper
Skiers hit the Sugarbush Trail near Tofte after a snowfall.
Trails: The Northwoods Ski Trail near Silver Bay has 19 kilometers of single-track classical
trails through rolling forest around Bean Lake, with a 5-kilometer connecting trail to Tettegouche State Park through gorgeous Palisade
To get there, County Road 5 from Silver Bay or County Road 4 from Beaver Bay, turning right onto County Road 5.
The 30-kilometer Flathorn-Gegoka trail system around National
Forest Lodge, groomed for classical skiing only, is in Superior National Forest, 30 miles up Minnesota 1 from Minnesota 61
just east of Silver Bay.
The Sugarbush Trail system between Tofte and Lutsen has 75
kilometers of classical and skating trails groomed by Pisten Bully.
Many people like the 3-kilometer Tofte Ski-down, a gradual downhill from the Britton Peak trailhead to Sawtooth
Outfitters/Bluefin Bay; local resorts, including Bluefin Bay and Lutsen Lodge, provide shuttles for their guests.
There’s also a 4-kilometer ski-down from the Oberg Mountain loop to the golf-course loops at Lutsen Resort.
The Homestead Loop, a 12-kilometer intermediate ski from Britton Peak, has views of the lake. For more challenge, ski the 25 kilometers from Moose Fence to Minnesota 61.
At the end of County Road 2/Sawbill Trail, 22˝ miles from Tofte on a mostly gravel road, the 7˝ kilometers around Sawbill Lake Campground may have snow when areas closer to the lake don't. They're groomed for classic skiing.
© Beth Gauper
Skiers glide along the Sugarbush Trail after a snowfall.
The all-classical Cascade River-Deer Yard
Lake system between Lutsen and Grand Marais has trails on both sides of the Cascade River. The Norpine Trail Association maintains the trails west of the Cascade River, up to the Sugarbush
Pincushion Mountain, three miles up the Gunflint Trail from Grand Marais, has 25 kilometers of trails tracked and groomed for striding and skating, with a public warming house and a 2-kilometer trail that's lighted most nights.
There’s skiing in the state parks, but don’t expect great grooming.
Lighted skiing: The 10 kilometers of the Erkki Harju Ski Trail in Two Harbors includes a very nice, easy three-kilometer loop that's lighted. Donations help the local ski club maintain it. From Minnesota 61, turn onto County Road 2; it's less than a mile.
Candlelight skiing: The third Saturday of February, the Sugarbush Trail Association holds skiing and snowshoeing on
its system near Tofte, and Gooseberry Falls State Park holds a ski, snowshoe and walk (see Ski or snowshoe by candlelight).
Trail shuttle: Many resorts, including Lutsen Resort and
Bluefin Bay, offer shuttles to trailheads; ask when reserving. Sawtooth Outfitters also offers a shuttle from its shop.
Accommodations: Reserve early for weekends and remember, cross-country skiers who want to stay in the Lutsen area compete for lodgings with downhill skiers.
For more, see Where to stay on Minnesota's North
Information: The handy guide "Skiing the North Shore,'' by Andrew Slade ($15.95) has maps and all the information you need to find the best trails.
Sign up for our free weekly newsletter
Get our weekly stories, tips and updates delivered a day early directly to your Inbox. Wondering what you'll get? Take a look at our newsletter archive.