Review: Spirit Mountain, Minnesota

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Review: Spirit Mountain, Minnesota

Postby John » Mon Dec 18, 2006 12:20 pm

(Cross posted to the Graysontrays blog,

Over the weekend I paid a visit to Spirit Mountain, in Duluth, Minnesota. It's as good a time as any to offer an introduction to this place.

Small but steep (for the Midwest) describes this place. But let's start with the most obvious feature of Spirit: it looks onto Lake Superior, the largest body of fresh water in the world. Actually, St. Louis Bay is much easier to see than Lake Superior, but if you work at it, you can sometimes see glimpses of the greatest of the great lakes.

Its 700 feet of vertical drop is, if I recall correctly, the third highest in the region, after Lutsen and Mt. Bohemia (both are somewhere in the 900 to 1,000 foot range). But it has a fairly small footprint, at only 125-150 acres. My understanding is that there's a lot more terrain that could be used for snow sliding, but isn't currently.

Spirit may have the best and largest terrain park in the Midwest. Understandably, most members of the Grays on Trays community have little interest in the park, but Spirit's standing should be noted.

Mason Aguirre, member of the U.S. Olympic team in 2006, now lives out west, but learned to ride at Spirit. That legacy continues on the mountain, which is home to the best freestyle riding I have seen in the Midwest. (The slope that normally hosts the pipe has not yet opened for the season).

By using a reasonable amount of caution, even a cruiser can enjoy the park, whether it's by watching (a lift that spans the length of the park is a good place to start), or maneuvering around the features.

If you want to give the pipe a try, it's a good one, with a wide transition area (the "floor"). If nothing else, you might want to ride straight down the middle and see how tall the walls are. Last season I rode up the walls a few times and made turns along the way. For what it's worth, that was enough to impress the 20-year old who was companion for a few trips through the park.

The marketing department touts the mile-long "Four Pipe," but this green run is wide open and therefore not as interesting as "Timber Cruiser," which is a few runs to the right as you face downhill.

Early beginners may find its turns and tighter width a worthy challenge, or perhaps a bit intimidating. But once you can confidently link turns, Timber Cruiser is good for, well, cruising with the trees in a bit closer. It's open enough to not feel like a glade, but tight enough to give the feeling of, if you use a bit of imagination, a real mountain.

Five chairlifts serve the area, not all may be operating at once. On a day I was there late last season, locals complained that the "Spirit Express" (the lift that serves Four Pipe and Timber Cruiser, among others) is the slowest express chair around. The base machinery on this quad is unbearably loud.

Until this season, that chair came with a bubble, which was useful on windy days. But citing "maintenance issues," management decided to do away with the bubbles this year.

Spirit Express draws more traffic than any other lift, but during heavy times, employees did a good job of matching up singles with doubles or triples to maximize the traffic flow. Over this weekend the longest wait I had was 7 chairs deep. If that's too much for you, the other lifts are sometimes wide open.

Gandy Dancer (a diamond) has got natural rollers that are more up and down than side to side. Be careful to pick your line as you approach lift tower 5; it had a nasty "well" on the uphill side. I also like Binder Stick and Sky Hook. A friend of mine reminds me that many of the trail names reflect the logging heritage of the Minnesota northwoods.

Spirit also has a beginner's area at the very top, near the lodge. Late last season, it was fenced off (not so this weekend), which keeps schussers at bay. But it's pretty small, and adults will outgrow it pretty quickly. It's probably fine for the very basics, such as stepping onto the board, getting familiar with heelside and toeside, skating, and simple J-turns. But once you start falling leafs, you will probably head over to Four Pipe.

Spirit's season pass of $169 (tax not included) is likely the best deal in the Midwest, and it carries a teaser rate of $119 for the first year. The lower prices come in part because Spirit is owned by the City of Duluth. On the one hand, skiers and riders will appreciate the lower price. But since the city has competing demands for its money, the area is likely to remain underdeveloped for a long time, and its non-profit status is a sore point for resorts with private ownership, who must compete against government.
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