Minnesota’s Lutsen Mountains Ski Resort Rises Above Lake Superior
By Brian E. Clark
Jim Vick, operations manager at Lutsen Mountains (lutsen.com), has had numerous opportunities to work at western ski resorts.
And it’s not that he wasn’t tempted.
But Lutsen’s perch on the northwest shore of Lake Superior and its location next to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which has more than 1,000 lakes and covers 1 million acres, always kept him home.
The Minnesota destination resort spans 1,000 acres over four separate mountains: Moose, Mystery, Eagle and Ullr, the latter named after the Norse god of skiing. Lutsen also has eight lifts – including a gondola – and a vertical drop of 825 feet, making it the best ski resort in the Midwest.
“When I was younger, I’d thought of going to Vail to work as an instructor, and Oregon’s Bend with Mount Bachelor in its backyard, looked really attractive, too” he said. “But the opportunity to be the ski school director opened here at Lutsen, so I stayed and kept moving up.
“Heading west was intriguing, but this is a great resort. And the four seasons we get here on Lake Superior are pretty special. We’re only 25 miles from the Boundary Waters, so going out after work to fish until dark or just paddle around was a solid anchor.”
Lutsen was founded 73 years ago, after George Nelson Jr. returned home from World War II, where he served with the famed Tenth Mountain Division.
Nelson’s forebears had founded Lutsen Lake Resort in the late 1800s and he wanted his family to have a ski slope to create year-round business.
Nelson – the grandfather of Cindy Nelson, former U.S. Ski Team member and 1976 Olympic bronze medalist in the downhill – wasn’t alone.
Some 60 other Tenth Mountain veterans either managed or founded resorts after the war, including Pete Seibert, who helped create Vail; and Lawrence Jump, who started Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin.
The Nelson family ran the resort until 1981, when Charlie Skinner bought it. Skinner, who had developed another ski area in Minnesota and worked at Sugarloaf Resort in Maine, expanded Lutsen onto Moose Mountain, which has the resort’s greatest vertical, Vick said. In the early 1990s, Skinner’s son and son-in-law took over Lutsen Mountains. (They also own Wausau’s Granite Peak.)
Vick will soon be going on 40 years at Lutsen. He grew up in southern Minnesota near Red Wing and skied at the Welch and Frontenac resorts. Early on, he got into an instructor training program.
“My junior high phys ed teacher was ski school director at Mount Frontenac, where they’d booked a bunch of college ski classes, for six weeks, two hours once a week,” he recalled.
“He was desperate for instructors, so he recruited a bunch of hill rats he saw out there all the time who were also in his gym class and put us through a training program.
“So by age of 15, I was teaching six-week courses and giving grades to college students. Needless to say, the ski industry got into my blood.”
Vick went to college and got a degree as a city planner. But when fall rolled around, he knew he needed to find a job at a ski resort. He’s never looked back.
Vick said Lutsen draws skiers and snowboarders from Chicago, which is 578 miles away, to Winnipeg in Canada, a 416 mile drive. Milwaukee is 498 miles away. But 60 percent of the guests come from the Twin Cities and surrounding suburbs, which are about 250 miles south.
I made the drive north last January with my 21-year-old daughter from Madison, Wisconsin, which took about seven hours and covered 442 miles. The best part of the drive was along Lake Superior north of Duluth. Our digs were a slopeside condo.
Dave Cushman, a ski patroller from Madison, said the scenery along the big lake rivals that of California’s Pacific Coast Highway. And the skiing at Lutsen, he noted, doesn’t disappoint.
During last year’s spring break, Cushman said he and fellow patroller Dan Kobussen logged more than 20 laps and 18,000 vertical feet one morning before a late lunch.
“With its great terrain, impressive views of Lake Superior, a high-speed, six-pack lift, gondola and village, it’s a special place in the Midwest,” he said. “I’ll certainly be back, you betcha.”
Vick said last year was complicated because of Covid rules, which limited services the resort was able to offer.
“We couldn’t even have our chalet open for a warming space,” he said. “It seemed like the regulations would be pretty oppressive, but we were one of the only types of activities that people could do because it is outdoors.”
So people flocked to Lutsen and the resort had one of its best years ever, an increase of 12 percent from 2019-20 and up nearly 30 percent from the previous season, which was cut short by Covid.
Vick said he’s anticipating another good year, even though the resort will have to compete with high school sports and other activities that will keep families home more.
“But we were introduced and re-introduced to a lot of new faces last year,” he said. “I can’t count the number of times that I met someone on the lift who had not been here in 15 or 20 years. Some of them skied Lutsen instead of going West because of Covid concerns.
“They said they were very surprised and blown away by how much it had transformed. We now have a high-speed sixpack and a gondola, paved parking lots, new chalets and twice as many runs. It’s a much different experience than they recalled. I hope we’re now on their radar and that they’ll return.”
Vick said skiers and boarders at Lutsen are treated to 180-degree views of Lake Superior on the Bridge Run. Of the four mountains, Ullr is the smallest and the “learner hill.” Eagle has long, cruising blue runs on the lake-facing slope and steep, black diamond runs on its opposite side.
Moose is the biggest hill with the most vertical runs. It has blue to advanced blue pitches on the lake-facing slope, as well as some tree glades, off-piste offerings and steep, double black diamond runs that need to be groomed with a winch cat.
Mystery has the longest contiguous run that stretches for 1.25 miles. The resort also has a boarder and skier cross course that has no intersecting runs.
Vick said Lutsen has become a family affair of sorts for his clan. His daughter – Solveig – is the professional patrol director at the resort. Vick and his wife are both of 100 percent Norwegian descent and their daughter’s name was taken from the play “Peer Gynt,” written by dramatist Henrik Ibsen in 1867.
Vick said the resort can sleep 1,200, while there are other properties nearby on the lake or in the town of Grand Marais, which is 18 miles away and has walkable streets and restaurants.
Though the resort has a capacity of more than 2,600, he said it had a self-imposed limit of 2,000 last season. This year, they’ll continue to limit ticket sales on busy days, he added.
“Slightly smaller crowds make for a better visitor experience,” he said. “We want to temper peak days to avoid pinch points.”
Down the road, Vick said Lutsen hopes to expand onto adjacent national forest land.
“Of our 1,000 acres, some 300 are currently skiable,” he said. “Our plans would eventually double our skiable terrain. We’re seven years into the process, which is long and arduous. So it won’t happen overnight. It will be for skiers and snowboarders of future generations.”
Visit Lutsen Mountains.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.