MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Cheap winter getaways

Here are 20 places where a fun weekend away is easy on the wallet.

Camper cabins at Jay Cooke.

© Beth Gauper

Camper cabins are popular year-round.

In the Upper Midwest, finding a good deal is a sport second only to football.

Some of us need a bargain. Some of us just like them. But we all need to get away occasionally, especially when cabin fever strikes in winter.

The easiest way to save is to round up a group of friends and rent a guesthouse in a state park. You'll find more overnight deals at environmental centers and hostels. And most of the fun — skiing, snowshoeing, bird-watching, festival-attending — is free.

You also can snowshoe from a yurt in the Upper Peninsula, hit the museums in Chicago and track wolves in Wisconsin.

Here are 20 inexpensive weekend trips you can take in 2019, most for $100 or less per person.

For outdoor weekends that cost a bit more, see Winter adventure on a budget.

For the rest of the year, see Cheap spring getaways, Cheap summer getaways and Cheap fall getaways.


A cabin and gliding by candlelight

If you love to ski or snowshoe by candlelight in state parks but you have a hard time leaving the house in the dark, just make your home in the park for the night.

Minnesota has heated camper cabins in many of the parks that host candlelight events. They're a little expensive at $60-$70 plus the $8.50 reservation fee, but they sleep six, so you can split the cost.

Or not — the cabins are rustic, but a couple can make them romantic with a roaring fire under the stars.

The candlelight ski at Mille Lacs-Kathio Feb. 16 is one of the region's best, and that state park has five camper cabins.

Snowshoeing on the St. Croix River.

© Beth Gauper

In St. Croix State Park, guests snowshoe on the St. Croix River.

Other best bets: Jan. 26 and Feb. 9 at Lake Bemidji State Park (four cabins); Feb. 16 at Lake Carlos near Alexandria, (four cabins); and Jan. 12 and Feb. 16  at Itasca State Park (12 modern, two-room suites).  

For more, see Ski or snowshoe by candlelight.

For camper cabins in all states, see A roof in the woods.

A guesthouse on the St. Croix

On the St. Croix River in Minnesota's St. Croix State Park, two modern guesthouses, $215, are a great deal for groups. One sleeps 12 and one sleeps 15, and each has a full kitchen and two bathrooms.

In 2019, the park's annual candlelight ski is Jan. 19. The park has 11 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails and 80 miles of snowmobile trails that connect to state forests.

For more about St. Croix and nearby state parks, see A Minnesota snow sampler.

For more on guesthouses, see Lodgings in Minnesota state parks.

Playing in Itasca State Park

The headwaters of the Mississippi River in Minnesota's Itasca State Park are a must-see destination in summer.

In winter, the park grooms 32 kilometers of cross-country ski trails, many of which wind through old-growth pine forest, and there's ice-fishing right outside the Mississippi Headwaters Hostel, in the 1923 former park headquarters.

It's open weekends from January through March. It sleeps 31, and there's a wood-burning fireplace.

Bunks are $26 per person for members, but renting a family bedroom, wing or the whole hostel brings the cost down to around $22 per person.

Or stay in the park's newer Itasca Suites near Douglas Lodge, which have kitchenettes and satellite TV. They're $105 in winter.

There's also a guesthouse and cabin, both with full kitchens, at La Salle Lake State Recreation Area, eight miles north of Itasca.

Skiers on the Harmony-Preston Valley trail.

© Beth Gauper

Skiers glide along the Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail near Lanesboro.

The three-bedroom Black Bear Guesthouse sleeps 10 in four queen beds and a futon and rents for $300. The two-bedroom Lone Wolf Cabin sleeps four in two queen beds and rents for $200.

Get away to bluff country

The Lanesboro area, so popular with bicyclists in summer and fall, is very quiet in winter.

In many years, however, it gets dumped with snow, allowing skiing on the groomed Harmony-Preston Valley and Root River state trails. 

Skiing is excellent on the quiet and scenic stretch of the Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail between Isinours Junction, five miles west of Lanesboro, and Preston. (To get to Isinours, turn south onto County Road 17 from County Road 8, halfway between Fountain and Lanesboro.)

In January, there's a candlelight ski on the trail from Preston, with chili around a bonfire. On the Root River State Trail, there's a Feb. 2 candlelight ski from Whalan, with a soup supper in the village hall.

In Preston, stay at the Trail Head Inn for $69-$99. Dogs are allowed, $20 per stay.

In Lanesboro, stay at the Cottage House Inn, where rooms are $70, or the Green Gables Inn, where they start at $78. There's shopping and Amish tours, too.

Snowshoeing on Hegman Lake.

© Beth Gauper

A free guided hike to the Hegman Lake pictographs is part of Ely's Winter Festival.

A festival in Ely

In winter, this northern Minnesota town is a playground for skiers and snowshoers.

There's also a lot to see and do Feb. 7-17 during Winter Festival, which features a voyageur encampment, snow-sculpting contests, an ArtWalk and a free snowshoe trek to see ancient pictographs.

Stay west of town in Bear Head Lake State Park, which has a guesthouse and camper cabins. 

Culture in Northfield

In this two-college town an hour south of the Twin Cities, the entertainment is free. St. Olaf College, whose music program is renowned, regularly brings in professional musicians, including the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

The St. Olaf Orchestra performs Feb. 10 and the Choir Feb. 17. Check the calendar for free concerts. 

At Carleton College, the Friday-morning Convocation lectures are free and open to the public. 

There are many other free or inexpensive events around town. Stay at the 1877 Archer House River Inn, which includes restaurants and shops under its roof. 

Rooms start at $80, and several have two beds or sleeper sofas, good for girlfriend getaways.

Lutsen skiing on a shoestring

It's a lot of fun to ski at Lutsen Mountains on Minnesota's North Shore, though not cheap —the walk-up rate for a lift ticket is $82 (but always buy in advance and online).

It's more affordable if you go with a group and buy a lodging package. But it's downright cheap if you stay nearby at  Birch Grove Community Center in Tofte, also known as the Lake Superior Hostel on weekends.

The hostel serves only groups, and rates start at $23 per person for groups of 10 or more. Ski bookings are made through Lutsen Mountains, amanda@lutsen.com. Guests provide their own bedding and sleep on foam mattresses.

Fat-biking at Hartley Park in Duluth.

© Beth Gauper

In Duluth, fat-tire biking is becoming a popular winter sport.

Individuals or couples can stay at the Hungry Hippie Farm & Hostel near Grand Marais, half an hour up the highway. A single bunk goes for $25 and a private room for $59, including linens and towels. Pets are allowed in private rooms for an additional $15.

Relishing winter in Duluth

These days, nearly every visitor to Duluth wants to stay on Canal Park. But the Spirit Mountain ski hill is in West Duluth, and so is the modest but perfectly nice Willard Munger Inn.

The motel, near the foot of the ski hill, offers rooms for less than $100, plus $5 off a lift ticket on weekends and $10 off on weekdays. 

If you're a cross-country skier, Duluth has great cross-country trails near the Munger and across town.

And it's free to snowshoe on the Superior Hiking Trail and to watch the exciting start of the John Beargrease Sled-Dog Marathon, Jan. 27.

Family camps in Ely

Just north of this outdoorsy town, off the Echo Trail, YMCA Camp du Nord offers winter camps for families, with guided skiing, hiking, saunas and nature programs.

A wolf in Ely.

© Beth Gauper

A wolf eats dinner.

They include the Winter Wonderland Family Camp Feb. 28-March 3. There are 21 heated cabins, some with gas fireplaces, in three villages. Some are rustic, but most are quite luxurious.

Rates depend on size of cabin; 16 people sharing Thor's Lodge pay $88 apiece, and seven people sharing Jack's II Cabin pay $109. Reserve early to get your choice of cabins.


Tracking wolves

The Timber Wolf Information Network organizes Winter Wolf Ecology workshops at nature centers around the state. Register in advance.

At Beaver Creek Reserve east of Eau Claire, it's Jan. 26-27. Cost is $70, plus $13 for lodgings.

At the Sandhill Outdoor Skills Center west of Wisconsin Rapids, it's Feb. 2-3. Cost is $90, including lodgings and two meals, plus $20 for Friday night, too.

At Treehaven near Tomahawk, it's Jan. 26-27. Cost is $135-$175, including lodgings and four meals. 

Near the St. Croix River in western Wisconsin, Crex Meadows wildlife refuge hosts free or low-cost workshops year-round, including Carnivore Tracking and Wolf Ecology Dec. 8-9.

Weekend lodgings are 10 miles to the east at Luther Point Bible Camp. Luther Lodge sleeps 22, $35 per person, and Trinity Lodge rents for $165 and sleeps 10. Family cabins sleep three to seven and rent for $135-$150.

Madison's State Capitol.

© Beth Gauper

Guided tours of the State Capitol in Madison are free.

See ice caves in the Apostles

Snowshoeing or hiking over Lake Superior to see the magnificent ice caves at Mawikwe Bay on the Bayfield Peninsula is the coolest thing you can do in winter (aside from mushing your own sled-dog team for a day, which costs about $300). And it doesn't cost a thing.

When the ice doesn't freeze,  you still can walk along the top of the cliffs on the Lakeshore Trail from Meyers Beach.

Stay in nearby Bayfield.

Shopping for bargains

Need some new warm clothes? Lands' End donates many of its catalog returns to five Bargain Nooks in southwest Wisconsin. The shops in Spring Green, Mineral Point, Mount Horeb, Platteville and Darlington, run by the Hodan Center, a non-profit that helps adults with disabilities.

Expect to pay as little as $40 for a down parka and $10 for pants and shirts.

This is a good girlfriend getaway, so split the cost of a two-bed suite at the House on the Rock Resort in Spring Green

For more, see Power shopping in Wisconsin.

Lakeshore Trail to the ice caves.

© Beth Gauper

On the clifftop, the Lakeshore Trail goes above the mainland ice caves in the Apostles.

Sightseeing in Madison

In summer, the Hostelling International Madison hostel is packed with tourists from around the world. But in winter, guests may have a room to themselves. The cost for a bed in a dorm room is $25-$28; in a private room, it's $52 for one, $55 for two and $58 for three. 

The hostel is ideally located two blocks from Capitol Square and State Street, which is packed with shops, restaurants and museums. Winter is the cultural high season, and the Overture Center for the Arts hosts performers nearly every night.

The calendar is packed, including the free Madison Winter Festival Feb. 2-3 in Elver Park, and the giant Canoecopia paddle sports expo, March 8-10.

For more, see At home in a hostel (it includes information about the hostel in Chicago's Loop, too).

Skiing and sledding around Black River Falls

Wisconsin has very few cabins in state parks, but one of them is in Black River State Forest near Black River Falls. It rents a two-bedroom "indoor group camp" that sleeps up to 12, $40. It has radiant floor heat, a gas fireplace, six bunk beds and a kitchen, but not mattresses or cooking utensils.

The park has 25 miles of cross-country ski trails, and the area has more than 300 miles of groomed snowmobiling trails.


Snowshoeing in the Porkies

In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park has everything you need for great snowshoeing — 100 miles of trails, guaranteed snow and a cheap place to stay.

Riding the lift in the Porcupines.

© Beth Gauper

In the Porcupines, snowshoers ride the chairlift to the start of the free weekly hike.

It offers lantern-lit skiing and snowshoeing on a one-mile loop every Saturday night from Dec. 29 through Feb. 23

The park gets piles of lake-effect snow from November through April. In winter, you'll need snowshoes or skis to get to its four year-round yurts, which have wood stoves but no running water.

The yurts sleep four in bunk beds and cost $65. The park also has rustic cabins that sleep eight, also $65.

Scads of snow in Copper Harbor

When you go to the Keweenaw Peninsula in winter, you don't have to worry about snow. There'll be plenty outside the door of your two-bedroom cabin, $70, on the shore of Lake Fanny Hooe, in Fort Wilkins Historic State Park.

It's next to a cross-country ski trail, but if you like black-diamond runs, Mount Bohemia is nearby. It also has yurts that sleep 10 and trailside cabins that sleep four.

River House at ABR.

© Beth Gauper

Two ski trails pass the River House at ABR in Ironwood.

Skiing in Ironwood

Thanks to lake-effect snowfalls, this Michigan town on the Wisconsin border never has a bad snow year. It has two cross-country ski trail systems, Wolverine and ABR, and both have inexpensive lodgings.

In 2019, the Sisu Ski Fest is Jan. 12-14, featuring ski races, a fat-bike demo and a concert.

Across the street from Wolverine Nordic, Wolverine Village is a skiers' retreat. Small cabins that sleep up to three go for $85, and large cabins that sleep up to 12 go for $225. There's also a dining hall, laundry area, showers and wax rooms.

ABR (short for Active Backwoods Retreat) has lodgings right on the trails. It's known for its fastidious grooming, so that's a big plus.

Overnights at five rustic, ski-in heated cabins cost $40-$60 for one, $8 for each additional person. A sauna and shower costs an extra $6.

Cabins and guesthouses in state parks

In the only state that borders three Great Lakes, the best places to stay are in state parks. Michigan has a huge array of lodges, cottages, cabins and yurts.

Try Tahquamenon Falls State Park, which has its own brewpub restaurant and naturalist programs in winter. Stay in a three-bedroom, two-bath lodge that sleeps eight, $120, or a camper cabin that sleeps seven, $65-$70.

On Feb. 2, 9, 16 and 23, there are guided snowshoe adventures and lantern-lit skiing and showshoeing.

For more, see Michigan's great lake cabins.

Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

© Beth Gauper

In Chicago, Shedd Aquarium offers Asleep With the Fishes family sleepovers.


Family sleepovers in Chicago

January and February are the slowest months of the year in this always-fun town, and also the cheapest time.

It's easiest to catch a free day at one of the museums (especially if you're an Illinois resident).

And if you have children, you can stay overnight in some of the world's most famous museums — Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium, Field Museum, Museum of Science & Industry — for $65-$75, including food and programs.

Reserve several months in advance, because they book up quickly.

For more, see Nights at the museum.

Hostels in Chicago

Hotels aren't cheap in Chicago, but luckily, it also has hostels. In the South Loop,  the Hostelling International hostel is so popular that it screens guests by zip code (too many people from the suburbs want to stay there). Beds start at $34, including breakfast.

There are three other hostels, River North, Lincoln Park and Wicker Park, and usually you can get a good deal at hotels in winter.

With the money you save, you can afford a nice meal, and Restaurant Week is Jan. 25-Feb. 7 in 2019.

For more, see Cheap Chicago and Where to stay in Chicago.

Outdoors Clubs

In every state, outdoors clubs offer the cheapest trips with the most camaraderie. And if you're a beginner, you'll get free instruction from new friends.

For more, see Join the club.

Last updated on November 25, 2018