A breeze lifts wisps of snow for a ride across frozen Geneva Lake, drifting over dozens of ice-fishing houses—and over a mini Stonehenge of 9-foot-tall slabs of packed snow standing along the shore. In a few hours, 15 teams of artists from across the country will pull into this southern Wisconsin town of 8,400, put on as much cold-weather gear as one body can wear and work through the night creating truly amazing snow sculptures.
Most people who visit the resort town of Lake Geneva (80 miles northwest of Chicago) never get to see the sculpted artistry, preferring to loll along the lakeshore during the summertime or take one of the popular boat cruises that highlight the former summer homes of wealthy Victorian families. But each winter (Feb 3-Feb. 13, 2016), thousands of hardy visitors arrive in Lake Geneva for the U.S. National Snow Sculpting Competition. While the artists armed with handsaws and chisels battle with their blocks of snow, spectators watch the fun from cozy lakeside restaurants and hotels warmed by in-room fireplaces.
Lake Geneva’s annual Winterfest, which includes a carnival at Grand Geneva Resort, offers a getaway that promises cheaper rates at the 10 lodgings near the lake’s southern shore and quick seating at the more than 20 local restaurants. Post-holiday sales give shoppers browsing the 25-plus stores in the walkable downtown another incentive to buy.
Veteran sculptor Erika Haroldson, who often teams up with her parents to compete, hunkers down and picks up a garden trowel, then deftly scrapes a layer of snow from her slab. Knives, shovels, ladders, gardening tools and food graters surround her. The team uses spray paint to carefully outline the plan—a lion and a lamb at the foot of a delicate Celtic cross. Then the demolition begins.
“My dad always jokes that my mom and I are more creative-—he’s just there to move the snow,” says Erika, who lives in Wyoming but travels to snow-sculpting events throughout the Midwest.
The carvers arrive on Wednesday. With an 11 a.m. deadline on Saturday, time is tight. “Sometimes we work late, like 1 a.m.,” while wide-eyed kids ditching bedtime and cuddling couples look on, Erika says. “[The town] provides excellent lighting with spotlights. A lot of people actually come to watch after dark, really late into the night.”
Throughout the four-day event, most of the action takes place near the Riviera, a historic ballroom along the shore. Across the street, the warmth of Popeye’s on Lake Geneva pulls in visitors eager for bowls of hot chowder. Popeye’s sports a nautical theme, with antique diving suits, pictures and fishing gear tacked to the walls. Tables set along the windows offer sweeping views of the lake, and servers laden with trays offer a Wisconsin staple, fried fish. Outside, Popeye’s year-round rotisserie pit cooks chickens over charcoal. Lights flicker inside the ice-fishing shacks that have formed their own community out on the lake, and a handful of bars stay lively until last call.
The sun rises, throwing its rays on the results: Erika’s intricate lion and lamb, musician-frogs in bayou finery, an airplane in flight, a warring Viking atop his armored horse and an elephant sitting up on a floating magic carpet. After breakfast, curious onlookers pull on coats and mittens to head outside and check out the sculptures’ fine details up close: the folds of cloth in a garment, the hairs in a lion’s mane, the ripple of muscles in a horse’s neck.
Visitors cast ballots for the People’s Choice winner; the sculptors themselves decide the overall winner based on difficulty, artistic expression and execution. Team Minnesota, with its tangle of swarming sharks, captures the overall title. A runner-up: ’Til the Fat Lady Swings, an enormous woman, comically wedged into a swing bowing under her weight, warbling an unheard song.
When the contest ends, the crowd heads off to Grand Geneva Resort. The lodge’s Winter Carnival holds skiing and snowboarding demonstrations and competitions, along with kids’ activities, including face painting and a treasure hunt. A trolley runs from the parking lot to the lodge, bringing in a stream of guests that continues after dusk, just in time for the torchlight parade. Ski instructors, with lights and sparklers fastened to their poles, glow as they snake down the mountain. Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture hits its dramatic crescendo on the outdoor sound system, and fireworks explode overhead. Their colors skitter and play across the snow, another unusual splash of beauty that rewards winter visitors.
Click to the next page for more ideas for frosty fun near Chicago and a trip guide to Lake Geneva.
Geneva Trip Guide
What to do
U.S. National Snow Sculpting Competition (414) 332-2188; usnationals.org 
Where to eat
Gino’s East of Chicago Chicago-area visitors hankering for hometown flavor will fid it inside the Harbor Shore of Geneva Lake hotel. The pizza always pleases; the salads are great, too. (262) 248-2525; ginoseast.com 
Popeye’s of Lake Geneva Try the all-you-can-eat fish fry. (262) 248-4381; popeyesonlakegeneva.com 
Where to stay
The Cove of Lake Geneva This lakefront option has an indoor pool that’s a hig with kids and a cash breakfast bar with muffins and coffee. (800) 770-7107; coveoflakegeneva.com 
Grand Geneva Resort and Spa Northeast of downtown, choose a room or suite; enjoy golf and excellent restaurants, as well as an updated Well Spa. (800) 558-3417; grandgeneva.com 
For more information: Lake Geneva Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (800) 345-1020; lakegenevawi.com 
More frosty fun in the region
Several places within an easy drive of Chicago hold free annual snow and ice festivals. Unpredictable weather can alter events, so call ahead to confirm schedules.
Rockford (mid-January) The winner of the Illinois Snow Sculpture Competition (90 miles northwest of Chicago) goes on to compete in Lake Geneva. High school teams also compete for top awards. While in Rockford, check out the Burpee Museum of Natural History, or get a burst of spring color in the nearby Sinnissippi Greenhouse. (815) 987-1600; rockfordparkdistrict.org 
St. Joseph, Michigan (mid-February) This lakeside city (90 miles northeast of Chicago, on Lake Michigan’s eastern shore) becomes a winter playland during the Magical Ice Carving Festival. An ice-carving competition with 15 artists is the main attraction during the fest, which also features a magician and a chance for adults to take advantage of specials in the shops and to try some Michigan wines at a tasting. If you’re inspired by the ice carvings but want to warm up, check out the art on display in the many local galleries. (269) 985-1111; sjtoday.org 
Downers Grove (mid-February) Twenty-five miles west of Chicago, an Ice Sculpture Festival features nearly three dozen contenders vying for cash prizes. Their works of art line Main Street. The family-oriented festival includes kids’ activities and food (630/725-0991; downtowndg.org