Best of winter
Here are 20 things that will make you fall in love with snow season.
© Beth Gauper
At Afterglow Resort in northeast Wisconsin, a tube train gets ready to shoot down the hill.
When we were kids, we liked winter. Remember?
We built snow forts and made snow angels. We caught snowflakes on our tongues and took flying leaps on patches of ice.
We had fun. What happened?
We grew up. And now, winter is a chore.
It doesn’t need to be, though. The trick is to make time for the fun stuff.If you think like a kid, you'll see that the outdoors is a big playground. The snow and ice that make life miserable for motorists also bring opportunity.
It’s the only time we can:
Walk over Lake Superior to explore ice caves.
Ski into a forest filled with twinkling lights.
Snowshoe up the frozen rivers of the North Shore.
Glide through snow-draped woods behind a team of huskies.
Play amid frozen waterfalls and on rocky shorelines glazed with ice.
In truth, I’ve had a lot more winter fun as a grown-up than I ever did as a kid. I learned to ski and spent many afternoons gliding through forests that were sparkling with newfallen snow and as hushed as a cathedral.
I walked out to the mainland ice caves on the Bayfield Peninsula, where the crystalline scenery shifts from day to day. Some
people chase storms; I chase ice, calling the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore hot line until it tells me I can go.
One year, I went to the candlelight ski at Mille Lacs-Kathio State Park and there was not only a blue moon but also a hoar frost, which deposited lacy crystals on every branch and made the park glow with reflected moonlight. Talk about your wow factor.
I spent a sunny day in March barreling through Superior National Forest behind six highly focused Alaskan huskies. And I got to explore Amnicon Falls State Park right after a storm had coated it with ice.
© Wisconsin DNR
On Wisconsin's Red Cedar State Trail, an ice wall is lighted for the candlelight ski.
You won't have these kinds of moments if you stay at home listening to wind-chill factors.
So this winter, stick your neck out — no, really, put on something warm and stick your neck outside. Indoors may be cozier — but as any child knows, it's kind of boring.
Here are 20 of the best things to do outdoors from December to March.
Best things to do
1. Candlelight skiing and snowshoeing.
There's nothing more magical than making your way through a forest filled with light, or more thrilling than starting down a
shadowy hill, hoping your skis stay in the groomed tracks (they always do).
Most candlelight events are pegged to full moons and are in state parks and forests. Among the best: the ones in Minnesota's
Mille Lacs-Kathio State Park and, in Wisconsin, in Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest near Minocqua.
2. Mushing. Nothing says “north woods’’ more than a team of huskies pulling a sled. It’s pretty much the most fun you can have in winter, especially if you drive the sled instead of sitting in the basket.
It’s not cheap, so save up for a special occasion. Look for mushing outfits in Ely, along Minnesota's North Shore and
across the north woods. Or take the one-day Dog
Sledding 101 class from the North House Folk School in Grand Marais.
3. Eagle-watching. Bald eagles aren’t as cute as huskies, but they’re a thrill to watch. You’ll find them picking off fish at the base of dams, at the mouths of rivers and at the many eagle-watching festivals around the region.
4. Swan-watching. And then you have trumpeter swans, who are nearly as
noisy as huskies before a run and really easy to spot if you go to a certain spot in the town of Monticello, where a power
plant warms the Mississippi River.
The swans think it's a spa, especially since a local man feeds them every day. They arrive from the north in late November and stay through February.
5. Ice caves of the Apostles. People start calling the hot line of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in January, hoping to hear the magic words: "Conditions do allow access'' to the mainland sea caves near Cornucopia.
© Beth Gauper
On the mainland ice caves near Cornucopia, Wis., a giant icefall is tinted blue and pink.
It's a mile's walk or snowshoe over frozen Lake Superior to the ice caves. But visitors are rewarded by a constantly shifting
spectacle of ice stalactites and columns, often tinted blue, green and pink, and caves dripping with icicles.
Usually, the shore doesn't freeze until late February, and sometimes it doesn't freeze at all. Hope for cheek-tingling
temperatures; that's when the formations are most beautiful.
6. Snowshoeing. This sport has boomed in recent years, because anyone can do it anywhere, as long as there's snow. Most people head for state parks, where trails can be overly packed; for fresher snow, check out state forests and small rivers and creeks.
Many trails, parks and nature centers offer guided hikes, including the Superior Hiking Trail Association on the North Shore.
7. Goofy festivals. Out in the countryside, especially Wisconsin, the cold goes to people’s heads and they start doing strange things, like tossing turkeys, flinging fruitcakes and pushing decorated porta-potties.
It adds a little levity to a long winter. More conventional winter festivals are fun, too, with ice-sculpting
contests, hot-air balloon launches and sleigh rides.
8. City weekends. Okay, so you’re a sophisticate who doesn’t really want to stand around watching people heave hams. Go on a city weekend – Chicago, Madison, Milwaukee, the Twin Cities – for that unbeatable shopping-eating-nightlife combo.
The holidays are an especially good time to head for a big city because hotel rates drop and yet there’s a festive
atmosphere and a lot going on.
Best festivals and events
9. John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in
Duluth. This is the most exciting spectator event of all: the departure of 80 mushers and 960 howling huskies on
a race to the Gunflint Trail and back.
It's Jan. 27 in 2013. It's also a lot of fun to follow the race and volunteer at checkpoints.
10. Book Across the Bay
between Ashland and Washburn. Anyone can do this popular
President's Day weekend ski or snowshoe across flat Chequamegon Bay, on a 10-kilometer route lined by 1,000 ice luminaries
and a fire every kilometer.
If you're not too fast, fireworks will fill the sky as you're approaching Washburn; a bonfire, chili feed and blues music follow.
11. Eelpout Festival in Walker. This very goofy event on Leech Lake, Minnesota's third-largest lake, tells you pretty much everything you need to know about north-woods fishing culture, and more.
© Beth Gauper
A skier flies down the hill in Westby, Wis.
Fisherfolk vie for best lake encampment (expect palm trees, pink flamingos and overstuffed sofas), play 'pout games and, of
course, drink. If you go, be sure to have some 'pout nuggets, which are as tasty as the fish is ugly. It's Feb. 14-17
12. Ski jumping tournaments in Fox River Grove, Ill., Westby, Wis., and Iron Mountain, Mich. If you couldn’t afford to watch the Olympics in Vancouver, head for the Chicago suburbs, the coulee country of southwest Wisconsin or the deep forest on the Michigan-Wisconsin border.
I like the tournament hosted by the Norwegians of Westby, half an hour southeast
of La Crosse. It's fun to watch because spectators can climb to the top of the Olympic-size jump, as high as a 41-story
skyscraper, and watch jumpers fly past at 55 mph. It's Feb. 1-2 in 2013.
In Iron Mountain, Mich., the Kiwanis Ski Club-sponsored tournament on Feb. 9-10 is a Continental Cup event and attracts jumpers from around the world.
In Fox River Grove, Ill., the Norge Ski Club has a 70-meter hill and puts on a tournament in late January.
13. Bockfests in New Ulm and Middleton. If
you’re tired of winter, here’s where you can usher it out on a Mardi Gras-style tide of beer. In the Madison
suburb of Middleton, the 2013 festival is Feb. 23 at Capital Brewery, where
brewmaster Kirby Nelson tosses smoked chub off the roof (there’s that weird Wisconsin throwing thing again).
In the German bastion of New Ulm, Minn., Schell’s Brewery hosts a bock hunt in the woods adjoining its hillside brewery; it's Feb. 9 in 2013. Both festivals have become so popular they limit tickets, so plan ahead.
Best places to find snow
© Torsten Muller
Mushing through Superior National Forest in northeast Minnesota.
14. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The most reliable snow for both Nordic and alpine
skiers is the Ironwood area of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where the 169 inches that fell during the winter of 2010-11
were on the short side, and the 114 inches in 2011-12 were practically a disaster.
Four downhill resorts — Indianhead, Big Powderhorn and Blackjack, plus Whitecap just across the border — and two
cross-country systems — ABR and Wolverine — are awash in snow through April Fool’s Day.
In a bad snow year, you'll still be able to ski here.
15. Minnesota’s Gunflint Trail. This
pocket of the north woods, along a 57-mile highway that dead-ends near the Canadian border and adjoins the Boundary Waters
Canoe Area Wilderness, has the best snow in Minnesota and 200 kilometers of groomed trails to go with it.
High season is January and February, but the skiing is excellent in December and March, and rates are lower at the lodges
then. In the central Gunflint, try the gorgeous ski between Bearskin Lodge and Golden Eagle Lodge, around Flour Lake.
16. Northeast Wisconsin. Nicolet National Forest is vast, remote, barely populated and, in winter, walloped by. Snowmobilers, skiers and snowshoers alike find plenty of room to do their thing.
Eagle River makes a good base;
beginning skiers will like the Anvil Lake Trail east of town, where chickadees eat out of skiers' hands.
© Beth Gauper
In Duluth, the Piedmont Trail is lined with wooden signs.
Near Phelps, Afterglow Resort
is a playground for families, who get towed up a big tubing hill by snowmobile.
And the area still has many classic old
Best overlooked places to ski
17. Duluth. Most people reflexively head up to
the cross-country trails on the North Shore.
But Duluth has an amazing system of city trails that are promptly and beautifully groomed, from hilly Magney-Snively in West Duluth to the lighted trails in Lester Park on the east end of town.
There are two private systems, too, Snowflake Nordic Center in the hills above town and Spirit Mountain in West Duluth.
18. Winona. In the last five years, many of the
biggest snowstorms have swept south, blanketing southern Minnesota and Wisconsin (and annoying skiers in the Twin
In the steep bluffs on the north edge of this Mississippi River town, St. Mary's University has 14½ kilometers of trails
groomed by Pisten Bully. They're shaded by thick forest and east-facing hillsides, so snow lasts far into the season.
19. Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail near Lanesboro. This part of Minnesota bluff country is known more for bicycling than skiing. But this 18-mile trail is groomed for skiing in the winter, although it gets very little traffic.
© Beth Gauper
Chickadees eat from the hand of a skier on the Anvil Lake Trail near Eagle River, Wis.
That means people who do show up get a wonderfully tranquil ski along Watson Creek and the South Branch of the Root River,
over bridges and past limestone outcroppings. It's 5½ miles between the town of Preston and Isinours Junction on the Root
River Trail, five miles west of Lanesboro
To get to Isinours, turn south onto County Road 17 from County Road 8, halfway between Fountain and Lanesboro.
20. Deep Portage Family Winter Weekends. Environmental learning centers are a great place to spend an inexpensive weekend, and Deep Portage Learning Center near Hackensack, Minn., in the Brainerd Lakes area, offers one of the best.
The handsome cedar and fieldstone lodge, set on nearly 10 square miles of forest set on rolling glacial moraine, hosts the
public during two annual winter weekends, providing private rooms with bath, family-style meals and naturalists to lead
snowshoe and ski treks, an orienteering course, nature hikes and ice-fishing excursions.
Inside, there's a climbing wall, a theater and a great room with wood-burning fireplace and board games.
For more, see Cheap winter getaways.
Last updated on January 12, 2013
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