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10 Midwest Outdoor Winter Adventures

The prevailing narrative of winter says Mother Nature hibernates. But these 10 Midwest outdoor escapades turn winter into a season of exhilaration. Try hiking, snowshoeing, ice caving, luging, dog sledding and more.
  • Hiking

    Searching for solitude? In winter, even the most popular hiking trails feel like secret paths, newly discovered. At Turkey Run State Park in Marshall, Indiana (155 miles south of Chicago), trails dip into ravines, where natural ice sculptures cling to stone outcroppings, and lead through old-growth forests of evergreen trees stark against swirls of snow. (765) 597-2635; turkeyrunstatepark.com

  • Snowshoeing

    There’s something so very empowering about standing on top of a crisp, crackling crust of snow and not sinking. Strap on a pair of snowshoes, and suddenly, you’re walking on (frozen) water. And walk you can, just about anywhere. In southeast Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest, more than 100 miles of trail run through the north and south units, filled with dense pine forest and open meadows. It’s enough to entertain snowshoers at any level. (262) 594-6200; dnr.wi.gov 

  • Ice caving

    When winter is cold enough to freeze Lake Superior, the lakeshore caves outside Bayfield, Wisconsin (460 miles northwest of Chicago), house stunning ice sculptures. Long stalactites of ice hang from cave ceilings like chandeliers and thick curtains frame cave entrances. The frozen lake makes for an excellent road, allowing visitors to hike to the natural art gallery. (715) 779-3335; bayfield.org

  • Luging

    The world may notice luging only every four years, but the rush of racing down an icy chute at 30 miles per hour plays out every day in Muskegon, Michigan’s, Winter Sports Complex track in Muskegon State Park (190 miles northeast of Chicago). Learn to luge during a two-and-a-half-hour session covering steering and safety before flying 650 feet down a curvy hill in less than 20 seconds. It takes considerably longer to haul the 25-plus-pound sled back to the start. (877) 879-5843; msports.org

  • Snowmobiling

    Nothing opens up miles of wintry backcountry like a snowmobile tour. And few communities love their sleds as much as Eagle River, Wisconsin (330 miles northwest of Chicago), the self-proclaimed Snowmobile Capital of the World. Riders from throughout the region flock here to play on miles of dedicated trails. Don’t have your own ride? Rent one from The Toy Shop, or sign up for a tour with Decker’s Sno-Venture Tours. After a day outside, relax in the Eagle Waters Resort’s comfortable accommodations. (800) 359-6315; eagleriver.org

  • Photo courtesy of The Siberian Outpost

    Dog sledding

    If you like a heart-to-heart connection  with your mode of winter transportation, get to know Jim Feyen’s friendly sled dogs near Malone, Wisconsin (170 miles northwest of Chicago). You’ll greet the huskies while Jim explains the sport’s gear and history. At his signal, the dogs race down the trail, kicking up snow as you wind through the trees. Contact the Siberian Outpost (920/960-4252). Cap the day with skating, sledding and a fireplace in your room at The Osthoff Resort in nearby Elkhart Lake. (855) 203-8592; osthoff.com

  • Strolling (through a sculpture garden)

    The sprawling Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan (186 miles east of Chicago), feels serene and intimate in the winter when crowds dissipate and the park sparkles with fresh snow. The curved walkways and groomed paths weave past more than 200 sculptures, including the 24-foot The American Horse, inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s work. This November marks the 20th anniversary of the Christmas and Holiday Traditions Around the World exhibit, a display of tree decorations, games and traditional garb among the indoor galleries and outdoor gardens. (888) 957-1580; meijergardens.org

  • Photo courtesy of McHenry County Conservation District

    Cross-country skiing

    Folks in Woodstock, Illinois, know if there are 4 inches of snow on the ground, it’s game on for nighttime skiing. The McHenry County Conservation District (60 miles northwest of Chicago) has more than 40 miles of cross-country trails; solar lights illuminate the half-mile Pleasant Valley path (flat and perfect for beginners) and the 1-mile Hickory Grove Highlands loop, so you can ski well past sunset. As you swish past towering oak and hickory trees, keep your eyes peeled for deer and great horned owls. (815) 338-6223; mccdistrict.org

  • Ice-skating

    Show off your entry-level double axle (OK, a figure 8) at the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink near the iconic Cloud Gate sculpture in Millennium Park. For 14 years, the rink has hosted ice sports and free lessons in addition to the open skate through March. The circular space is impressive, larger than the rink at Rockefeller Center in New York City. No skates? No problem. Rent a pair for $10. Bonus: The location in one of Chicago’s most visited attractions makes for memorable people-watching. (312) 742-1168; millenniumpark.org

  • Downhill skiing

    At Chestnut Mountain Resort in Galena, Illinois (160 miles west of Chicago), downhill skiing is the chief lure. Set in the hills above the Mississippi River, the property covers more than 220 acres of skiable slopes. Speedy chairlifts whisk you to the top of green-circle and black-diamond runs for river views from some 475 feet in the air. For those in need of lessons, the half- or full-day Powder Program gets you black-diamond ready in no time—or at the least off the bunny hill. (815) 777-1320; chestnutmtn.com

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