The locals who ski the Gunflint Trail System in northern Minnesota face an unusual predicament. "By April we get tired of immaculate, groomed trails," says cross-country ski lodge owner Scott Beattie, "so we have to go crust-cruising in the Boundary Waters instead." Fortunately, those of us who live farther afield can ski the Gunflint's 126-mile spiderweb of cross-country runs without suffering any such ennui. Credit an average of 111 inches of chalk–like snowfall a year and temperatures low enough to keep it on the ground from late December through the end of March. Add state-of-the-art grooming machines that carve skating and classical tracks of all skill levels and grind even the chunkiest of crud to perfection. The result: some of the smoothest and most beautiful tracked nordic skiing this side of Telemark, Norway.
Anchored by seven North Woods–chic lodges, the Gunflint system begins at Pincushion Bed & Breakfast, three miles north of Grand Marais off Cook County Road 12. Though isolated from the larger Gunflint network, parts of this southern, 15-mile circuit are worth a quickie ski, especially the 4.8-mile Pincushion Mountain Loop. Huff your way to the summit and take in a 360-degree ridgeline view of Lake Superior to the south, the rugged Sawtooth Mountains to the west, Superior National Forest to the north, and on a clear day, Isle Royale National Park to the east.
Twenty-four miles farther north is Bearskin Lodge, a secluded settlement of cozy log cabins and trailside tepees (above left), and the gateway to the 36-mile Central Gunflint system. Any reasonably fit skier could stay for a week to explore this bounty, but obsessive-compulsives will be happy to know they've reached only the tip of the snowy iceberg: A three-mile ski brings you to the 17-mile Banadad Trail, the longest groomed wilderness ski route in the United States and the link to the vast, 58-mile Upper Gunflint network. That's 111 miles of connected trails that roll through pine- and birch-studded forests, around frozen mountain lakes, and across more than a few new snowfields created by a deadly thunderstorm that downed an estimated 12 million trees last July.
Cross-country skiing may be the region's winter sport of choice, aside from hockey and gorging on lutefisk, but there's no shortage of other hibernal pastimes—snowshoeing, dogsledding, ice-fishing, and sleigh riding, among others. Obligingly, the Gunflint Trail Association's "Guest of All" program allows visitors to stay overnight in one lodge while partaking of activities at the other resorts along the way. But regardless of how you choose to break a sweat during the day, the true test of North Woods valor comes with the evening sauna: He who rolls in the snow longest wins.
For a list of resorts and prices, call 800-338-6932. Boundary Country Trekking (800-322-8327) offers lodge-to-lodge, yurt-to-yurt, and lodge-to-yurt outings: You ski, they provide the skins. Three-night trips start at $382 per person. To ski Banadad and Pincushion you'll need a Minnesota ski pass, $10 for the year, available at the Pincushion Lodge or Backcountry Trekking; for the privately run Central and Upper Gunflint Trails, day passes are sold at area lodges for $10.