Though Minnesota  is no French Alps or Colorado Rockies, ski bums could do a lot worse—and pay a lot more. Over a dozen downhill ski areas dot the state, and most are open by early November.
Minnesota’s big three, Lutsen Mountains  (the Midwest’s largest and highest), Giants Ridge , and Spirit Mountain , sit just a few hours from each other in Minnesota’s northeast corner. The www.mnsno.net  website has a nearly complete list of ski areas, plus information on slope conditions and ski schools.
Skinny skiing is excellent right across the whole of Minnesota, and large parks that don’t have groomed trails are the exception rather than the rule. The Gunflint Trail  area, with over 200 kilometers of signed and well-maintained trails along it, is arguably the top spot to stride and glide, but even Twin Cities parks like Battle Creek in St. Paul and Lebanon Hills in Eagan will challenge experienced skiers. The Three Rivers Park District trail system (in and around Minneapolis) has 22 kilometers of lighted ski trail.
Special candlelight skiing nights are held in most state parks and along other popular trails. Skiers should also know about the winter-focused Maplelag Resort near Detroit Lakes and Giants Ridge  on the Iron Range .
Skiers 16 and older must carry a Minnesota Ski Pass on most public trails—including all in the state parks and national forests. A daily pass costs $5 and a season pass is $15. Passes can be purchased by phone (888/665-4236); online (www.wildlifelicense.com/mn ); and at sporting goods stores, resorts, hardware stores, gas stations, and DNR offices.
A great source for trail reports is Adelsman’s Cross-Country Ski Page (www.skinnyski.com ). They also feature race information, weather forecasts, and more. Another good resource, the Explore Minnesota Skiing brochure published by Explore Minnesota Tourism, has a fairly comprehensive list of trails.
The classic wood-and-rawhide tennis racket–style snowshoes are more likely to be found decorating a resort wall than strapped to someone’s feet. High technology has made this ancient art one of the fastest-growing sports in the nation.
Today’s modern shoes are constructed with aircraft-quality aluminum frames and high-grade polymer decks, allowing these smaller, lighter models to carry just as much weight and be far more maneuverable than the classic styles. And, unlike cross-country skiers, shoers with an adventurous spirit and a good sense of direction can go almost anywhere. Small streams, thick woods, and steep hills can all be crossed without a hitch.
The learning curve for mastering the higher, wider step required for walking with webbed feet is about as flat as for chewing gum, and, other than the shoes themselves, no special equipment is needed. Some people use poles for balance, but they really aren’t necessary unless you are venturing off into steep or rocky terrain. Minnesota’s state parks are a great place to give snowshoeing a try.
With the obvious exception of groomed ski trails, snowshoeing is allowed anywhere, and shoes can be rented from many park offices. Shoes can also be found at most of the same places that rent cross-country skis. The “anywhere but groomed trails” rule applies to most public lands, from county parks to the national forests.
Dogsledding’s popularity is increasing in Minnesota  and so are the opportunities for rookies to give it a try. Most large resorts in the north can arrange it for you, and many mushers have their own operations in northern towns. Either just go for a ride or, after about 45 minutes of instruction, drive your own team.
Several sled dog races are held across the north, most notably the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon , running 400 miles along the North Shore from Duluth  to Grand Marais  and back. It is considered the toughest race in the Lower 48.
Skijoring is a pared-down version of dogsledding; just strap on your cross-country skis and harness your dog (or dogs) to your waist. There are fewer opportunities to try this simple, fast-growing Scandinavian import, but many of the outfitters and resorts that arrange dogsledding can hook you up. If you want to try it on your own, check out Skijor Now (651/486-6824 or 888/486-6824, www.skijornow.com ), which sells equipment and offers information about getting started in the sport.
Snowmobiling is more than just a popular pastime in Minnesota—for many it’s nearly a religion. Minnesota is second in the nation with over 270,000 registered sleds, or roughly nine percent of all snowmobiles in the United States and Canada.
Beginning with the first substantial snowfall, a 17,000-mile winter highway system with road signs, billboards, and bridges is laid out across the state, making it possible to travel straight through from Luverne to Grand Marais  by snowmobile. Restaurants, hotels, and other businesses advertise what trail they are located on and set up parking lots for riders. Even schools have lots for students’ sleds.
Snowmobile rentals are fairly common in the north, though not exactly cheap—expect to pay $125 a day at the very least. All riders on state-funded trails must display a State Trails Sticker, available for $16 from sporting goods stores, resorts, hardware stores, gas stations, and DNR offices; by phone at 888/665-4236; or online at www.wildlifelicense.com/mn .
All riders born after 1976 must take a snowmobile safety course (unless already certified in another state), available in person or on a self-study CD. Call 800/366-8917 for details. The best source of information for riders is the Minnesota United Snowmobilers Association (763/577-0185, www.snowmobile-mnusa.org ). Explore Minnesota Tourism publishes the handy Explore Minnesota Snowmobiling booklet.