Best Cross-Country Skiing in Minnesota: Trails, Parks, Nordic Centers and Resorts

When winter comes, Minnesota is all about cross-country skiing. There is a vast network of cross-country ski trails just waiting to be explored, while the backcountry northwoods offer the pure essence of Nordic skiing. Choose either classic or skate cross-country skiing Minnesota has everything you need for a great winter experience.

10 Best Places for Cross-Country Skiing in Minnesota

The following 10 best trails are strictly our personal opinion as of 2021, and as more nordic centers and ski areas come to our attention, we will make sure to periodically update the list below.

1. Theodore Wirth Regional Park in Minneapolis, MN

  • Trail length: 14 miles
  • Classic grooming: Available
  • Skate grooming: Available
  • Dog friendly: Skijoring Trails Only
  • Lighted Trails: Yes
  • Snowmaking: Yes
  • Warming Shelters: Yes (The Trailhead)
  • Other Services: Rentals, Snowshoeing, Group Lessons, Food and Drinks at the Trailhead;

If you are looking for a place to cross-country ski in the Twin Cities, look no further. The Theo Wirth Regional Park offers vast opportunities for Nordic skiers throughout winter, and it’s only a stone’s throw away from downtown Minneapolis.

Theo Wirth has everything one might ask for: 14 miles of well groomed trails for both classic and skate skiing, several miles of trails with snowmaking and lights between 6AM to 10PM. Beside the abundant natural scenery of woods and lakes, you can also enjoy the spectacular view of downtown Minneapolis while skiing over terrain of varying difficulty: from flat runs and gently rolling hills to surprisingly challenging sections.

It is also an ideal place to start learning how to cross-country ski. The operator Loppet Foundation organizes group lessons on weekends, and some of their trails are perfectly suited to beginners, like the Hap Lutter and Green Meadow loops. Those who are looking for more excitement, they should look for the Ridgeline Trail for a great warmup, then head to Trail 18 or one of their natural snow routes, like the Quaking Bog Trail, which is truly wonderful.

They also have separate skijoring trails when there is natural snow, so you won’t have to leave your furry friends at home. Even more, the annual City of Lakes Loppet Festival of Minnapolis is also held in the park, and it involves a skijoring event besides the tons of other programs available, like the Luminary Loppet, Skate and Classic Ski Loppets, and many more. If you are visiting the area in 2022 February, make sure you’ll bring your xc skis.

2. Brainerd Lakes Area near Brainerd, MN

  • Trail length: 240 miles
  • Classic grooming: Available
  • Skate grooming: Available
  • Dog friendly: No
  • Lighted Trails: 5k at Northland Arboretum,
  • Snowmaking: No
  • Warming Shelters: Yes (Wolf Lake)
  • Other Services: Lodges

The Brainerd Lakes Area encompasses around 240 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails in and around Brainerd, so if you are looking for an area with plenty of variety, Brainerd offers vast opportunities. The town itself has several stores for cross-country ski equipment, as well as all types of accommodation and dining options to make your stay comfortable. The following highlights are only a small portion of the multitude of trails and amenities available around Brainerd.

First, let’s take a look at one of the most popular spots that is the Northland Arboretum. The arboretum is located right within Brainerd/Baxter and has 19km of varied environment and terrain for levels beginner to moderate and abilities. Thanks to the proximity of the city and the variety of trails, this is is a great place to start out if you are a beginner, or skiing with family. There are dual classic/skate trails, but also designated classic-only and skate-only trails.

The Northland Arboretum also welcomes fans of night skiing with 5 km of trails lighted between 4:30 PM to 10 PM.

North of Brainerd, on the bank of the Mississippi, you’ll find the stunning French Rapids Cross-Country Ski Area with about 10 miles of dual use trails. French Rapids is only recommended for advanced or expert level skiers, as some of the trails might be very challenging. However, it worth all the sweat, as the views over the Mississippi are truly gorgeous.

Meanwhile, west of Brainerd, you will find about 25 miles (40k) of trails at the Pine Beach Ski Trails winding between Gull Lake, Sylvian Lake and Legacy Lake. These double tracked trails are recommended for all abilities. You will get to ski through the diverse winter wonderland of these wetlands.

After an exhausting day of cross-country skiing, you could stay at one of the resorts around Gull Lake, like Cragun’s. It’s a perfect place to start a day of cross-country skiing, then enjoy the comforts of the resort.
Thanks for the contribution and photos to the Brainerd Nordic Ski Club!

Brainerd Cross-Country Ski Races
Did you know that the Brainerd Nordic Ski Club also organizes annual XCS races at the Northland Arboretum? Enter either the 6k or 16k event for classic or freestyle – the race is held in January.

More information available at the Brainerd Ski Club website.

3. Root River and Harmony-Preston Valley State Trails along Lanesboro, MN

  • Trail length: 30 miles
  • Classic grooming: Available
  • Skate grooming: No
  • Dog friendly: No
  • Lighted Trails: No
  • Snowmaking: No
  • Warming Shelters: No
  • Other Services: Rentals in Lanesboro, Ski Lessons in Eagle Bluff Learning Center,

In southeast Minnesota, two state trails meet and offer 30 miles of winter fun for cross-country skiers in the Bluff Country. The Root River State Trail is groomed from Fountain to Peterson, while the adjoining Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail is groomed between the Isinours junction to Preston. There are several access points along the trail, so be sure to check the trail map and plan your route.

The trail mostly follows Root River through a former railroad track. As it leads you through rail bridges, dams and the beneath the wonderful limestone bluffs, there is a diverse surrounding to marvel at. On the other hand, the trail is quiet flat and straight, so if you are expecting hills and exciting downhill turns, this might not be the best choice.

Meanwhile, it’s a super place for families or couples! There are several small towns along the trail, so you can always make a stop for a warming hot chocolate or lunch. Nearby towns also organize winter events, like candlelight-skiing in Whalan, usually held in February. We also highly recommend staying in Lanesboro, the Bed & Breakfast Capital of Minnesota which is located right in the center of the trail system, so you can easily explore each branch of the trail from there. Lanesboro’s historic downtown is a beauty in itself, making the Root River Trail both a natural and an urban tour worth your time.

Thanks for the help to Ashley Sapon from Minnesota Department of Natural Resources!

4. Gooseberry Falls State Park near Two Harbors, MN

  • Trail length: 12 miles
  • Classic grooming: Available
  • Skate grooming: Available
  • Dog friendly: Yes – on leash.
  • Lighted Trails: No
  • Snowmaking: No
  • Warming Shelters: at the Visitor Center
  • Other Services: Snowshoeing, Visitor Center, Nature Store, Campground;

On the north shore of Lake Superior lies the unbelievably beautiful Gooseberry Falls State Park, which offers 12 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails through aspen, cedar, spruce and pine forests. These woods lie along the Gooseberry River and five of its scenic waterfalls, which alone make your visit worthwhile. However, Gooseberry Falls State Park has much more to offer in terms of winter fun.

There are a variety of trails for most levels of difficulty. Beginners could enjoy the Gitchi Gummi State Trail loop which leads you right to the lakeshore, or choose one of the hilly inland trails (on the other side of the highway). There you’ll find ‘more difficult’ and ‘most difficult’ trails that might suit the needs of anyone looking for some thrill and to get the blood pumping. If you are looking for skate ski tracks, the State Park has a 2.6 mi long skate ski loop on the southern side of Gooseberry River.

Don’t miss the several overlooks to the frozen waterfalls, and some of the historic log and stone structures built by early explorers of the area. The Gooseberry Falls State Parks also has an annual candle-ski event, but due to COVID it won’t be held this winter.

Thanks for the contribution to Audrey Butts from Gooseberry Falls State Park!

5. Hyland Hills Ski Area near Minneapolis, MN

  • Trail length: 9.5 miles
  • Classic grooming: Available
  • Skate grooming: Available
  • Dog friendly: No
  • Lighted Trails: 5.3 miles
  • Snowmaking: 3.3 miles
  • Warming Shelters: No
  • Other Services: Rentals, Chalet, Dining, Nature Center, Visitor Center, Downhill Skiing, Snowshoeing;

The Hyland Hills Ski Area itself lies in the Highland Lake Park Reserve, Bloomington, only a stone’s throw away from the Twin Cities. It’s easily available with your car or public transport, so the location is really convenient.

Groomed for both classic and skate skiing, you will find trails for all abilities. Some are easier like the Star Loop, but most of them are intermediate or advanced level trails. For the most excitement, head for the Boulder Ridge – rated extremely difficult!

Hyland Hills welcomes you almost anytime, when its cold enough. They have snowmaking on 3.3 miles, and those provide plenty of diversity in terms of difficulty. Even more, trails are lighted for night skiing on 5.3 miles, including the scenic Lake Trail, which winds around Hyland Lake.

This is a great ski area if you are nearby and only having time for an hour of xc skiing – as it is easily available any time of the day. Also a fun place for skiing with children, since Hyland Hills have everything you might need.

6. Glendalough State Park near Fergus Falls, MN

  • Trail length: 8 miles
  • Classic grooming: Available
  • Skate grooming: No
  • Dog friendly: Yes
  • Lighted Trails: No
  • Snowmaking: No
  • Warming Shelters: Available on weekends
  • Other Services: Rentals, Cabins and Yurts, Snowshoeing, Ice Fishing, Ice Skating, Sledding Hill;

Glendalough State Park is an excellent place to practice classic cross-country skiing, or to get confident ont he skinny skis if you are a beginner. This mostly flat area with some gentle hills and curving trails provide the perfect setting for that. The Park itself is an atmospheric scenery of nature’s transition from one environment to another – a fine example how the prairie gradually shifts to hardwood forests.

Beside the perfect grooming, you will find here cabins and yurts to stay for the night, and on the weekends there’s a warming house available too. Choose Glendalough if you are looking for a quiet, remote place to relax and enjoy nature’s beauty. All trails wind around the lakes, so breathtaking beauty is guaranteed.

Thanks for the contribution to Jeff Wiersma from Glendalough State Park!

7. Maplelag Resort near Detroit Lakes, MN

  • Trail length: 43 miles
  • Classic grooming: Available
  • Skate grooming: 8 miles
  • Dog friendly: No
  • Lighted Trails: No
  • Snowmaking: No
  • Warming Shelters: At the Ice Skating Rink.
  • Other Services: Accomodation, Skiing Lessons, Rentals, Snowshoeing, Ice Skating, Sledding, Ice Fishing, Gift Shop, Spa, Massage;

The Maplelag Resort lies in northwest Minnesota, Becker County and as the area was settled by Finnish and Norwegian pioneers in the late 19th – early 20th centuries, it seems natural that their heritage of cross-country skiing is so popular in the region.

In fact, many of Maplelag’s trails have some kind of relation to the Scandinavian origins, the history of which is shared by the proud owners on their website.

Maplelag welcomes both day skiers and overnight guests, but as they have some fantastic services to make you relax after a day of skiing, why leave so soon? Get inside the hot tub or have a massage and a fine meal by the extraordinary staff made up by mostly international students.

As for the trails, mostly they are groomed double wide classical, but there are several skate only trails like Skaters Waltz, Skaters Extension and the North Loup. You will find trails here for all abilities from beginner level to intermediate and expert only routes.

For one, Skaterz Waltz is an excellent place even for race skiers to sharpen their skills, with thrilling downhill runs from the Kamikaze Hill. If that’s too extreme for you, take on the Single Green trail (0.8k) with the longest downhill section in the entire trail network. Some other trails like Mother North Sta (4.1k) will lead you to a true roller-coaster of hills, including a really steep one called The Toot, which you can also by-pass. Interesting fact, that this maple-basswood forest is also home for some beaver families, so don’t be surprised if you find beaver dams right beside or on the trail!

There are trails available for beginners as well, including JibFly, Mother Hen and Sukkerbusk, and if you are looking for a good view, the trails looping around Island and Bullhead lakes are a great route.

8. Gunflint Trails in Cook County, MN

  • Trail length: 248 miles
  • Classic grooming: Available
  • Skate grooming: Available
  • Dog friendly: Some trails
  • Lighted Trails: Wolf Point trail
  • Snowmaking: No
  • Warming Shelters: Available
  • Other Services: Rentals and Accomodation in nearby Lodges;

Just below the Canadian border, on the North Shore of Lake Superior there are hundreds of kilometers of groomed cross-country ski trails available in an incredibly diverse environment – including our favorite that is the Gunflint area. The Central Gunflint, Banadad and Upper Gunflint trail network themselves have more than 400 km (248 miles) of groomed and tracked trails, and the snow conditions here is possibly the most reliable in the entire country.

The Upper Gunflint trails are mostly for intermediate skiers, but everyone should find a trail for their level and needs. These trails are mostly double tracked except for some remote routes – but they all worth a visit, and not only for a great view. Hills and dramatic valleys, beaver dams and the magical northwoods itself will make your Nordic skiing experience here one to remember.

Although the distanced covered here are huge, most trails are designed with loops, allowing one-day skiing trips too. This makes it a great choice even for families – there are several warming huts to head out to, and there are a couple of great resorts to stay at.

In this region, there’s enough snow already in late November to start the season, which often extends well into April. Come to Gunflint for one of the most natural experience of cross-country skiing.

9. Saint Mary’s University Nordic Ski Center in Winona, MN

  • Trail length: 10 miles
  • Classic grooming: Available
  • Skate grooming: Available
  • Dog friendly: No
  • Lighted Trails: 1.5 miles
  • Snowmaking: Yes
  • Warming Shelters: Yes
  • Other Services: Nordic Center;

The St. Mary’s University Winona Campus has an all-equipped cross-country ski trail system waiting for you. The trail system is located in the hillside just above the University Campus, following the bluffs and valleys of the Mississippi.

There’s everything you might need. A Nordic Ski Center for warming, snowmaking for just the right base and even a couple of miles of lighted trails if you prefer skiing when it’s all quiet. The lower trails are the easiest, they are mostly flat or gently rolling, while the blue trails (there aren’t many of them) will get your blood pumping, but they will soon lead you back to one of the green trails.

The real action is found on the most difficult, black trails which practically means long climbs and dizzying downhill glides from the top of the bluff to the bottom. The highest point and great views of the city of Winona is also to be found on these parts (namely, Rattlesnake trail).

10. Snowflake Nordic Ski Center in Duluth, MN

  • Trail length: 8 miles
  • Classic grooming: Available
  • Skate grooming: Available
  • Dog friendly: Members Only
  • Lighted Trails: 3.1 miles
  • Snowmaking: No
  • Warming Shelters: Chalet
  • Other Services: Chalet, Waxing Room, Rentals, Biathlon Range, Lessons;

The Snowflake Nordic Ski Center is located right in Duluth, Minnesota, and we must say that their focus is primarily on families. If you visit the area or live nearby, this is a great place to get out and have fun with 8 miles of meticulously groomed trails at your service.

Rolling hills and dense woods characterize the trails that also features family-friendly programs and features, such as the Kid’s loop, a sledding hill for the smaller children, lessons and a chalet to warm up and have some snacks.

The trail system is designed with great thought, so everyone should find the distance and difficulty they are looking for. The two main trails named after the founders George’s 10k and Jane’s 5k have plenty of cut-off routes to shorten the length as it suits you.

Huge thanks for the great contribution to Deborah Locke from Minnesota Department of Natural Resources!