MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Best of winter

Here are 25 great ways to savor the chilly season.

A ski jumper in Westby.

© Beth Gauper

A skier flies down the hill in Westby, Wis.

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.

Or be like the Finns, Danes and Norwegians, who regularly land on top of the World Happiness Index. In winter, they enjoy hygge — the cozy well-being felt by lighting candles, sitting in front of crackling fires and having warm drinks with friends. Try that yourselves, or go to the Hygge Festival in Grand Marais in February.

Winter is fun! Here are our picks for the best things to do in 2020.

And if you're worried about the cold, here's our guide to staying warm. There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.

Playing in the snow

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, on the Afterhours trails of Brule River State Forest.

The biggest candlelight party is Book Across the Bay between Ashland and Washburn, Wis. Anyone can take part in this popular ski or snowshoe trek across flat Chequamegon Bay, on a 10-kilometer route lined by 1,000 ice luminaries and a bonfire every kilometer.

Mushing in Superior National Forest.

© Torsten Muller

Mushing through Superior National Forest in northeast Minnesota.

If you're not too fast, fireworks will fill the sky as you're approaching Washburn; a bonfire, chili feed and blues music follow. It's Feb. 15 in 2020.

Sled-dog 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. Reserve in advance.

Snowshoeing river canyons

On snowshoes, you can really go places.

On Minnesota's North Shore of Lake Superior, the slot canyons of the Onion River near Tofte and Devil Track near Grand Marais, inaccessible when the water is flowing, are fun to explore.

Near Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, on the U.P., the Eben ice caves also are a popular destination.

Looking for northern lights

Along Lake Superior, the aurora borealis has been showing up with amazing regularity.

Marquette photographer Shawn Malone of Lake Superior Photo offers tips for finding and photographing them, and smartphone apps alert you to the best opportunities in real time.

If you join the Great Lakes Aurora Hunters Facebook page, you'll get alerts.

Tubing hills

With their multiple lanes, conveyor lifts and snow-making, today's tubing hills are nothing like the ones your grandma had.

The great thing about tubing is that anyone can do it. There's no learning curve, it's not expensive and the only gear required is warm clothing. You'll find them everywhere, in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Michigan.

Learning winter skills

At environmental centers, learn how to ski and snowshoe but also how to ice fish, mush sled-dogs, track wolves and even do the biathlon on all-inclusive weekend packages.

Feeding the chickadees on the Anvil Lake Trail.

© Beth Gauper

Chickadees eat from the hand of a skier on the Anvil Lake Trail near Eagle River, Wis.

Women get an especially good deal because they can sign up for low-priced Becoming an Outdoorswoman workshops at scenic locations in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Watching and photographing birds


Snowy owl irruptions once came only every few years, but the photogenic owls now arrive every year.  Boreal and great gray owls also are regular visitors around the western Great Lakes.

Not far from Duluth, the Sax-Zim Bog is one of the best places to find owls of all kinds. There's a small welcome center staffed by volunteers in winter.


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.

Ice at Tettegouche.

© Beth Gauper

Ice coats a clifftop opposite Shovel Point in Minnesota's Tettegouche State Park.


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 Minnesota town of Monticello, where a power plant warms the Mississippi River an hour northwest of the Twin Cities.

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.

Exploring an icescape

Ice caves of the Apostles

People start calling the hot line of Wisconsin's Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in January, hoping to hear the magic words: "Conditions do allow access'' to the mainland sea caves near Cornucopia.

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.

Dress warmly and hope for cheek-tingling temperatures; that's when the formations are most beautiful.

If the lake ice isn't frozen enough to walk to the caves, you can walk the two-mile Lakeshore Trail along the clifftop. Or, visit the inland Eben Ice Caves near Munising, Mich., on the Upper Peninsula.

Capital's Bockfest in February.

© Capital Brewing

Bockfest at Capital Brewery is very popular.

Enchanted forests, waterfalls and volcanoes

On the shores of the western Great Lakes, waterfalls freeze, wind-borne spray coats shrubs and branches along the shore and glistening formations appear along rivers.

Many of the best places to see spectacular ice is on Minnesota's North Shore and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Ice castles in southern Wisconsin and a Minneapolis suburb

Just north of the Illinois border in Lake Geneva and in the northern Minneapolis suburb of New Brighton, visit professionally built ice castles. Tickets are cheapest when bought online.

Learn how to ice climb

Experts will show you the ropes in clinics at three ice festivals: in Sandstone, Minn., Jan. 3-5; in Duluth, Minn., Jan. 31-Feb. 2; and at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore near Munising, Mich., Feb. 12-16

Fun festivals and spectator events

An icefall on the Onion River.

© Beth Gauper

Icefalls adorn the sides of the Onion River canyon in northeast Minnesota.

Art Shanties on the ice

On frozen Lake Harriet in Minneapolis, artists build two dozen whimsical Art Shanties, each with a different theme, then invite the public to visit. 

In 2020, they'll be Jan. 18-19 and 25-26 and Feb. 1-2 and 8-9. Also on Lake Harriet Jan. 25: The Lake Harriet Kite Festival.

Another fun thing to do in Minneapolis on Jan. 25: the goofy Art Sled Rally in Powderhorn Park.

Ski jumping tournaments

If you can't afford to travel to an Olympics, you can watch world-class ski jumping not far from home.

In Fox River Grove, Ill., the Norge Ski Club has a 70-meter hill and puts on a tournament Jan. 25-26. This Chicago suburb has supplied several members of the U.S. Olympic team.

A great gray owl outside Duluth.

© Torsten Muller

A great gray owl sat in a churchyard just outside Duluth.

Southeast of La Crosse, the Norwegians of Westby host a tournament on an Olympic-size jump as high as a 41-story skyscraper. It's Jan. 31-Feb. 1.

For more, see A jumpin' joint.

In Iron Mountain, Mich., the Kiwanis Ski Club-sponsored tournament on Feb. 15-16 is a Continental Cup event and attracts jumpers from around the world.

Flinging 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.

A village of Art Shanties.

© Beth Gauper

In Minneapolis, an Art Shanty village appears on Lake Harriet.

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, at the Bockfest at Capital Brewery Feb. 22,  the brewmaster 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 March 7. Both festivals have become so popular they limit tickets, so plan ahead.

And there's a craft-beer festival nearly every weekend in winter. 

City weekends

Okay, so you’re a sophisticate who doesn’t really want to stand around watching people heave hams. Head for a big city — Chicago, Madison, Milwaukee, the Twin Cities — for that unbeatable shopping-eating-nightlife combo.

Hotel rates drop in the winter, and but that's also the best season for going to the orchestra, ballet, theater or opera.

In Chicago, go to Restaurant Week Jan. 24-Feb. 9 or the Auto Show Feb. 8-17.

In Minneapolis, the Hennepin Theater District brings in big-name performers and Broadway musicals. And the big City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival is Jan. 30-Feb. 2.

Best places to find snow

You can sign up to get the weekly snow reports from Minnesota and Wisconsin, but the same places get the best snow year after year.

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

The most reliable snow for both Nordic and alpine skiers is the Ironwood area of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Snowy trail in the Porcupines.

© Beth Gauper

On the Upper Peninsula, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park always has lots of snow.

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.

And for the best snowshoeing in the region, head for nearby Porcupine Mountains State Park.

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.

Northeast Wisconsin

A cabin at Cascade Lodge in Minnesota.

© Cascade Lodge

A cozy cabin in the woods is the perfect place to practice Scandinavian-style hygge.

Nicolet National Forest is vast, remote, barely populated and, in winter, walloped by snow. 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.

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 lodges.

Learning from the Scandinavians

Despite the long, dark days in the north, Scandinavians don't dread winter — they welcome it.

They get to ski, for one thing, but they also light a lot of candles, sit in front of crackling fires, read books and down warm drinks with friends.

It's all about a sense of well-being and coziness. In Danish, it's called hygge. In Norwegian, it's koselig.

Try it at home, or get a head start in Grand Marais, at the northeast tip of Minnesota. It's holding a Hygge Festival Feb. 7-16, with Scandinavian menus, a full-moon reading, a cabin concert and lodging specials.

Last updated on January 20, 2020