Discover 18 Midwest Winter Adventures | Midwest Living

Discover 18 Midwest Winter Adventures

Come winter, it's easy to hibernate with a book by the fire. But locking yourself away just robs you of the season's stark beauty and serious fun. All it takes to get out there is an idea, a willingness and a couple of layers. We've taken care of the ideas. The rest, you can handle.

Try ice alfresco

Fans of outdoor skating say you can't even compare it to indoor skating. If it starts to snow when you're skating outdoors, it's like a winter wonderland. Even beginners can usually pick up ice skating quickly. Wear two pairs of socks, lace your skates tightly, dress in layers in case you get too warm -- and stay close to the rail (if there is one) if you're nervous.

Some great places to ice skate outdoors? Steinberg Ice Skating Rink ( in St. Louis' Forest Park, Chicago's McCormick Tribune Ice Rink and Plaza in Millennium Park (McCormick Tribune Ice Rink and Plaza) and Crown Center Ice Terrace ( in Kansas City, Missouri.


Go sledding - Olympics-style

This isn't sledding on the hill back home. The wind is whistling. Your cheeks are rippling. But none of that matters. Right now, it's all about velocity.

This is sledding with a helmet, giant tubes of ice and nerves of steel. Trust us: 35 mph may not seem fast in your car, but when you're zipping down a 70-foot-high luge track on nothing more than a hunk of plastic and two runners, it's the closest you'll get to feeling like a missile. At Michigan's Muskegon State Park (just outside Muskegon), even the beginner's track, which tops out at 15 mph, provides an open-throttle thrill.

If you like rides that require a little less safety gear, rent a toboggan at Indiana's Pokagon State Park (40 miles north of Fort Wayne). Pokagon State Park

Or try Nebraska's Eugene T. Mahoney State Park (30 miles southwest of Omaha) with its three toboggan and sled runs. Mahoney State Park

Enjoy the ultimate hot chocolate

Larry Robertson and his wife, Lisa Tallarico, are obsessed with chocolate. They own the Cocoa Cottage Bed and Breakfast ( in Whitehall, Michigan (55 miles northwest of Grand Rapids), where they make Mama Tallarico's Hot Fudge. They collect chocolate memorabilia and even use husks from cocoa beans as garden mulch. So it's not surprising that Larry wouldn't rest without perfecting a hot chocolate recipe, even if, by his estimate, he gained 15 pounds during months of developing this brew.

Cocoa Cottage Hot Chocolate recipe

Track your neighbors

Why read by the fire when every snowy field is an open storybook? Winter provides the best chance to follow animals' habits by using the record they leave with every step in the snow. Grab an animal track guide (you'll find plenty online through a search), then head outside to unravel stories about which animals live near you and what they're up to.

Tracking in wet snow will reveal crisp tracks and other details (think marks from dragging tails). And check for clues like debris alongside tracks. See scattered dirt? That's a sign the animal was moving fast. Just be sure to know tracks: It's no fun when that raccoon you're following turns out to be a skunk.

Build an artsy frosty

Anyone can stack a few hastily rolled snowballs, top them with a hat and call it Frosty. True icy art takes more effort, but not exceptional artistic gifts. Master snow carvers suggest avoiding fresh snow; it's just not hard enough. Instead, pack a few buckets and trash cans tightly with wet snow a day before carving. The weight of the snow will re-crystallize it, making it dense and hard.

When you're ready to build, stack the blocks of snow like a sand castle, using slush as a sort of icy mortar to connect them. Then grab whatever tools you're comfortable with -- chisels, drywall saw, sandpaper, kitchen knives -- and have at it.

If you want to see some master snow and ice carvers, check out the annual Saint Paul Winter Carnival.


Pull on a power hat

Mom wasn't kidding when she said you need a good hat in winter; 30 percent of the body heat we lose steams out through our noggins. For the ultimate winter headwear, it's hard to beat a wool blend cap from the legendary Bemidji Woolen Mills (, operated by Minnesota's Batchelder family since 1920. The caps (left) defang bitter winds, and when a toboggan run gets really serious, you can deploy hidden earflaps.

Soar with the eagles

Our fascination with the national bird continues to grow, judging by the winter eagle-watching festivals along the Mississippi River. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa all have resident and migratory populations of bald eagles.

According to the National Eagle Center ( in Wabasha, Minnesota, the best place to glimpse the birds is around open water -- namely, the hard-to-freeze patches near locks and dams. Bring binoculars. Eagles spook easily if people get too close, though they're less jumpy around cars. Also, look for eagles on cloudy days. The birds hunt by sight, so on sunny days, they're often up soaring so high they can't be spotted.

You'll find an eagle festival nearly every weekend from November to March somewhere along the Mississippi. Try the annual Quad Annual Bald Eagle Days ( or Eagle Month ( in Alton, Illinois.

Chill out inside

Sometimes winter is best enjoyed through a window -- particularly while someone is working out kinks in your lower back. So try a spa when you're ready to pamper away snowball-induced aches and forget winter's chill.

In fact, you forget almost everything while soaking in the waterfall baths at Kohler Waters Spa, the American Club Resort's palace of pampering an hour north of Milwaukee.

Or while you're melting into an exclusive treatment like the hot stone massage at The Well Spa at Grand Geneva Resort in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

Need a quick tune-up? Get spoiled at a local day spa.


Play on frozen ponds

You don't have to skate like Wayne Gretzky to play games on the ice. Heck, you don't even have to skate. Just bundle up, grab some brooms and a ball and head to the pond. In this twist on hockey, everyone seems equally awkward, which gives nonathletes a fighting chance.

Make a party out of icy games at the annual University of Okoboji Winter Games ( in northwest Iowa. The event includes softball, bowling and miniature golf -- all on the frozen West Okoboji Lake.

Wherever you head out on the ice, be safe. Look for 6 inches of clear, fresh ice or stick to areas declared ready for use by local recreation departments.

Hit the slopes

Don't think good skiing requires a long drive to the Rockies or New England. The Midwest claims its share of standout runs. Of northern Michigan's more than 20 resorts and ski areas, Crystal Mountain Resort ( in Thompsonville provides some of the best all-around skiing on 48 downhill runs, including the "black diamond" Lower Gorge, which is wired for racing timing. More than half the runs are lit for night skiing, and you can settle into first-class accommodations.

Marquette Mountain (, near Marquette on the North Shore of the Upper Peninsula, thrills even the extreme-skiing crowd with 600-foot verticals, a new backcountry area and the reopening of the aptly named "Free Fall" trail. Skiers find 21 runs at Sundown Mountain ( in Dubuque, Iowa. It hosts family skiing, black diamond runs and an acclaimed terrain park for snowboarders. For the Midwest's biggest hill, head to Granite Peak Ski Area ( in Wausau, Wisconsin's, Rib Mountain State Park. A recent massive overhaul turned one of the region's oldest ski areas into one of its finest, with a 700-foot vertical drop and 75 runs, a third of them expert-class.

Make heavenly snow angels

The next time a fresh snowfall turns the backyard into a blank canvas, take a few moments to plan a truly inspired snow angel. There's more to it than just plopping down and giving a few kicks.

"You can't have imprints in it anywhere," says Tammy Tritz, who has judged the snow angel contest during the annual JanBoree ( in Waukesha, Wisconsin. "The outline has to be clean, and there can't be any handprints." (The secret: Use those stomach muscles to do a sit-up and then step out of the angel.)

Some contestants even paint their angels using squirt bottles full of food coloring. "You have to mix the dye with hot water," Tammy says. "Otherwise, it just freezes too quickly."

Stoke your inner furnace

A bowl of chili can be like a campfire in your belly. It drives away the cold for hours. And in a place like Grand Forks, North Dakota, where 30 degrees below zero -- not counting wind chill -- isn't big news, it's essential to keep internal embers burning. That might be why the Peartree Restaurant, a longtime eatery at the Grand Forks Holiday Inn, created its famous white chili.

Winter-Busting White Chili recipe

Crunch across the drifts

Step. Crunch. Step. Crunch. Your snowshoes break the thin icy crust with a satisfying sound, settling into the powder below. Cruising over the drifts, you forget how hard it usually is to walk through snow and focus instead on the hushed winter forests and windswept fields.

If you've never tried snowshoeing, find a recreation center or outdoor store with shoes to rent and give it a try. If you can walk, you can snowshoe. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (, a park on Lake Michigan's eastern coast near Traverse City, Michigan, is a great place to start, with 35 miles of shoreline and 400-foot sand dunes. Snowshoes and ranger-led weekend walks are available.

Take a walk in the woods

Strolling doesn't have to be just a summer thing. Heading outside in winter, even for a brief walk, can make you feel like an escapee tasting long-awaited freedom. Local arboretums often provide one of the most enchanting places to amble. When snow and ice transform the landscape, even plants and trees you know well get a new look.

One place suited to quiet walks: the 3,500-acre Holden Arboretum ( in Kirtland, Ohio (20 miles northeast of Cleveland). Twelve trails in this 66-year-old preserve stretch over 20 miles, letting you pass along the east branch of the Chagrin River and through prairie, caves and woods. Head out on your own, or join guided walking tours available year-round.

Jingle all the way

They used to write songs about moments like this. A wool blanket across your lap. Horses pulling your sleigh through the snow. Elk quietly emerging from the forest, nostrils steaming. Even Bing Crosby and a full orchestra would have a hard time summing up the magical beauty of Thunder Bay Resort's elk sleigh ride near Hillman in northeastern Michigan. Thunder Bay Resort

On the ride, guests learn the history of Thunder Bay's private preserve. The horses draw up in front of the majestic Elk Antler Log Cabin, and visitors head inside for crown roast of pork and pan-roasted redskin potatoes served on linen-draped tables near the fireplace.

Go skiing - without a hill

A whole-body workout and sparkling winter scenery? Cross-country skiing offers a rare opportunity to burn serious cold-weather calories without staring at the person on the next treadmill.

Beginners can check local recreation centers and outdoor stores for rental gear and trail tips. One of our region's most scenic -- and educational -- treks is along Wisconsin's Ice Age Trail ( The 1,000-mile footpath is one of eight National Scenic Trails. It reveals the Midwest's natural history by passing signs left by glaciers as they shaped the region. Read up on your moraines, eskers and drumlins. They're all part of the tour, along with hundreds of lakes and ponds.

Hike to frozen falls

Here is a great reason to keep hiking in winter: La Salle Falls. It is one of 14 stunning waterfalls along 13-plus miles of hiking trails in Illinois' Starved Rock State Park (left). LaSalle can freeze into a 20-foot-wide glistening wall that you can actually walk behind. It's a veil of ice with a beautiful light-blue tinge, located just 90 miles southwest of Chicago. Starved Rock State Park

Ohio's Hocking Hills State Park (60 miles southeast of Columbus) offers its own off-season rewards. Amid the park's cliffs, caves and forest are roughly 100 waterfalls. The star is Ash Cave Falls, which forms icicles hanging like teeth 50 feet in the air. Hocking Hills State Park



Tear up the track

If the silent majesty of a winter's morn strikes you as a little too quiet, try a January weekend in Eagle River, Wisconsin, home of the World Championship Snowmobile Derby ( for more than 40 years. Roughly 30,000 fans show up to see 600 racers compete in the Indy 500 of snowmobile racing.

Many fans stand around the half-mile banked track, but if you want out of the cold, enjoy one of 500 heated, private viewing areas known as "hot seats." Even in frigid temps, the action gets heated as riders reach up to 90 mph along the straightaway. Want to try out the track? Trailer in your own sled and take a spin around the oval before the races begin.

A version of this story was originally published in Midwest Living® January/February 2006.

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