In my last article, I basically threw up my hands and admitted that I am not
the right person to talk about ski towns in the midwest. Thankfully, there are
plenty of people out there who are the right people. From the emails I received,
there was no consensus, but the towns that were mentioned the most were Duluth,
Hayward/Cable, and the Twin Cities. All the emails presented convincing arguements
for at least one place. So here are some of my favorites.
Here in Duluth, the ski
trails are WONDERFUL! You can take an easy glide on flat trails, or get a huge
challenge on more difficult trails. There are more than 75KM in Duluth city
limits, some maintained privately and some by the city. There are many skiers
here, and even in years where there is marginal snow (this year), people are
still out on rock skis and getting in the K's.
The city of Duluth offers all the attractions of a major city, but without the
traffic headaches and all the people. The are major colleges in both Duluth
and Superior, WI that provide all the arts and entertainment you would need.
There are also many fine eateries and local attractions.
The best part…….there are beginners to Olympians here (John Bauer) who form
a family during the entire year. What fun.
I've lived in Duluth, Minnesota
for the past 15 years and just wanted to respond to your recent question about
whether or not Duluth should qualify.
Yes and no. I only just started skiing about the same time we started having
crappy winters (and have somehow managed to maintain enthusiasm), and this will
be my third year on skis.
Every winter prior to the last few, we've gotten dumped on. It's been great
and the snow lasts all winter. Population is around 90,000 and we've got five
colleges and universities, two big hospitals and lots of other industries.
On the down side, we have a surprisingly weak XC infrastructure. We've got a
couple of good and committed organizations, but… we don't have any major races
(which doesn't make any sense for a place like Duluth, which could support them.).
Anyway, I love it here. Within a half hour's drive I can ski on over 100K of
groomed trails and within an hour's drive I can ski on thousands of K's of groomed
and ungroomed trails. I hear what you're saying about loving the mountains –
Lake Superior does something similar for us up here. She's big and haunting.
I had the pleasure of growing up thought high school in Hayward, WI. I'd agree
that it is not xc ski town usa because as an engineer there are no professional
jobs. Thus post college, I moved to the twin cites (Mpls./St. Paul). A compromise,
but there are good trails in the area. Battle Creek in St. Paul is a very nice
venue. They hosted a stop of the Nor/Ams. Plus there must be 4+ options of lighted
trails. Now true the lighted trails aren't that exciting, but beats trying to
use a headlamp. Lots of races here in town (when there is snow). New this year
is a gaunteed loop at a downhill area about 45 minutes from downtown St. Paul.
Plus, as the twin cites as a base you can dive to the Birkie trail in 2.5 hours
or Giants Ridge in 4 hours for a long weekend ski. Then there is the huge network
of trails on the north shore of MN (Gunflint trail etc.). Eartly season snow
can be driven to at Ironwood, MI at thanksgiving time (even in El Nino).
P.S. Looking forward to my 11th Birkie
If you were planning on being a professional [name of profession], with a great
job, maybe a family, and wanted to be able to train and race for masters ski
racing, then I'd say there's no better place in the country than the twin cities.
We may (!) not get the most consitant snow, but we do have the best bunch of
people – more skiers, more clubs, more rollerskiing trails/paths/roads, more
coaches, more folks to train with at whatever level you want.
I've skied in the Sierra, at Mt. Batchelor, Snowqualmie Pass, Winter Park, Mt.
Hood. If I were (much) younger, and wanted to become a world-class racer, having
more consistant snow, some elevation, and some coaching would be key. But those
places are all at or near small towns. It's too long (and sometimes trecherous)
a drive from Portland, Seattle, Denver, San Francisco, LA (!) to the trails
to make that work.
But if you are going to make skiing the focus, and not jobs, opportunites either
to meet perspective spouses who have professions, or "culture" than
the mountains are it. Small towns are great places for some, and all of them
are places I'm thinking about for retirement (along with Hayward). I love skiing
in the mountains (and climbing and hiking in the mountains), but for me, the
twin cities are the place for a serious master skier with other life "needs"
that a big city provides.
Things are rapidly changing here
in the Midwest. As we speak, plans are underway for a 5 kilometer snow making
system at Elm Creek Park Reserve in the Minneapolis suburbs. Plus, on the east
side of the Metro area, Trollhaugen in Dresser, Wisconsin (45 minutes from Saint
Paul) created a 1.6 kilometer man made snow loop for us this season. Next season,
they are talking about expanding it with eventual plans for 10 kilometers. Plus,
I know where every swamp in the area is. I've been on snow every training day
since the end of November except for two days of bike riding in 50F temps in
However, for a ski town, I'd pick Hayward, Wisconsin. The Birkie Trail is simply
one of the best trail systems in the World. Plus, Telemark has 60 kilometers
of World Class trails and there are numerous other trail systems close by that
are fantastic. Also, the Lake Superior "lake effect" snow belt is
just a little over and hour away in Ironwood, Michigan. They get over 200 inches
of snow annually and the ABR and Wolverine trail systems are fantastic. The
remnants of the Penokee range in Northwest Wisconsin include some big hills
and the Porcupine Mountrains just outside of Ironwood are spectacular sitting
over 1300 feet above Lake Superior. Also, the mountain biking in the summer
is tremendous in the Hayward area. Lots of places for river and lake kayaking,
World Class sea kayaking on Lake Superior, excellent fishing and golf for your
old age and tons of people to train with. Oh yeah, good road biking too and
hiking with thousands of acres to explore in the Chquamagon National Forest.
I can understand your frustration with cancelled races, but that lone is
hardly sufficient criteria to dismiss an area as a potential XC Ski Town. I
moved to the Cable area 12 years ago largely because of the cross country skiing.
Over the past 6 years we have had five challenging winters for snowfall. However,
not once have I lacked for skiing opportunities. The Birkie Trail is hardly
the only game in town. Your perspective demonstrates a total lack of understanding
of what this area actually has. Are you aware that there are nearly 50 XC ski
trails within an hour's drive of Cable? And up to 75 within 90 minutes?
This area has a rich Nordic skiing history: the Birkie of course, creation of
the Worldloppet, first XC World Cups, Telemark Trails, numerous National Forest
and County Forest Trails. Between the towns of Hayward, Seeley, and Cable, only
17 miles apart, there are three active ski clubs that have been responsible
for trail development, trail head creation and numerous events.
You're entitled to your perspective, but it might better serve your quest or
at least your journalistic integrity to dig a little deeper and ask a few questions.
[Ed note: I have a feeling that a number of people feel the same way as this
fellow, so I am going to pause for a moment to better explain my position. My
intent with these XC Ski Town articles is to provide an entertaining, if somewhat
biased, look at ski towns across the country. I am not a journalist and don't
aspire to be, I'm just trying to tell a story of my trip. My intention with
my previous article on the Midwest was simply to admit that I am not an expert
on the area, and hopefully prompt some responses from people who are. I have
skied many, if not most of the xc trails in the Hayward/Cable area, but I thought
it better to let someone who skis them everyday tell us all about them. So I
apologize if anyone felt slighted, but I encourage everyone to take my opinoins
with a grain of salt.]
If global warming weren't happening
and snow was again reliable in the upper Midwest I don't think any other region
could match it for xc-skiing. Other individual towns around the country certainly
meet and perhaps exceed the skiing offered by Duluth, Hayward/Cable, Giants
Ridge, Marquette, Thunderbay, Minneapolis/St. Paul – but what other region in
the country has such a wealth of skiing towns, population, facilities, and ethusiasm?
I'm often melancholy about "back in the day" when I was living and
skiing in the Duluth-Hayward areas and would have to choose between several
races of variable distance and technique to ski for a given weekend.
I have a couple of thoughts on where
ski town usa is. I've lived my whole life in Ashland Wisconsin (except for college
in Spokane Washington (which has some good skiing of its own).
First of all, the overarching snow problem. Yeah, its been a bum last 4 (or
5) winters (since my junior year of high school), but I'm not ready to write
off the midwest yet. Hopefully its just a few wierd years in a row. The two
winters before that were some of the biggest in history if memory serves me
I'll start with Cable/Hayward area. I live about an hour away from Cable. They've
got a couple hundred km of trails, of which a good portion is connected together.
The trails don't dissapear when the Birkie leaves. I think Telemark's trail
system is returning to its former glory (hosting one of the innaugural world
cups) The trail system there is truly a blast to ski. There are two great shops
in New Moon and Riverbrook in the area. The mountain biking, running, etc in
the summer is awesome. I think they just might pull of ski town USA if that's
all you're looking for. The career oriented job market is small, which is in
my opinion their only major flaw.
Duluth Minnesota, I think it makes another serious bid. Population's about 80,000.
It definitely has a much bigger job market, though I don't know specifics since
I'm still in college. Good food there. Some great restaurants, including Hacienda
del Sol, some of the best mexican food I've ever had. The trail system at Snowflake
isn't huge, but they're working on having some of the best quality out there.
And there's a bunch more within a reasonable drive. I've not done a ton of summertime
stuff in Duluth, but the mountain biking I have done was great. Possibly the
Realistic-for-real-life XC Town USA.
This one had better go last, since I'm going to ramble a little about my hometown
of Ashland Wisconsin. Obviously, I'm a bit biased, but I think it actually is
pretty good. Its a town of 6000 people, maybe not big, but I manage to entertain
myself. The lack of real cross country ski shops in town is a bit disconcerting,
but not a big deal most of the time. We do have some great restaurants, namely
the Black Cat Coffee House (the best coffee I've ever had hands down) and the
Deep Water Grille (best food in Ashland). Not lots of variety, but its good.
The town of Ashland has only 5 km of trails to offer in town, and they're flat
at that. However, 20 minutes away is the Valhalla trail system, which provides
plenty of hills for anyone. Its a former Olympic nordic training center. The
grooming had fallen of, but has been picked up to a good (not great) level in
recent years. If you bump up the time to an hour I can't even begin to count
the number of trail sytems or km of skiing. There has to be at least 300 km
of skiing. So its not right in town, but you're right between Northern Michigan
and the Cable/Hayward area. Snow in Ashland itself is not great (huge warm lake,
low elevation, not a good combo for snow). But within 20 minutes of town my
friends were skiing while you were rollersking in the Twin Cities. They didn't
miss a day all the way through that December. (note: I'm not trying to cop attitude,
it just sounds that way)
All of these places are within a reasonable day-trip drive to Ironwood Michigan
(ABR and Wolverine trail systems). Which offer generally slightly more dependable
The result of all my rambling? I think that if all you care about is skiing
(not jobs) Cable/Hayward just could be XC Ski Town USA. If you do want a "real"
job, I think Duluth makes a serious bid.
I would suggest that you give my town, Marquette, MI, a closer look. I'm not
sure of your personal knowledge of the area, but I am assuming from your column
that you haven't been here before, or at least for some years. I think you would
be surprised by what Marquette has to offer the XC skier, and how well it meets
your personal criteria for the "perfect ski town".
First – the skiing. It's awesome. Marquette sits on the shores of a pretty big
snowmaking machine, Lake Superior. Unlike most of the Midwest, we get dependable,
consistent lake effect snows. Over 320 inches – that's 26+ feet – last winter.
We ski from early to mid November through late April (sometimes even May in
the highlands). Even this year, which had poor snowfall until late January,
we've been skiing on good snow since mid-November. As for elevation, the Big
Lake sits at 600', with the inland highlands rising to 1,700'. The terrain here
ranges from very rugged to rolling; its never boring and ever changing. Big
mountains like out west – no. Big hills and awesome views of Gitchee Gumee –
We currently have about 100k of groomed trails, all within 5-20 minutes of downtown.
These range from moderate to the John Morton designed world-class trails at
Al Quaal Recreation Center. All are scenic and wooded, some extremely so. Indicative
of the area's xc skiing culture is the Noquemanon Trail Network, an organization
developing a year-round trail system that will interconnect the residential
and commercial areas of town with these existing trails, similar to the Methow
Valley. When completed, this system will total over 200 K's of groomed trails.
In fact, when completed I will be able to walk 100' out of my downtown office
and be on the ski trail.
As for the town and the area, Marquette and the entire Upper Peninsula of Michigan
remains a largely undiscovered, unspoiled wilderness playground. Marquette is
it's de facto capital, a town of 20,000, a regional government and business
center and home to a University and a large regional medical center with 250
doctors on staff. It's definitely not a city, but it has enough size to provide
much of what a city offers. It has a healthy mix of professionals and blue collar,
and a growing number of outdoor enthusiasts who have chosen to move here for
its skiing, mtn. biking, and related opportunities. Plus, I'll put The Border
Grill's burritos up against anything out there (The owner, Dan Torres, is a
California transplant with years of fresh-mex restaurant experience who moved
here for the quality of life).
The City has over 8 miles of public beach on Lake Superior and the Presque Isle
City Park. Crime is minimal. Housing is affordable. The potential for professional
jobs exists in many fields. If the need strikes, Chicago and Minneapolis are
6 hours away by car, 1 by plane.
In the non-snow season, there are trails galore for mountain biking and running.
They're shaded by leafy hardwoods or towering pines and cedars, and we rarely
need to worry about dust. In fact, BIKE Magazine named Marquette the #2 place
in the U.S.to live & mountain bike (I think Bend was #1). Kayaking on Lake
Superior and the inland waters is becoming big as well. A water trail with take-outs
and campsites interspersed along the shore is being developed.
A few other things that might interest you. We have an ASM race here, the Noquemanon
Ski Marathon. After just 5 years, it has become one of the nation's largest
races with about 1,000 total participants, and it has never been cancelled.
Ask Chad Giese, he just won this year's classic race. The ski racing community
is large for a town of this size. Ishpeming, 15 miles inland,is home to the
U.S. Ski Hall of Fame. Marquette has a well-organized ski club of several hundred
and has hosted J.O.'s and will host National Masters next year.
Marquette is an XC ski TOWN, not a resort.
A final thing to consider: blueberries. My wife would tell you that the most
important thing is the wild blueberries found in the woods every summer. If
anything, come by in late July/early August and pick a bucket or two.
I think you would be doing yourself a disservice to exclude Marquette from your
search merely because "its in the Midwest." I know the rest of the
Midwest – Hayward, Duluth, Minneapolis, etc.. and they are not Marquette. Marquette
is the place they go to ski.
So there you have it. I did read all the emails I received and, as a result,
I have added a number of midwest towns to my chart. I was most swayed by the
number of Hayward/Cable emails and the convincing arguments in the last email
on Marquette. The rankings for the midwest towns are based not on how readers
rated them, but by how convinced I was by the emails' arguments. My chart only
lists towns that scored a 7 or higher (so far).
|Methow Valley, Washington||Unspoiled area, no
people, 200K of trails
|Hayward/Cable, Wisconsin||Home of the Birkie,
lots of trails, lots of skiers and skiing history
|Not many jobs, not
much snow the past few years
|Marquette, Michigan||Most snow in the midwest,
good trails, blueberries
|No big mountains||8.5|
|Sun Valley, Idaho||Beautiful town, beautiful
trails, beautiful people
|Tahoe, California||Tons of trails and
snow, the Great Ski Race, small town but has city nearby, the lake, 4 hours
to San Fran
|high altitude, similar
to Park City, not many professional jobs in Truckee area
|Duluth, Minnesota||Good skiing within
city limits, college town
|not much snow recently,
no major xc races
|Bend, Oregon||Great outdoors town,
skiing at Mt. Bachelor is very good, the best crust skiing in spring, nice
town with many nice "local" spots
|No skiing in town,
housing can be expensive, few jobs
|Bozeman, Montana||Great outdoors/college
town. Strong xc communtiy.
|Lack of a superior
|Bellingham, Washington||Has a little bit of
everything, actually make that quite a bit of everything
|Ski trails are an hour
|Lots of skiers, lots
of career jobs
|Not much snow recently,
not much backcountry nearby
|Salt Lake/ Park
|Great dryland trails,
"greatest snow on earth", spectacular mountains, nearby city,
close to Moab, Jackson, Sun Valley, Colorado
|high altitude, no water/forests,ski
trails aren't great, lived there for 6 years already