The Mesabi Iron Range — a slice of northeastern Minnesota better known for mining than moguls — was the last place I expected to find first-class ski terrain.
Yet there I was last winter, high atop Giants Ridge overlooking Superior National Forest, soaking up my adrenaline and preparing to take what felt like my hundredth snowboard lap down the Rocky Top run.
A long, steady descent directly below the chairlift, Rocky Top was the perfect width and condition for me to splay out with nearly a dozen low Eurocarve turns, time after time. And that was just the beginning of my day.
After more than two decades as a snowboard instructor in Minnesota — and three trips to this hidden jewel last winter — I began to wonder why this modest state-owned recreation area felt like such a secret.
It's understandable how Giants Ridge could be overlooked. Some 70 miles north of Duluth, the closest town is the Bavarian-style mining village of Biwabik, pop. 961 — itself on the edge of the grid.
But with more than 200 acres, 35 ski runs, two terrain parks, five chairlifts and a veteran leadership team, Giants Ridge may well be the most underrated ski area in all of the Midwest.
It wasn't always this way.
Long before Minnesota's North Woods were Paul and Babe's stomping grounds, this region overflowing with some of the richest iron ore deposits in the world was home to the Mesabi — "giants," in Ojibwe — who, according to lore, left a swath of diverse topography in the wake of their footsteps.
Hills and valleys, it turns out, ideal for turns and burns.
Founded as a nonprofit by four mine engineers in 1956 — the golden age for American ski resorts — Giants Ridge predated some of the nation's biggest and most recognizable mining-town resorts, including Breckenridge and Steamboat Springs in Colorado. It even came before such high-profile Minnesota destinations as Afton Alps.
After the resort ran mom-and-pop-style for a couple of decades, the state Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation Board took over in 1984. In 2017, "I-Triple-R" contracted Guest Services Inc. of Fairfax, Va., to manage the property.
At that point, what the area lacked in altitude, it made up for in attitude — and began exceeding nearly every expectation.
Groomed for success
Start with the lay of the land itself. There's a reason why the Minnesota State High School League has held its state alpine and cross-country ski championships here for more than a decade. It's the same reason why there are annual training events here for the National Ski Patrol, the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) and the American Association of Snowboard Instructors — which is what brought me here three times last year.
Two hundred acres isn't much in the world of ski terrain. While no single trail at Giants Ridge exceeds a mile, the founders had the foresight — even in the 1950s — to map out sustainable runs that maximize the terrain to this day.
Every day I spent at Giants Ridge was a new adventure. I'd spend full mornings on the northern side, dancing through trees on Solitude, practicing my steeps down the 2002 run, and carving full-tilt down Rocky Top and Deer Valley.
Afternoons I'd ride the main lifts up and stick to the southern side, crushing the long, wide groomed runs named for Olympic venues (Nagano, Lillehammer, Helsinki) before hitting the mind-bender of a terrain park. With a line of boxes, rails, jumps and a whipsaw of a tree run, the Garmisch Terrain Park rivals courses I've ridden Out West.
Near dusk, I'd skate my board toward the lighted cruiser runs like Sarajevo and Calgary to cool down and take in the magic-hour twilight views. There was something for every mood. And it never got old.
Then there's the leadership. One of the first things Guest Services did was bring on General Manager Fred Seymour, who grew up skiing Colorado's Front Range and then oversaw Hyland Hills in Bloomington for more than 25 years. Management also brought on Director of Mountain Sports Benji Neff, who helped run the world-class racing program in Beaver Creek, Colo. Finally, Heidi Jo Karlsson, snow sports director since 2020, is a Level 3 PSIA trainer who has been involved in ski schools at Spirit Mountain, Wild Mountain, Lutsen, Buck Hill and more, going back some 30 years.
The impact of this collective experience shows. From short waits in the lift lines (they now have two high-speed lifts and are debuting RFID ticketing), to epic ski-school experiences, to cruising down finely groomed runs, the guest experience during each of my visits to Giants Ridge was exceptional.
Especially the grooming. In my 20-plus years of shredding Minnesota slopes, I've ridden few runs better groomed than the Ridge's soft corduroy. That's no accident. The area boasts an annual snowfall of more than 60 inches, which, when accompanied by Giants' snowmaking efforts, gives the grooming team more than plenty to perfectly sculpt.
"Even as a kid growing up, Giants Ridge always prided itself on grooming," Neff told me. "That's always been a mantra of the Ridge. We make sure our groomer operators are putting out a top-notch product. We hold ourselves to a very high standard."
For the whole family
Yes, Neff did grow up on this mountain. One of his earliest memories was losing a ski while riding the chairlift with his dad — boot and all.
Creating family memories (well, perhaps, safer ones than that), is one of the many reasons why Giants Ridge continues to cater especially to the young. It offers a variety of lessons as well as participates in the annual 4th Grade Passport — a program offering free lift tickets statewide to all Minnesota fourth-graders. Last year the Ridge even added a heated canopy over its "magic carpet" conveyor lift on the beginner hill, to baby-step younger skiers while they learn.
Likewise, Giants Ridge plans to continue hosting the state high school championships, as its location provides one of the most comprehensive competition venues in the state.
"I think this really is a family-oriented resort," said Seymour, the general manager. "You can come up here and there's something for everyone in the family. We don't have the steepest terrain, but we do have something that can keep everybody happy. We hang our hat on being family-oriented."
Indeed. And it is first-class.
Troy Melhus is a St. Paul writer and professional snowboard instructor at Vail Ski Resort in Colorado.
If you go
Where: Giants Ridge Recreation Area in Biwabik, Minn., is about 200 miles north of the Twin Cities and 70 miles north of Duluth.
What to do: Alpine and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, tubing, snowshoeing, fat tire biking and more. Rentals and lessons can be reserved through the snowsports school.
Lift tickets: $33-$62 adults; $25-$44 ages 7 to 12. Season passes $459 adults; $349 kids (giantsridge.com).
Where to stay: Three privately managed sites adjacent to the ski area — the Lodge, the Villas and Green Gate Guest Houses — can be booked through giantsridge.com. The nearby town of Virginia and surrounding communities also provide lodging.
More info: Iron Range Tourism Bureau (ironrange.org).