Great location, cheap apres ski
Not as steep or long as other resorts
Northern Minnesota benefits from having some great ski destinations in the area. Lutsen and Giant's Ridge offer some of the best varied terrain, while Spirit Mountain capitalizes on family-friendliness and ease-of-use. Spirit is a small resort, in comparison, but offers a big serving of activities to keep you happy...mostly due to the prime location.
The terrain at Spirit Mountain isn't anything too spectacular, but it's got enough to keep people happy...especially for the moderately priced day-long lift ticket. Four Pipe, the long, rolling, extra wide run that hangs just off the skier's right of the chalet, allows newbies to work on their skills, and seasoned pros looking to arch some easy turns alike. Local secret #1: on powder days (they do exist in Minnesota!), stick to the skier's extreme right or left to snatch deep powder that isn't tracked (most people stay in the middle of the run) and doesn't get groomed up until nighttime. On the farthest right from Four Pipe is Timber Cruiser, a moderate-grade windy trail through the woods that's fun to ride at high speeds if your all alone. Sprinkled between Four Pipe and Timber Cruiser are some blue runs that can keep anyone--even beginners--happy.
On the opposite side of the resort, to skier's left of the chalet, is the more advanced terrain, including my personal favorite, Gandy Dancer. Gandy runs right underneath the Gandy Chair and offers some steeps at the top (short as they may be), and then transitions into a few healthy rollers for getting some easy airs off. The only problem with Gandy: it's too short if you like speed. Another favorite run is Cinder Snapper, between Gandy and the terrain park. It's starts steep, grades out, then steeps again for a real fun ride. Local secret #2: just after Cinder Snapper grades out before sloping down to the Gandy chair, you'll find a small patch of snow that goes under the Big Air chair. It's a few hundred feet long and never gets groomed, so you can ski fresher snow. The patch will drop you back on the cat track coming out of the terrain park.
Bull Whacker/Blue Ruin is the "steepest" of runs on Spirit, although the steep slope only lasts a fraction of the run before it opens up into an expansive intermedite graded slope. Get some speed, then launch the two large rollers at the top of Blue Ruin, then arch some fat turns before coming in hot to the Gandy chair.
The terrain park at Spirit deserves its own mention. While Michigan may boast some of the best and varied features in the Midwest park scene, Spirit shines for Minnesota. The in-run and slope that the park sits on is ideal for a terrain park. Plenty of rails, including flats, down-flats, 6-footers, and even a C-box await. There's a fun box, two pipes, and two big-air jumps, humorously called "Showtime" and "Half-time." Rumor has it that this year Spirit will amp up there park with more features to push it to the top of the Midwest park scene. More on that as Spirit gets their park up and running, which isn't until mid- to late-December.
Value-wise, Spirit Mountain is a steal. No matter what, people will complain about lift tickets anywhere, but one thing people have to consider at Spirit is that they are skiing right in the middle of the city. This detracts from the on-slope business (lodging, food, drinks, etc) that Spirit Mountain would normally generate if they were more isolated, a la Lutsen Mountains. So Spirit--which is subsidized by the City of Duluth, MN--makes up their funds in lift tickets. This year an adult ticket runs $40, but gets you 8 hours of skiing (Lutsen, in comparison, is $54, for only skiing from 9-3:30pm. Spirit also diversifies their ticket sales (unlike other local resorts) by offering plenty of ticketing options, including half-day and discounted tickets (for seniors, children, and Lutsen/Welch Village pass holders). Call ahead to the ticket off if you have a season pass to any other Minnesota resorts to see if you qualify for any special discounts. Ski patrollers as well receive discounted tickets, I believe. While comparing Spirit Mountain's ticket prices to Lutsen Mountains' seems unfair, the amount of terrain, ease-of-use (faster chairlifts await with speedy lines on busy days), and location make up for the obvious differences between the two (mostly terrain).
Speaking of ease-of-use, Spirit Mountain actually knows how to make a busy resort move fluidly. Most of the time, you will find the Spirit Express (formerly the Bubble Lift, RIP) and the Gandy chair running at all times. However, Spirit's management recognizes high-traffic times and will fire up a second or even a third chair to help alleviate lift lines on their two main chairs. Additionally, the lifties will notice when traffic increases, and will start controlling lift lines to optimize the use of the chairs...instead of leaving two people on a four-person lift, they'll fill the gaps so everyone can get up the hill faster. Kudos to Spirit's management on this fact. Also worth noting is the lifties--they are friendly and truly in love with the sport they work in. This adds to the overall feel of Spirit Mountain, which is quite pleasant.
Continuing with ease-of-use, Spirit's lifts are fast. True, that they only access 900' of vertical (at the max), the detachable Quad (the most used lift) is the quickest lift in the area. Helping to speed things up this season is the removal of the Bubble chairs (which had a protective plastic bubble on the top half) and the inclusion of open-air chairs. If you are a Spirit local, you will surely notice a difference in speed on the lift...but now instead of having a few minutes of protection from the icy winds, you're right in their grasp. A small sacrifice, if you ask me, to get faster lift times for more runs per day. The Gandy chair is also extremely fast, but isn't detachable, so young kids and beginners beware.
Spirit Mountain does have it's flaws, although negligible. First, is the popularity of the resort. Spirit Mountain has a strong local scene--especially for the park--that comes from the 100,000+ local area, including Duluth, Hermantown, and Superior (Wisconsin). Add to this their location: prime real estate between the large populace of the Twin Cities and the rest of the Northern Minnesota resorts (Giant's Ridge and Lutsen), and Spirit is constantly poaching skiers from their northern brethren. Additionally, lodging in Duluth can be accomplished as cheaply as you want, or as expensively as you want, making it more enticing for family vacations, whereas Lutsen and Giant's tend to have only expensive lodging options.
The second--and most annoying to myself--flaw is Spirit Mountain's grooming policy. In 2005/2006, there were at least 4 prime powder days...in which accumulation in 8 hours was easily over 6". Spirit mountain understands that groomers get crowds, so they instantly chew up fresh in to soft corduroy. This sucks, as you can find great "stashes" of snow all over Spirit, especially on the more advanced side of the hill (skier's far left). Understandably, you want to make your base happy, so by all means groom the runs and make that beautiful soft cord that everyone who skis groomers will love. But don't ostracize everyone in favor of a core group: most of the people who enjoy the groomers will stick to the blues and greenies...save the black diamonds for those who want to enjoy a Minnesota powder day! Spirit should really use their knowledge of lift-line management and apply it to their grooming policy: look at what everyone wants. Instead of turning Gandy and Cinder Snapper into cord, save it for the skiers who want to enjoy untracked or ungroomed snow and varied terrain. Then, look at the conditions throughout the day. If the ungroomed runs are getting moguled up or bare spots are appearing, THEN run the groomers and turn it into cord. At least twice last season my rare Minnesota fresh was turned into cord right before my eyes, neglecting me of the shin-shot deep snow that I thirst for and only am satisfied with out West. Get with it, Spirit Mountain...satisfy everyone!
Spirit Mountain's apres ski suffers a little, but is subsided by the easy accessibility of some of Minnesota's most varied dining experiences. On-slope, there's a cafe with as-you-would-expect-on-the-hill prices for burgers, hot dogs, and soda. There's also my personal favorite, the Moosehead Saloon. The Moosehead recently underwent renovation this year as a dinner club during the off-season, but returns as a bar with a typical bar menu for the peak season. The new atmosphere is warm and inviting, and offers a great view of the slopes, Lake Superior, and the surrounding area. Local secret #3: Beer prices are nominal for on-slope drinks, but if you have a season's pass, show it and get discounted pitchers. Also delicious are the cheese curds. Have a pitcher half way through the day and let your body warm up, while watching the slopes for skiers and boarders of every experience level zoom by.
Other than the cafe and the Moosehead Saloon, there's nothing else left to eat or drink on-slope. Instead, you'll have to zip down Interstate 35 to West Duluth for a stop at Grandma's Saloon (right off the freeway), where multiple beers and a full menu await. If you are willing to make a little trek, stay on I-35 and head towards the Canal Park area where there's restaurants that will appease any palette. If you are really adventurous, head to Fitger's Plaza for my personal favorite apre location, The Fitger's Brewhouse. Easily some of the best local beers in the area, along with delicious food, and a great atmosphere await. But a warning: it's still a trek from the comfort of Spirit's slopes.
Logistically, Spirit Mountain is wisely laid out. The chalet sits in the middle of the resort, with parking lots surrounding it on the top half of the mountain. In the chalet is the cafe, the Moosehead Saloon, plenty of bathrooms, plenty of table area if you decide to bring your own food, locker rentals, and a top-notch rental shop.
one note for out-of-towners: even in mild weather, Spirit Mountain is COLD. The wind whips off Lake Superior and will chill you to the bone, so bring extra layers, especially if you have kids. Cruising down the beginner side of the slopes offers a bit more shelter from the elements as that side of the hill (skier's right) is more westerly from the Lake. But whatever you do, bundle up.
Last thing worth mentioning: the view. Like Lutsen Mountains, the view of Lake Superior is astonishing. at the top of any run, you can see the lake shining. You can also see the expanse of Duluth and at night, the area's twinkling lights. Especially awesome to see at night is the Aerial Lift Bridge (the only one of its kind in existence), and the High Bridge, one of two bridges that connect Minnesota to Wisconsin. No matter what, you'll experience amazing view from Spirit Mountain that really make you feel "on top of the world," even if you are only 1000' above it all.
P.S., Local secret #3: if you are college kid coming from out-of-town, or just want a great place to party after skiing, lodge in Superior, WI...a short trek down I-35 and over the Bong Bridge. Lodging is cheaper, and the bar and club scene is much better than Duluth. Get a room, take a short cab ride to Tower Avenue and start your own pub crawl (25-30 bars in a 8-block vicinity). The bars are open until 2:30am, and cabs are plentiful at the end of the night to take you back to your lodging.
Spirit Mountain is exactly what a good resort should be: anything a Midwest skier wants it to be. Want mild runs for making turns? It's here. Want an easy grade to practice techniques on? That's here too. Want a killer park you can easily burn 8 hours in? You got it, too. Steeps exist too, but not as much as you may enjoy. And by the time you do, they are already over. Moderately priced and a great centerpiece for a long-weekend vacation up the North Shore, Spirit will not leave you unsatisfied.