MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Winter fun

Great winter festivals

Enjoy the chilly season with snow sculptures, ice castles, sleigh rides and lots of hot chocolate.

True northerners don't let cold weather keep them indoors, not when they could be out on the ice playing broomball and bowling turkeys. 

Many festivals in winter are held on frozen lakes, the best place for kite-flying, ice golf and hot-air balloon lift-offs. In northern Minnesota, an ice-house city goes up on Leech Lake for the goofy Eelpout Festival in February.

In parks, elaborate ice and snow sculptures entertain passersby. On rivers, buses take tourists to see bald eagles. Bonfires and hot chocolate are offered everywhere.

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Winter in Ely

At the edge of the wilderness, fun starts when the snow falls.

Around Ely, beauty is stripped down to essentials.

There's little but water, stone, spruce and sky in the northern Minnesota wilderness, what conservationist Sigurd Olson called "the naked grandeur." Still, it enthralls visitors from all over the world.

In winter, snow, ice and silence settle over the forests and lakes, and stars plaster the inky night sky. For many, Ely's pull is even stronger then.

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A Minnesota snow sampler

For skiing and snowshoeing, four state parks along I-35 are as up north as you need to be.

For some people, Interstate 35 may as well be a pneumatic tube linking the Twin Cities to Duluth and the North Shore.

But those willing to stop and get off the beaten track are rewarded.

In four state parks, skiers, snowshoers and snowmobilers glide along miles of trails on the St. Croix, Kettle and St. Louis rivers, once plied by lumberjacks and quarrymen.

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Ice playgrounds

Along rivers and lakes, it's fun to hang out with Jack Frost.

In winter, ice comes with the territory. You can curse it — or you can play with it.

Kids know how. Climbers and skaters know how. And photographers adore it.

Having fun with ice also is a good way to cope with a winter that drags on, endlessly, into April.

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Best of winter

Here are 20 great ways to savor the chilly season.

There's a reason why winter is the favorite season of many photographers — it's gorgeous. 

You've seen this region's icicle-draped sea caves, volcanic Great Lakes waves and dancing northern lights on social media. Now get out there and enjoy the scenery yourselves.

Snowshoe up frozen river canyons, barrel through the woods behind a team of huskies and go to bock festivals at breweries. Learn to ice fish, track wolves and look for bald eagles.

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Winter weekend in Monticello

Come for the swans; stay for the shopping and skiing.

Not far west of the Twin Cities, the Mississippi River town of Monticello is known for two things.

Passersby on I-94 can't fail to notice the nuclear-power reactor that marks the town. In winter, it's the power plant that attracts a flock of trumpeter swans, which think the plant's warm discharge waters are a little spa just for them.

Of course, the flock of swans draws a flock of swan-watchers. One January, my husband and I were among them, standing along the shore of the river and marveling at the raucous crowd of hundreds of birds, jostling for food and attention.

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Cheap winter getaways

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

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.

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The silly season

Smoosh racing? Human foosball? Winter is the time to come out and get crazy.

If you feel like acting ridiculous this winter, any number of festivals will reward you for doing it.

You can race a bed, bowl turkeys, toss fish or ride cardboard sleds.

Where you find one weird competition, you'll likely find others. Here are some of the best in 2017.

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Chilling at an ice bar

Enjoy life on the rocks at these pop-up canteens.

You think you hate the cold, but maybe you just need more ice in your life.

Ice as in ice bar, where you can sip a White Russian from an ice glass or eat a snow cone made with passionfruit vodka.

It's the kind of fad any winter-hater can get behind. Ice bars are popping up all over, complete with ice sculptures, warming fires and fur-clad servers.

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Gooseberries on ice

In winter, the beloved North Shore waterfalls turn into a big, frozen playground.

There's one spot along the North Shore at which everyone has to stop.

Its five falls tumble over lumpy floes of ancient lava, filling the air with mist and tumult. 

Intriguing crannies, created by jagged walls of rock and twisted cedars, turn adults into compulsive shutterbugs and bring out the Indiana Jones in children, who clamber from one precipice to another.

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Snow asylum

In northeast Wisconsin, Afterglow Resort stays on top of the heap.

In the wilds of northeast Wisconsin, winter always looks like winter.

It's the kind with snow — snow that comes early, stays late and blankets the forest in heaps, supplying reliable skiing and snowshoeing to people from less-blessed locales.

But in 2003, the heaps of snow didn't come there or virtually anywhere, and skiers were desperate. So was Pete Moline, who runs Afterglow Resort on a lake near the Michigan border.

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Winter adventure on a budget

At non-profit lodges, you can go to the dogs, or wolves, at bargain prices.

In winter, it's hard to find a lodge getaway that fits every budget.

Lodges that offer skiing on groomed trails, wood-fired saunas and home-cooked meals aren't cheap.

But if you'd like to try those things — and be greeted by a plate of warm chocolate-chip cookies afterward — you have a friend in environmental learning centers.

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The best in snow tubing

With their multiple lanes, conveyor lifts and snow-making, these aren't your grandma's hills.

On a 13-lane tubing superhighway, it's easy to feel 8 years old again.

When my daughter begged me to take her tubing at Elm Creek Park Reserve near Minneapolis, I wondered if I was too old to rocket down an icy hill.

But a professionally run tubing hill is nothing like a neighborhood sledding hill. Each lane is groomed, graded and separated by snow berms, so you don't have to worry about careening into a tree or someone's knees.

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The coolest days of winter

Ditch the indoors for one of these great festivals.

There's no use hiding from winter — it lasts too long, and eventually that living room will get old.

Many of the tourist spots we love to visit in summer work hard to lure us back when it's cold, offering festivals with lots of fun in the snow, plus bonfires and chili feeds to warm us up afterward.

For an exciting spectator event, watch the start of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in Duluth or the Crashed Ice extreme skating in St. Paul.

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Relishing winter in Duluth

In this sporty town, you can ski, then see ballet or a Broadway show all within city limits.

When it's not cold or snowy enough in Duluth, the natives start to grumble.

This Minnesota port on Lake Superior loves winter, though it's not for weaklings.

The breezes that earned it the nickname "Air-Conditioned City'' will chill your bones in winter, and if you don't keep moving, you'll wind up as stiff as the bronze sculptures along the lake.

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Ice caves of the Apostles

Near Cornucopia, people wait for the window into a crystalline world to open.

Along the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin, everyone waits for a big freeze.

Only when temperatures stay low for a long time will the edges of Lake Superior freeze enough for people to walk out to the mainland ice caves, whose beauty is renowned.

Even when ice is sufficiently solid, wind may suddenly split it, and snow may block the access drive. So when park rangers say it’s okay to go — well, then you’d better go.

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Near escapes in Wisconsin

Water parks or waterfalls? Here are 10 places to go for a great winter getaway.

When winter seems to be lasting forever, you just want to get away.

Of course, that’s not so easy to do if you’re buried in snow. Then you may have to get away a lot closer . . . maybe to the hotel around the corner.

Until then, here are some great winter getaways, each with lots to do and see.

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Brainerd Lakes in winter

When this Minnesota resort area slows down, it's time to take to the forest.

In winter, the famous Brainerd Lakes freeze over, ice houses replace pontoon boats and skiers and snowmobilers ply the forests.

That makes it a good time to find a deal. We got one and didn't feel too deprived by the lack of snow.

We hiked under bright-blue skies in a frosted forest, crossing bogs and watching for wildlife. And because we had time, we finally discovered something we'd bypassed dozens of times.

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Chasing the Beargrease

On the North Shore, the grueling sled-dog race enthralls onlookers.

Long before reality shows turned survival into a stunt, there was John Beargrease.

With no fanfare and no road, the Ojibwe man delivered the weekly mail between Two Harbors and Grand Marais until 1899, using a dog team in winter. Using only four dogs to pull packs of up to 700 pounds, Beargrease could make the round-trip in a few days.

His stamina spawned a legend. Now mushers from around the nation come to trace his path, racing each other from Duluth to the Gunflint Trail in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.

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Staying warm in winter

If you know what to wear, dealing with cold weather is a breeze.

In this chilly region, smart men are on to Victoria's Secret.

Shopping at the mall, they breeze right by the silk nighties, the gold bracelets, the dainty perfumes. Because what Victoria secretly wants for Christmas are SmartWool undies, a goose-down parka and moosehide mukluks.

When I was a newcomer to Minnesota, my boyfriend was a smart man. Our first Christmas, he gave me a bulky down parka that made me look like the Michelin man.

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Following the photographers: Lake Superior in Minnesota

Wish you were there? For people who love the North Shore, online images are the next best thing.

Do you love to see gorgeous photos of your favorite landscapes, especially when you're sitting in an office cubicle?

Facebook makes it easy to see when giant waves are crashing along shorelines, when northern lights appear in the winter sky and when full moons frame lighthouses. Online galleries and blogs offer photography tips as well as images.

One place especially blessed with photographers who share their work is Minnesota's dramatic North Shore of Lake Superior, where world-class scenery stretches from Duluth to the Canadian border.

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Near escapes in Minnesota

Skiing or skyways? Here are 10 places for a great winter getaway.

Before Valentine’s Day, and as winter drags on, everyone starts thinking about romantic getaways.

Well, we already have a story about romantic places to stay, and beyond that, who can say what romance is?

Especially since “romantic’’ often is code for “expensive.’’ We think romance has very little relationship to expenditure; we’ve found it in tents and camper cabins as well as luxurious inns. It’s everywhere, if you look for it.

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Dog days of winter

Deep in Superior National Forest, novice mushers tag along with some huskies.

In the north woods, it's easy to fall in love with sled dogs.

They're exuberant and adorable but also focused, intense and explosive — sort of like kindergartners crossed with Olympic athletes.

For huskies, life is simple: They live to run. Anyone who has watched the start of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon has witnessed the drive of a husky, a four-legged Ferrari that snaps into warp speed at the rustle of a harness.

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Serenity at Naniboujou

On Minnesota's North Shore, a Jazz Age lodge still inspires reverence.

 During the heady days of the Roaring Twenties, a group of Duluth businessmen conceived a plan.

They would buy 3,300 acres of land along Lake Superior and on both sides of the Arrowhead River, encompassing beach, waterfalls and rocky gorges. They’d buy another 8,000 acres inland, where caribou still roamed and lakes were thick with fish and fowl.

They’d build a clubhouse, with tennis courts and golf course and swimming pool. And they’d name the whole thing for Naniboujou, the powerful but benevolent Ojibwe spirit who claimed this northern wilderness as his own.

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Playground in the woods

At Deep Portage, adults take a tip from the kids.

As adults, we sometimes forget how great it is to be a kid.

People give you toys to play with. They show you new games and explain things in interesting ways. They feed you freshly baked cookies and s'mores.

Kids take it for granted. But I didn't one January, when I got to stay at Deep Portage Learning Center, in the woods north of Brainerd.

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Capturing winter's beauty

In photography workshops, learn how to translate snow and ice into stunning images.

Nothing is more photogenic than winter.

You've got icicles dripping off cliffs, trees covered with hoarfrost and pancake ice floating on harbors. But how do you capture all that?

As anyone who’s tried winter photography knows, it’s no snap.

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Walking on ice

Even when trails are slippery, you can grip the moment with a good pair of crampons.

This year, I declared war on ice.

You can have the finest skis, snowshoes and 4-wheel drives in the world, and you're still dead in the water when trails are covered with ice.

So for Christmas, everybody got ice grippers. I gave my husband a set whose teeth and chains made it look like S&M gear, and my son got a set with low-profile spikes that wouldn't embarrass him on walks to class. I gave myself a pair, too.

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Seeking an outdoor hot tub

It's just the thing on a cold winter day, but only a few resorts and inns have one.

In winter, there's nothing better than relaxing in a hot tub after a day outdoors.

Hot tubs are a dime a dozen — inside B&Bs and hotels. But the ones outside? Much harder to find.

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How to make ice luminaries

With homemade lanterns, make your front walk glimmer.

In winter, the best time to be out in the forest is during a candlelight ski in state parks and forests, when volunteers set out hundreds of luminaries along snow-draped trails.

It's always a magical occasion (for more, see Ski or snowshoe by candlelight).

If you'd like to have the same effect all winter long, make some ice luminaries for your own walk. It'll impress visitors as well as put some sparkle into the long winter nights.

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