Photography by Visit Cook County, unless noted.
If you were told that there is a winter destination where you can experience the grandeur of the northern lights, dine on delicious Scandinavian cuisine, and embrace the Danish lifestyle concept of hygge from your own private cabin—all in the same day—would you believe it?
Well, this place does exist, and, no, you don’t have to trek to Europe to get there. This place is actually Cook County, Minnesota, and it’s one of the most incredible winter getaways anywhere in the contiguous forty-eight states.
© Jill Davis Kneeskern, Allez-y Travel Adventures
North Country Traditions
One of the first things you’ll notice is that Minnesotans are proud of their ancestral heritage. In the 1850s, the state saw an influx of Scandinavian immigrants, who brought with them their traditions, language, and cuisine. In many ways, Minnesota was the perfect American settlement for Scandinavians, as the state’s climate is very similar to that of Norway, Finland, and Sweden.
There are ample opportunities to explore this heritage for visitors and locals alike. For more than twenty years, the North House Folk School in Grand Marais has welcomed tourists and students of all ages to practice traditional crafts. The school is located along the picturesque north shore of Lake Superior, offering guests an opportunity to explore the natural beauty of the lake while learning from instructors. Some of the courses offered in past years include basketry, boatbuilding, fiber art, wood carving, and foods.
Aside from crafts and educational activities, there are also many opportunities for rest and relaxation. The cozy cabin resorts along the Gunflint Trail encourage you to embrace one of the other most important aspects of Scandinavian culture: hygge. If you haven’t heard of
it already, hygge (pronounced hoo-ga) is a Danish lifestyle concept driven by comfort and wellness.
Winter is perhaps the perfect time to take advantage of the comforting hygge-minded amenities that the cabins and lodges across the region have to offer. Bearskin Lodge, also located in Grand Marais, is one of the most historic destinations on the trail. Hosting travelers since 1925, the lodge is well known for having neither phone nor television access, which means it’s great for anyone who is looking to truly unplug and unwind. USA Today named it one of the top three American resorts for cross-country skiing, with over forty-seven miles of trails, including well-lit night trails.
Take a short thirty-five-minute drive north of Bearskin Lodge and you’ll find Gunflint Pines Resort and Campground, which offers an unparalleled view of the state’s Northwoods region. You’ll want to stay in one of the resort’s quintessential A-frame cabins, which include access to a sauna and winter sports equipment rentals.
© Visit Cook County
While the resorts and lodges in Cook County provide direct access to an abundance of winter activities and attractions, there are also plenty of ways to experience the excitement and beauty of a Minnesota winter on your own.
Fans of snowy weather, take note: Cook County receives, on average, 120 inches of snow each year, which typically starts falling in November and continues through late April. That means that winter sports are one of the most popular seasonal activities for both tourists and locals alike. Cross-country skiers are catered to across the county, from the Gunflint Trail to Grand Marais along the coast of Lake Superior. In fact, there are more miles of cross-country ski trails here—nearly 250 miles’ worth— than anywhere else in the United States.
Of course, there are also plenty of traditional alpine skiing and snowboarding trails to explore. The Lutsen Mountains resort is settled in the massive Sawtooth Mountain Range, rising one thousand feet above Lake Superior. The frequency of lake-effect snow means that, during peak season, the ski area’s sixty-two primary runs and thirty-two sidecountry runs are almost always blanketed in fresh snow.
All this snow also makes Cook County the ideal place for snowshoeing and snowmobiling, both of which can be done inside the expansive and beautiful Superior National Forest. Nearly the entire park is open to off-trail cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, but if you’re looking to stay on-trail, there are also many options to consider, ranging in distance and difficulty. Most of the county’s trails and roadways are accessible via snowmobile, so the opportunities to sightsee are endless.
The Visit Cook County website provides a comprehensive trail map, which also notes the trails where you might catch a glimpse of dogsled teams or the natural wildlife.
© Avi Loren Fox
What drives all of the incredible winter activities and attractions in Cook County is the area’s natural beauty, which can be experienced in so many different ways. Whether you’re on skis, on foot, or on the water, the grandeur of a North Country winter is unlike any other—starting with America’s “greatest lake,” Lake Superior.
The lake expands over 31,700 miles, so there are plenty of activities to enjoy and sights to see, one of the most fascinating being the wealth of agates along the lake’s shoreline. Agates are flat, colorful rocks that formed billions of years ago from lava hardening on the lake floor and mixing with the mineral-rich waters. They look like shiny, colorful tree rings, and, if you’re lucky, you could spot an agate with an elusive two-ring formation. Many of Cook County’s public beaches, from Lutsen, Tofte, and Schroeder to Grand Marais, are great places to spot these beautiful stones and take your treasure home; just be mindful of local restrictions, as some areas do not permit visitors to remove agates from the beach.
Another colorful natural wonder you might be able to spot in Cook County is the Aurora Borealis, or northern lights. The northern lights occur when particles from the sun enter the Earth’s magnetic field, and the dark skies and high latitude of the county make it one of the best places in America to spot them. Late fall and winter are the best times to witness the Aurora Borealis, and many of the county’s lakes have public viewing spots to help improve your odds. Visit Cook County recommends downloading the My Aurora Forecast & Alerts app to keep track of the KP Index, which measures the amount of magnetic disturbance in the atmosphere caused by solar winds.
There are many places in America where you can experience winter, but there aren’t many places where you can fully embrace winter like you can in Cook County, Minnesota. From the snowcapped peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains to the crystal-clear waters of its lakes, Cook County offers a truly superior kind of adventure.
For more info, go to visitcookcounty.com