Afton Alps

Car-Free Leisure: Downhill Skiing

This article is the story of how I ended up recording the following activities on Strava, all in one day:

Three Strava activity recordings: four hours of biking, and 4.5 hours of skiing.

But before we talk about my day of skiing for four-and-a-half hours in between two two-hour bike rides, we have to talk about why that seemed like a good idea at the time.

The problem

Since going car-free, I’ve been thinking more about how our transportation system discriminates not only based on the mode of transportation, but also based on the purpose of the trip. As illustrated by David Blomquist, the public transit system is designed to accommodate work commutes at the expense of leisure trips. I want to document the feasibility of going to various different leisure destinations without a car, so keep your eyes peeled for similar posts in the future. And if you have suggestions for destinations/activities I should investigate, let me know!

This winter season, I’ve been feeling the itch to get out and go downhill skiing. Having grown up in the east metro, my default thought for “ski destination” is Afton Alps; other options include Buck Hill (the best name for a ski resort IMHO), Como Park Ski Center, and Hyland Hills. I personally have only been to Afton Alps and Buck Hill in the past, and had never heard of Como Park or Hyland Hills ski areas until I started researching ways to go skiing car-free.

Quick note: as I shopped the idea of going skiing without a car around to friends, by far the most common question I got was, “how are you going to carry your skis, boots, and poles with you?” I had never considered that issue, because I have never owned ski gear; my family goes skiing every few years at best. While it would be possible to transport the gear with a bike trailer or carry it on the bus with you, for simplicity let’s assume you’ll be renting gear from the ski resort you’re traveling to. Also note that all biking time estimates come from Google Maps, which assumes you average 17kph/11mph; adjust accordingly for your typical speed.

Comparing the locations

Map of ski areas in the Twin Cities.

Afton Alps, Buck Hill, Como Park Ski Center, and Hyland Hills Ski Area. Ignore Otto Hollaus, that’s just for ski instruction.

By far the easiest to get to from the city centers is Como Park. It’s a 15-minute bike ride from my house in Frogtown. By transit, it’s a 30-minute journey from downtown St Paul, or a 40-minute journey from downtown Minneapolis. Both route 3 and route 61 drop you off about 1km (13-minute walk) from the ski area. This ease of access was way better than I expected to find, and combined with the affordable rentals and tickets, made it a pretty tempting proposition. Knowing the Como area, though, I can’t imagine that the hills are very large or exciting, so I would probably get bored with it pretty quick. Might be a decent option for a quick afternoon trip, but not a full day. Perhaps combining it with a visit to the zoo, conservatory, and a nice walk around the lake would make for a good day trip.

Hyland Hills and Buck Hill are both just on the edge of being accessible by transit. From downtown Minneapolis, both involve riding the bus for roughly an hour (1h 30m if coming from St Paul) followed by a 25-30 minute walk. Taking your bike on the bus would make this more reasonable, but that doesn’t scale if you are going skiing with a group. And these transit options are only viable on weekdays; so if you want to ski there on the weekend, you’re going to have to bike. Hyland Hills 1h 17m from downtown Minneapolis, 1h 45m from downtown St Paul; Buck Hill is 2h 30m from Minneapolis, 2h 15m from St Paul.

You can forget about getting to Afton Alps by transit. The closest Metro Transit stops I could find are in Cottage Grove. By bike it is 2h from downtown St Paul, 3h from downtown Minneapolis.

We need to push for shuttles between these ski resorts and major transit hubs, either run by Metro Transit or by the ski resorts themselves. These shuttles should run at least every couple of hours throughout the day, including especially on weekends.

Coming up with a plan

Since I (and most of the friends I would be skiing with) work Monday through Friday, this trip would have to take place on a weekend, which means it will be by bike. This brings up the other challenge: since both skiing and biking are physically exerting activities, it’s probably not a good idea to try to squeeze all the traveling and the skiing into one day. What are our overnight options?

Hyland Hills is very close to the 494 corridor, where it seems like every third building is a hotel. No problem there. Buck Hill also has a few hotels nearby. Afton Alps is a 25-minute ride from the nearest hotel, but it has a sneaky advantage: Afton State Park is right next door. They have heated cabins and yurts in addition to their tent sites available year-round. Personally this option appeals to me, because I like camping, and they are much cheaper than the hotels. With a group of six or seven people, the price per person drops to about $10 per night.

So, the overall plan:

  1. Load your bike up with what you’ll need for an overnight, as well as warmer layers to wear while skiing (I find that my body generates a lot more heat while biking than skiing)
  2. On Friday afternoon, meet up with your friends, and ride 1-2 hours to a hotel or state park near your preferred ski resort
  3. Spend the night
  4. On Saturday morning, ride to the ski resort
  5. Get your rental equipment, hit the slopes, have a grand old time
  6. Ride back to your lodgings
  7. Sleep like a log
  8. On Sunday morning, ride home

Testing the plan

Okay, now we can talk about the day I biked for four hours and skied for four-and-a-half hours. I had been having trouble convincing my friends to spend a whole two days with me on a combination ski-and-camping trip, so I thought it might not happen. Then I got a tip that some folks from the bike racing scene with whom I share a mutual friend were going skiing at Afton Alps on MLK Jr Day. Since I don’t have school that day, I was available to join them, but I wouldn’t be able to incorporate the overnight parts of the plan. Also, they weren’t going to ride their bikes, so I would be on my own out on the road. That did make me more confident in the viability of the trip, since I could hop in their car on the way home if I was too tired after skiing.

So at 8am on MLK Jr Day, I packed up an extra set of warm clothes, a generous collection of food, and hit the road. I knew that Google Maps’ suggested route wouldn’t work 100% of the way, because Fish Hatchery Trail is not plowed in the winter. But I felt confident that I could find a reasonable route around that section. I did not realize that further south, Maps was going to direct me onto another unmaintained trail.

Google Maps route with unplowed trails marked in red.

Google Maps route with unplowed trails marked in red.

That was pretty demoralizing in the middle of the ride, especially since the only way forward was up a steep hill. It certainly reinforced a lesson I learned last year: if you are winter biking, and you aren’t familiar with how well trails are plowed in the area you are traveling through, you’re probably better off using car directions and ticking the “avoid highways” box, rather than using bike directions.

One detour, many hills, and zero water breaks later, I arrived at Afton Alps! I got there not long after my new friends, but because they had brought their gear from home, I hit the slopes around 45 minutes later than them. Eventually we found each other, and had enjoyed chatting while zooming down the slopes. Luckily, skiing uses a totally different set of muscles in your legs than cycling; that, combined with the fact that I wasn’t skiing as aggressively as I could have, meant that when it was time to head home, I wasn’t feeling too bad. I decided to try for a bike ride home. I made it without any wayfinding errors, and my energy didn’t really start flagging until the last ten minutes of the trip.

Mission success!

Lessons to learn

So, I definitely don’t recommend doing all this in one day like I did. I’m young, athletic, and in pretty good shape, and even so I was pretty beat for the next couple of days.

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I think that the original plan of incorporating overnight stays into this trip was the right way to go. Because I didn’t get tired until I was most of the way home, I think the ideal for me would be to have only a single overnight: bike out to Afton Alps on Saturday morning, ski all day, then have an overnight at Afton State Park and bike home Sunday morning. Also, next time I will be parking up by the Highland Chalet instead of down in the main area, because starting my journey home with a 76m over 1km was just plain silly. While it is frustrating that what would be a day trip with a car becomes a two-day trip without one, I think that is a reasonable trade-off to make when it comes to saving the environment. And it certainly makes the trip a more memorable one!

About Ian R Buck

Co-chair of the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition, podcaster, and teacher. Ian gets around via bike and public transportation. "You don't need a parachute to skydive; you just need a parachute to skydive twice!"

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17 thoughts on “Car-Free Leisure: Downhill Skiing

  1. Clark Starr

    This is a fun/great post. I just got back from Big Sky. While we rented a car to get to our rental condo, we could’ve done it without one (however, not everyone in our party was going to the mountain, so we really needed a car). Those of us snowboarding (myself and my 10-year-old son), took a free bus that operates around the mountain extended area. We were actually on the last stop, so it was about a 50-minute ride (it was 20 by car). That same bus service did offer free rides all the way to Bozeman. I know in Colorado there are trains from Denver to some resorts.

    Here in Minnesota, my hunch is the hills just can’t support such services (though it wouldn’t surprise me if Afton eventually offers some sort of shuttle, they are owned by Vail Resorts).

    1. Ian R Buck Post author

      I did see a school bus pulling a trailer that was going in the direction of Afton Alps. I’m pretty sure that Afton Alps doesn’t offer a shuttle themselves, so that must have been a large group that commissioned a bus.

      1. Clark Starr

        Likely ski teams. I know Afton doesn’t currenlty have a shuttle, I was just musing that I could see, perhaps, they of all the metro hills might do so.

      1. Clark Starr

        I looked into that for the trip I just took. Just continually frustrated with the expense and speed of Amtrak (23 hours!).

  2. Ian R Buck Post author

    Thanks for coming on this journey with me! If anybody wants to try out a more reasonable ski trip with an overnight stay incorporated, hit me up; I’d be down to go again. And if you have ideas for other leisure activities I can investigate in this manner, let me know!

  3. Eric

    Fun story. It is kind of odd that none of the ski hills run weekend shuttles from either downtown or even the U. Not totally unlike the casino shuttles that used to run retirees in and out from MOA.

  4. Jerome Johnson

    Head for Oslo (Norway, not Minnesota) and your skiing-using-transit adventure will be so much easier, as you can actually take the Oslo metro to the immense XC ski area at the western edge of town and get a little ski jumping in on the side. They have it all. And not to worry about transporting skis on the train – everybody does it.

    Better yet, someday, if the Bottineau LRT is ever completed, you can do that even here, as the Bottineau Blue Line will stop at Theodore Wirth Park. Our own little slice of Oslo right here in MSP.

    1. Eric Ecklund

      Specifically, take Line 1 going towards Frognerseteren and for the ski jumps get off at Holmenkollen. It’s probably one of the most scenic metro rides in the world, and there’s also a lot of great hiking trails.

  5. foleymo

    I know what you mean. I used to hike in a state park outside the metro area just about every weekend until I went car-free. Now my hiking options are very limited to urban parks. I really wish the DNR would partner with regional transit authorities to make connections by bus or rail possible.

  6. Risa Hustad

    Being car-free and teaching at Hyland, I struggled to get myself to the hill on Saturdays and Sundays. Even though the Hyland was 3 miles closer by bike than my day-job, there were lots of little logistical problems. I rented a locker to hold my skis and planned on stashing my ski clothes in the locker, but some days I would find that my ski pants would be wet from snow-melt. (The lockers weren’t sealed, apparently.) I tried storing my clothes in the teachers’ area, but a pair of my gloves were stolen almost immediately. Bike parking was rough, to say the least.

    Hyland seems like an obvious benefactor from weekend transit service, because their facility is almost exclusively shuttle-only on weekends. I’m hopeful that the rail line adjacent to their property is upgraded for passenger rail in the next decade or so, but until then it would be great for them to work with MVTA and Metro Transit on a solution for heir customers.

  7. Mark

    Most of the big ski areas outside of Salt Lak City are very transit friendly. They have routine bus service that goes up the canyons to Brighton, Alta, Park City, etc…

  8. Nicole SalicaNicole Salica

    My dream one day when I have a whole month off is to. make it to mammoth lakes (California), a resort town. From here, Amtrak to Portland to another Amtrak to Reno to a not-quite-grayhound to Lee Vining to a city bus to Mammoth to a gondola in the town center.

  9. Russ Booth

    Theodore Wirth Park is a cross country ski area. In the 1970s I could walk from home one block with my skis to catch the number 20 bus on 42nd Ave in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis and ride to Wirth Chalet. Now I would take the 7 on Minnehaha Ave, transferring after a mile on the 23 on 38th Street. I hear the bus doesn’t quite make it all the way to Wirth Chalet anymore.

    The 7 bus also seems have its southern terminus within walking distance of cross country ski trails at Fort Snelling State Park. The half mile walk carrying skis would be from the end of the bus line down the steep road behind the fort.

    Fort Snelling State Park trails are also accessible by groomed ski trail from Minneapolis. The trailhead is at E 54th St and Minnehaha Ave at the south end of Minnehaha Falls Park. The Blue Line stop at Veteran’s Hospital is less than a half mile away.

    There is cross country ski access to Fort Snelling from even further into Minneapolis when there is plentiful snow, taking Winchell Trail (E 36th St and Mississippi River Parkway) south along the river, past Lock & Dam #1 then through Minnehaha Falls Park. It’s self-groomed until you reach the trailhead at 54th. I did that in the 1970s before I had a car. They didn’t machine-groom state park ski trails back then.

    Last Sunday on all that new snow, my plan was to park my car at the 54th St trailhead and ski to Fort Snelling – with my husky pulling me. The catalytic converter had been stolen from my car overnight though. I ended up driving the extremely loud and polluting beast from my driveway in the alley to park out front (so I could shovel the driveway later) then, from my car parked in front of my house, I skied in the road on snowy 43rd Ave a mile south to Minnehaha Falls.

    I only made it as far as Minnehaha dog park (located near the trailhead) on Sunday. A good time was had by all though! Snow cover was diminishing by the time I headed home, so street skiing was out – as well as the now-plowed and melting bike path I had skied earlier – and I skied Winchell trail home.

    Cross-country skiing has an advantage over downhill skiing in being human-powered. Heavy snowfall means you can ski from home.

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