MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Great winter festivals

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

Smoosh racing at the City of Lakes Loppet.

© Beth Gauper

Smoosh racing is part of the City of Lakes Loppet in Minneapolis.

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

Below are some of the fun festivals going on around the region in 2021

Always check before you go to verify dates and to make sure you catch the best parts of a festival, especially the parades.

For candlelight events, see Ski or snowshoe by candlelight.

For more about eagle-watching events, see Where eagles land.

For events year-round, see the Events Calendar.

New Year's celebrations

Look for fireworks everywhere New Year's Eve, especially in La Crosse, where the Skyrockers are famous for their pyrotechnics from Grandad Bluff (midnight, with a kids' show at 6 p.m.).

For getaway ideas, see 10 great ways to celebrate New Year's.

Holiday Fantasy in Lights in Madison, WI The free display in Olin Park is open from dusk to dawn. Nov. 7–Jan. 3.

Holiday Lights Festival in Milwaukee, WI The season-long lights festival includes more than 500,000 lights throughout downtown's parks and streets.   Nov. 19–Jan. 1.

Bentleyville Tour of Lights in Duluth, MN Tour the retro-cool lighted decorations in Bayfront Festival Park, including a tree that dances to music, Dinosaurland and Penguin Park.  In 2020, it's a drive-through. Admission is $10 per car, and children 10 and younger receive a free Bentleyville stocking cap and cookies from a window-side Santa and Mrs. Claus. Nov. 21–Dec. 31.

ZooLights in Chicago, IL The annual display of 2.5 million lights at the Lincoln Park Zoo is operating at 25 percent capacity this year and charging $5 per person. Tickets are available for timed slots between 4 and 9 p.m.; on Nov. 24 and Dec. 9, 17, 21 and 29, tickets are free (available at 4 p.m. the previous Sunday). Nov. 21–Jan. 3.

Lakeside Park Holiday Lights in Fond du Lac, WI This free light show on Lake Winnebago includes animated scenes and trees that dance to 20 minutes of music played on 87.9 FM (you can listen on your car radio). Nov. 26–Jan. 1.

Cheese Drop in Plymouth, WI For the big Cheese Drop in this eastern Wisconsin town, an 80-pound lighted wedge of cheese is dropped 100 feet at 10 p.m. There will also be free live music, cheese wedges and a s'mores bar. Dec. 31.

Second weekend of January

Vintage World Championship Snowmobile Derby in Eagle River, WI Vintage snowmobiles race in this northeast Wisconsin town. Jan. 8–10.

Ice sculptures in St. Paul's Rice Park.

© Beth Gauper

Ice sculptures fill St. Paul's Rice Park during Winter Carnival.

Third weekend of January

Janboree in Waukesha, WI The fest in this Milwaukee suburb includes Friday-night fireworks, ice sculpting, Ojibwe snow-snake games, ice bocce, a penguin-egg hunt and tobogganing on the lighted run in Lowell Park. Jan. 15–24.

Bald Eagle Watching Days in Prairie du Sac, WI This town along the Wisconsin River, next to a hydroelectric plant, offers guided bus tours, live birds of prey programs and kids' activities.  This year, the festival is virtual, with some live programs and some pre-recorded. Jan. 16.

Take a Kid Ice Fishing Weekend in All of Minnesota, MN Take a kid younger than 16 spear- or ice-fishing this holiday weekend, and you can fish for free. Jan. 16–18.

Bald Eagle Appreciation Days in Keokuk, IA In this Mississippi River town, there's live-eagle presentations, Native American activities, demonstrations and viewing on the river. This year, all indoor activities will be virtual. Jan. 16–17.

Back to Hack Winter Festival in Hackensack, MN The festival in this Brainerd Lakes town on the Paul Bunyan State Trail features snow sculpting, an ice-fishing contest, penguin plunge, kids' games and Saturday fireworks. Jan. 16–17.

Ice Fest in Dubuque, IA The National Mississippi River Museum hosts this indoor-outdoor festival, which includes ice-harvest and ice-rescue demonstrations, snow sculpting, a live-raptor program and youth ice fishing. Jan. 16–17.

Wisconsin Free Fishing Weekend in All over the state, WI No license is needed for fishing in Wisconsin or on its side of the Mississippi River and lakes Superior and Michigan. Jan. 16–17.

A Bock Fest parade.

© Beth Gauper

Bock Fest in New Ulm signals the end of winter.

Fourth weekend of January

Janboree in Waukesha, WI The fest in this Milwaukee suburb includes Friday-night fireworks, ice sculpting, Ojibwe snow-snake games, ice bocce, a penguin-egg hunt and tobogganing on the lighted run in Lowell Park. Jan. 15–24.

Winterfest in Amana, IA Go on a wine walk or scavenger hunt or compete in ham-throwing, log-sawing, wreath-tossing, the Amana Freezer Run/Walk, snowshoeing or for the best beard. There will be ice sculptures, storytelling and schnitzel-sampling, too. Jan. 23.

Winterfest in Mackinaw City, MI In this town on the Mackinac Straits, there's a snow-sculpting competition, sleigh rides, a poker run and outhouse races. Jan. 23.

Frostival in Moorhead, MN The first Saturday, there will be a birding festival, cardboard-sled races, a Hunger Games-themed snowball fight and a skate social. Events on the second Saturday include snow-sculpture and disc-golf competitions, games, snowga and free ski and snowshoe rentals. Jan. 23.

Bald Eagle Watching Days in Prairie du Sac, WI This town along the Wisconsin River, next to a hydroelectric plant, offers guided bus tours, live birds of prey programs and kids' activities.  This year, the festival is virtual, with some live programs and some pre-recorded. Jan. 23.

Fifth weekend of January

Winter Games in Lake Okoboji, IA This resort area in northwest Iowa will offer human sled races, flag football on ice, indoor golf, snowball drop, stein-holding, horse-drawn carriage rides, a Freeze Yer Fanny Bike Ride, keg toss and fireworks. Jan. 28–31.

Winter Carnival in St. Paul, MN The feature this year is a drive-through ice- and snow-sculpture park at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. Tickets are $20 per vehicle, $35 for theme packages, and available only in advance. There will also be three scavenger hunts, pop-up outdoor concerts, ice-fishing, softball and puzzle tournaments and Frozen Family Fun Night. Jan. 28–Feb. 7.

Lake Superior Ice Festival in Superior, WI On Barker's Island, there's a snow slide, ice carving, Kubb games, disc golf, ice racing, kids' activities and fireworks on Saturday. Jan. 29–30.

Schnee Days in Elkhart Lake, WI The Snow Days festival in this town in east-central Wisconsin includes such activities as a hunt for colored ice cubes, dog sledding and a chili cook-off. Jan. 29–31.

Fire & Ice Winter Social in Stillwater, MN In this St. Croix river town, there will be hot-air balloons, an ice-cream social, ice sculptures, music, bags and pond-hockey tournaments and a beer tent. Jan. 29–31.

Groundhog Days in Woodstock, IL The 1993 movie "Groundhog Day'' was filmed in this town an hour northwest of Chicago, and it celebrates with trivia and tours of movie sites, including the 1889 Opera House, where actor Bill Murray jumped from the belfry. At 7 a.m. Tuesday, Woodstock Willie will look for his shadow. Jan. 29–Feb. 2.

Frostival in Moorhead, MN The first Saturday, there will be a birding festival, cardboard-sled races, a Hunger Games-themed snowball fight and a skate social. Events on the second Saturday include snow-sculpture and disc-golf competitions, games, snowga and free ski and snowshoe rentals. Jan. 30.

City of Lakes Loppet in Minneapolis, MN For recreational skiers, the highlight of this big cross-country ski festival are the nightly Luminary Loppets on Lake of the Isles, with glowing ice pillars and "ruins.''  There are also classical and free-style races, orienteering, fat-tire, snowshoeing and skijoring races in Theodore Wirth Park, location of most events.       Jan. 30–31.

Norge Ski Jumping Tournament in Fox River Grove, IL See some of the nation's best jumpers compete in this northwest Chicago suburb, which has produced several Olympians. Jan. 30–31.

John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in Duluth, MN From Duluth, marathon mushers travel to to Grand Portage and mid-distance racers to Tofte. Spectators are not allowed this year but can follow the race at WDIO.com or MushingMidwest.com.   Jan. 31.

An art sled flies down the hill.

© Torsten Muller

A child flies down the hill at Minneapolis' Art Sled Rally.

First weekend of February

Winter Carnival in St. Paul, MN The feature this year is a drive-through ice- and snow-sculpture park at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. Tickets are $20 per vehicle, $35 for theme packages, and available only in advance. There will also be three scavenger hunts, pop-up outdoor concerts, ice-fishing, softball and puzzle tournaments and Frozen Family Fun Night. Jan. 28–Feb. 7.

Winter Carnival in Houghton, MI This snow fest at Michigan Tech University includes a human dog-sled race, snow volleyball and a tug of war and ends with a torchlight parade and fireworks at Mont Ripley ski hill. Feb. 3–6.

Winterfest and U.S. Snow Sculpting Championship in Lake Geneva, WI In this lake town, there's music, magic shows, a human sled-dog race, ice bars and an ice castle, plus the U.S. snow-sculpting championship. Feb. 3–7.

WinterFest in Crosslake, MN In this Brainerd Lakes area, there are horse-drawn sleigh rides, bonfires, ice car races, helicopter rides, Friday fireworks and Italian Outdoor Olympics. Feb. 4–6.

Winter Festival in Ely, MN There's snow sculpting, an arts walk and Ely Folk School classes. Much of the festival also can be enjoyed virtually. Feb. 4–14.

Snowflake Ski-Jumping Tournament in Westby, WI At the top of a hill that's the equivalent of a 41-story skyscraper, watch jumpers fly by at 55 mph. It's 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 are hot drinks and food at the bottom. Feb. 5–6.

Knickerbocker Ice Festival in Lake Mills, WI The festival in this town east of Madison includes such events as a fish toss, snowball-eating contest, dad-sled race, chili cook-off and Iceberg Open golf tournament. There's ice carving and ice wine, too. Feb. 5–6.

Hot Air Affair in Hudson, WI There will be geocaching, bird-watching, a fat-tire bike race, a corn-hole tournament and drive-through moon glows. Other events will be virtual. Feb. 5–7.

Magical Ice Fest in St. Joseph, MI Watch the pros carve sculptures in this Lake Michigan town. There's also entertainment, a scavenger hunt and magic and crafts for kids. Feb. 5–7.

City of Lakes Loppet in Minneapolis, MN For recreational skiers, the highlight of this big cross-country ski festival are the nightly Luminary Loppets on Lake of the Isles, with glowing ice pillars and "ruins.''  There are also classical and free-style races, orienteering, fat-tire, snowshoeing and skijoring races in Theodore Wirth Park, location of most events.       Feb. 5–7.

Bald Eagle Watching Days in Prairie du Sac, WI This town along the Wisconsin River, next to a hydroelectric plant, offers guided bus tours, live birds of prey programs and kids' activities.  This year, the festival is virtual, with some live programs and some pre-recorded. Feb. 6.

Winterfest Sled Dog Race in Merrill, WI More than 100 mushers compete, and there will also be skijoring, children's and celebrity races. Feb. 6–7.

The human sled race in Grand Haven.

© Kevin Ryan

At Winterfest in Grand Haven, contestants pull in the Human Sled Race.

Second weekend of February

Winter Festival in Ely, MN There's snow sculpting, an arts walk and Ely Folk School classes. Much of the festival also can be enjoyed virtually. Feb. 4–14.

Frozen River Film Festival in Winona, MN This festival shows a large selection of documentaries specializing in adventure, extreme sports and environmental issues. This year is mostly virtual. Feb. 10–14.

Fire & Ice in Sturgeon Bay, WI Ice and snow sculptors create pieces around town. There's a novice category for beginners. On Friday, there will be a candlelight ski/hike at Big Creek Nature Preserve, and on Saturday, there will be fireworks. Feb. 12–13.

Sturgeon Spectacular in Fond du Lac, WI Lake Winnebago is the setting for this celebration of giant fish. There will be ice carving and snow sculpting, a snowman-building contest, bonfires and live music. Feb. 12–14.

Free Entrance Day at Minnesota state parks in All state parks, MN Entrance to all 75 Minnesota state parks and recreation areas is free today, as well as April 24, June 12 and Nov. 26. Feb. 13.

Grand Marais Winter Carnival in Grand Marais, MI On the east end of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, this Lake Superior town offers a poker run, a snowman contest, cardboard-sled races, dog-sled rides and music. Feb. 13–14.

Free Weekend in Michigan state parks in All state parks, MI There's no vehicle-entry fee in Michigan state parks this weekend, and Saturday and Sunday also is Free Fishing Weekend. Check events listings for fishing derbies and candlelight ski and snowshoe evenings. Feb. 13–14.

Outhouse race in Perkinstown.

©

Outhouse races are held in three Michigan towns.

Third weekend of February

Bald Eagle Watching Days in Prairie du Sac, WI This town along the Wisconsin River, next to a hydroelectric plant, offers guided bus tours, live birds of prey programs and kids' activities.  This year, the festival is virtual, with some live programs and some pre-recorded. Feb. 20.

Silver Mine Ski Jumping Championships in Eau Claire, WI Watch top skiers from North America and Europe compete at Silver Mine Hill, above the Chippewa River on the southwest edge of town. Feb. 20–21.

WolfTrack Classic Sled Dog Race in Ely, MN There's a spaghetti feed Saturday and the race to Tower and back on Sunday, with a chance for spectators to mingle beforehand. Feb. 21.

Chinese Lunar New Year's Parade in Chicago, IL Celebrate the Year of the Ox in Chinatown with a parade, marching bands and lion dancing. It starts at 1 p.m. at 24th Street and Wentworth Avenue. Feb. 21.

Fourth weekend of February

American Birkebeiner in Hayward, WI Watch the "Greatest Show on Snow,'' with races of all distances for all ages and abilities plus skijoring and vintage ski. On Saturday, watch the world's best skiers on the 51-kilometer marathon (55 kilometers for classic skiers). On Sunday, there's a ski-gear and fat-bike demo.   Feb. 24–28.

Winterfest in Stillwater, MN In this St. Croix River town, there will be a parka pub crawl, ice maze, stein-holding and beard contests, axe-throwing, ice carving, ice bowling, a snow labyrinth, bubble-wrap races, an ice-cream social and a fire and ice bar. Moved from January.   Feb. 25–28.

Grumpy Old Men Festival in Wabasha, MN There's always good eagle-viewing in this Mississippi River town, and during the festival, there will be an ice-fishing contest, polar plunge and minnow races. Feb. 26–28.

Virtual International Festival in Madison, WI Dancers, musicians, storytellers and puppeteers representing traditions from around the world converge on the Overture Center for the Arts on State Street for this free festival.  This year, the festival is virtual. Feb. 27–Mar 5.

Kites in Clear Lake.

© Kay Day

Show kites are displayed at Clear Lake's Color the Wind festival.

First weekend of March

Virtual International Festival in Madison, WI Dancers, musicians, storytellers and puppeteers representing traditions from around the world converge on the Overture Center for the Arts on State Street for this free festival.  This year, the festival is virtual. Feb. 27–Mar 5.

World's Longest Weenie Roast in Cable, WI Lakewoods Resorts hosts this benefit on Lake Namekagon, which includes snowmobile speed runs, ice bowling, a weenie-eating contest and a frozen weenie polar plunge. March 5–6.

International Festival of Owls in Houston, MN This southeast Minnesota town offers owl prowls, hooting contests, pellet dissection, live-owl programs and children's activities. March 5–7.

Second weekend of March

Virtual Canoecopia in Madison, WI It's the world's largest paddlesports expo, according to host Rutabaga, with dozens of demonstrations, workshops and presentations plus discounts on boats and gear.  It's virtual this year. March 12–14.

For St. Patrick's Day events, see Toasting St. Pat.

For the best events in spring, see Great spring festivals.


Last updated on February 2, 2021