MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

The coolest days of winter

Ditch the indoors for one of these great festivals.

A festival ice sculpture.

© Beth Gauper

For St. Paul's Winter Carnival, sculptors carve ice in Rice Park.

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.

If you've always wanted to see the Winter Olympics, see the next best thing at ski-jumping competitions in Westby, Wis., or Iron Mountain, Mich.

For your own fun in the snow, go to Winter Festival in Madison or the Winter Festival at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, in the coulees to the west.

Here are 15 winter festivals and events worth planning a weekend around.

January, Winter Festival in La Farge, Wis. This ultra-picturesque pocket of southwest Wisconsin is a great place to play in the snow. There's a parade in La Farge Friday, and at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, there will be bobsled rides, sled-dog races and weight pulls, guided hikes to ice caves and snow carving, plus a candlelight ski at Wildcat Mountain State Park.

For more about the area, see Outdoors in the Kickapoo Valley.

January,  Bald Eagle Watching Days in Prairie du Sac, Wis. There are lots of eagles in this Wisconsin River town, where a dam stuns fish and makes them easy pickings. Go on a field trip by bus, then cross the river for a taste of Eagle White at Wollersheim Winery.

For more about the area, see Road trip: Wisconsin River.

January, University of Okoboji Winter Games in Lake Okoboji, Iowa. This festival in the northwest corner of Iowa is about as serious as the university is real. There's a Freeze Your Fanny bike ride, Marshmallow Man blaster shootout, ice bowling, broomball and fireworks Saturday.

Skiers on the Luminary Loppet.

© Steve Kotvis

Skiers glide from lake to lake in Minneapolis' Luminary Loppet.

January-February, St. Paul Winter CarnivalSee spectacular ice sculptures in Rice Park and snow sculptures at the Fairgrounds, go down the snow slide, compete in a jigsaw-puzzle contest, take a free fire-truck ride and watch barstool ski races and lawn-mower races.

The Grande Day Parade is Jan. 25 and the Vulcan Victory Torchlight Parade Feb. 1, followed by fireworks.

January, John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon from Duluth. The start of this race up Minnesota's North Shore is one of the region's best spectator events. Spectators can meet the mushers at 10 a.m., before the noon start of the race.

For more, see Chasing the Beargrease.

February, U.S. National Snow Sculpting Championship and Winterfest in Lake Geneva, Wis. In addition to the snow sculpting, there's an ice castle, ice bars, magic shows, human sled-dog races, a hovercraft competitions and helicopter rides. 

February, City of Lakes Loppet in Minneapolis. This urban cross-country ski festival has become a celebration of winter and spans two weekends this year.  

For recreational skiers, the highlight of this big cross-country ski festival is the Feb. 1 Luminary Loppet on Lake of the Isles, with glowing ice pillars and "ruins.'' Afterward, there's a tent party with music.

There are also classical and free-style races, ski games for children, a snow-sculpture contest and orienteering, ice-cycle, speedskating, snowshoeing and skijoring races, plus a beer garden and vendor village.

February, Snowflake Ski-Jumping Tournament in Westby, Wis. At the top of a hill that's the equivalent of a 41-story skyscraper, watch jumpers fly by at 55 mph. It no longer attracts many international skiers, but it's still fun to watch because the jump is built onto the side of a coulee, and spectators can climb it and watch from the top.

There will be music and fireworks Friday night and music after the jumping Saturday. For more, see A jumpin' joint.

Ski jumper at Westby's competition

© Torsten Muller

A skier rockets down the Olympic-size hill at the Snowflake Ski Jumping Tournament in Westby, Wis.

February Madison Winter Festival. In Elver Park, there will be cross-country skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing plus music, family games and ice and snow sculptures.

February, Pine Mountain Ski Jumping Tournament in Iron Mountain, Mich. This is where the international jumpers go; it's a stop on the Continental Cup circuit.

February, Book Across the Bay between Ashland and Washburn, Wis. Ski or snowshoe across Lake Superior's Chequamegon Bay on a flat, 10-kilometer route lined by ice luminaries. 

If you're not too fast, fireworks will fill the sky as you're approaching Washburn; a bonfire, chili feed and blues music follow. For more, see Winter in Washburn.

February, Winter Festival in Cedarburg, Wis. This town just north of Milwaukee knows how to throw a party. There's costumed bed racing, ice-carving, dog weight-pull competition and a 1 p.m. Saturday parade.

If you get cold, you can always duck into the winery or one of the fun little shops. For more, see Jolly Cedarburg.

March, Winter Festival in Bayfield, Wis. This town on Lake Superior features the Run on Water to Madeline Island, a poker run, ice golf, polar plunge, obstacle course, candlelight walk and vintage skiwear contest.

For more, see Bayfield in winter.

March, Bock Fest in New Ulm, Minn. There's a parade of mythical Germanic characters, a devilishly difficult hunt for stag heads on the Schell Brewery grounds and beyond (with prizes) and a big party afterward with beer, live music and a bonfire.

It's become so popular that the brewery limits entrance, so get there early. For more, see A German Mardi Gras.

Last updated on March 13, 2021