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

Pronouns: he/him

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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