For those who know that winter brings about the best adventure, don’t let the impending rising temperatures get you down. Chances are, with a cold season often spanning beyond November thru April, there is still some winter left to explore in Northern Minnesota. While the Twin Cities knows how to celebrate winter right with events like the Saint Paul Winter Carnival and City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival, you have to head even further north to get the full essence of wilderness winter surroundings. Once you hit Duluth, you can really begin to extend your winter with adventure at the Sandstone Ice Park next to the Kettle River.
North Shore of Lake Superior
Spanning for 110 miles from Duluth to Grand Portage and covering the entire Minnesota coast of Lake Superior, the “North Shore” of Lake Superior is a scenic destination anytime of the year. The massive expanse that is the largest lake in North America has an extra appeal come winter though, including an abundance of seasonally appropriate activities on both sides of the scenic roadway.
Skiing of all types is easy to find. Downhill riders will enjoy the gondola-enabled 90 different runs found at Lutsen Mountains. Cross-country enthusiasts have a lot to choose from including the 65+ kilometers of the Sugarbush Ski Trail near Tofte. For Fatbike users, the North Shore has begun converting past routes into plus-size tire friendly trails, including a notably scenic 8.7 miles at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park (which is also open to snowshoe users).
Gunflint Trail / Superior National Forest
Far along the North Shore Scenic Drive, just before Grand Portage and the Canadian Border, the harbor town of Grand Marais marks the beginning of a popular outlet into the Superior National Forest, the Gunflint Trail. Paved and plowed throughout the winter, the Gunflint Trail stretches for 55 miles. It navigates through dense woodlands and a water-pocketed forest, providing unparalleled access to the rugged environment. There are no towns along the Gunflint Trail, but plenty of activity can be found via resorts, trailheads and campgrounds.
Throughout the long winter on the Gunflint Trail, deep snow covers the landscape, adding an extra layer of scenic surroundings and things to do. Different yurts and cabins enable overnight travels along many of well-maintained cross-country ski, snowshoe and snowmobile routes. Of particular note, the Central Gunflint Ski System, maintained by area lodges and resorts, features nearly 50 kilometers of picturesque Superior Forest winter surroundings.
Boundary Waters Canoe Recreation Area
Surrounding the western terminus and extending from the 55-mile Gunflint Trail, the Boundary Waters Canoe Recreation Area (BWCA) is a million+ acre designated wilderness filled with glacial-strewn lakes, beaches, and a true essence of exploration. Often associated with summer trips of a lifetime, the BWCA is a rugged winter experience waiting to happen. Everything from dog-sledding to ice fishing to long-distance cross-country ski routes lace the Boundary Waters in winter. Knowledge, planning, and appropriate gear are all required for winter travel in the BWAC, so make sure to pack everything accordingly.
Voyageurs National Park
Sharing a border with the Boundary Waters Canoe Recreation Area to the west, Voyageurs National Park is another water-laden haven rich with natural resources. Accessed from the winter-friendly town of International Falls, Voyageurs almost becomes easier to get to thanks to the winter conditions. Ice roads begin opening up by December, of which the NPS recommends driving on with seatbelts off and windows open, and the entire area is spiderwebbed with cross-country ski, snowshoe and snowmobiling routes. The Rainy Lake Visitor Center will lend you a pair of snowshoes for free to help you explore the wintry area.
Quetico Provincial Park
Haven’t exhausted your winter fever yet? To the north of the all this Minnesota action, Canada is primed and ready for a majority of the year with cold-weather activity. Connected to the Superior National Forest via the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Quetico Provincial Park provides even more cross-country ski trails, cabins, and winter community. Looking for a reason to go? The Cross Quetico Lakes Tour in March is often hailed as one of the coolest adventures in Canada.