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Snow Time! Midwest Winter Festivals

Join the fun at these festivals in cities, small towns and along the biggest of the Great Lakes.

Saint Paul Winter Carnival: A Vulcan fairy tale

Fireworks explode, and a hardy crowd outside the Saint Paul Public Library cheers and dances, probably as much to keep warm as to herald victory in this quirky citywide ritual. Each winter, some 525,000 frozen souls lose themselves in a Vulcan fairy tale in which a winter king battles Vulcans eager for spring. Winter always loses, the story goes, even though everyone knows it'll be months before the spring thaw comes.

Legend says the event started with a snub: An East Coast newspaperman visited in 1885 and said Minnesota was unfit for human habitation. No matter that Minnesotans themselves spend countless hours complaining about the cold--the gauntlet had been thrown. Two years later, the Saint Paul Winter Carnival began. These days, the carnival (late January to early February) packs 125 events throughout the town. "The Winter Carnival defines us as Northern people," carnival historian Bob Olsen says simply.

Pictured: Ice-skating is free (skate rentals are $2) at the rink outside the Landmark Center.

Saint Paul Winter Carnival: A Vulcan fairy tale

Fireworks explode, and a hardy crowd outside the Saint Paul Public Library cheers and dances, probably as much to keep warm as to herald victory in this quirky citywide ritual. Each winter, some 525,000 frozen souls lose themselves in a Vulcan fairy tale in which a winter king battles Vulcans eager for spring. Winter always loses, the story goes, even though everyone knows it'll be months before the spring thaw comes.

Legend says the event started with a snub: An East Coast newspaperman visited in 1885 and said Minnesota was unfit for human habitation. No matter that Minnesotans themselves spend countless hours complaining about the cold--the gauntlet had been thrown. Two years later, the Saint Paul Winter Carnival began. These days, the carnival (late January to early February) packs 125 events throughout the town. "The Winter Carnival defines us as Northern people," carnival historian Bob Olsen says simply.

Pictured: Ice-skating is free (skate rentals are $2) at the rink outside the Landmark Center.

Saint Paul Winter Carnival: Winter showdown

Rice Park transforms into a Christmas tree garden decked with thousands of twinkling lights. Visitors shuffle among ice sculptures shaped like unicorns, dragons and Vikings at the state fairgrounds (pictured). Kids cheer as fireballs launched from the Torchlight Parade puncture the crisp night air, and couples glide on the rink in front of the castlelike Landmark Center. The stately St. Paul Hotel lays down carpet-protecting plastic sheeting as it welcomes families eager to warm up and sip hot cocoa. Outside, bartenders sling spiced winter ales over ornately carved ice bars. On the last night, mischievous Vulcans clad in red suits and black ski goggles run through the crowd, marking black V's on visitors' cheeks, leaving them bewildered if they don't know the legend. It's just a little reminder about whose side they should be on during this annual winter showdown.

TRIP GUIDE
For more information: Saint Paul Convention and Visitors Authority (651) 265-4900; visitsaintpaul.com
WHAT TO DO
Saint Paul Winter Carnival Prepare to party January 23 - February 2, 2014. (651) 223-4700; winter-carnival.com
WHERE TO STAY
Saint Paul Hotel This luxurious landmark is convenient to the carnival. (800) 292-9292; saintpaulhotel.com

Clarksville Eagle Days: Regal birds

A conservation naturalist in Clarksville, Missouri, watches a single bald eagle soar over the Mississippi River--and then hopes for more so visitors will get their fill, plus great snapshots. Each winter, more than 2,000 eagles pass over this Great River Road town (population: 500) 75 miles northwest of St. Louis. Clarksville Eagle Days at the end of January celebrates with talks, films, sales in art galleries and more.

A bonfire in the park flares while folks in the visitors center learn how eagles leave their nests in Canada and the Great Lakes states and choose nesting sites near the Mississippi's locks and dams, all because the water movement keeps ice from forming. On a good day, dozens of eagles dive-bomb at 60 mph near Lock and Dam No. 24 in search of fish. (You're more likely to see eagles in the morning, which--as all fishermen know--is the best time for a good catch.)

Clarksville Eagle Days: Rounding out the weekend

But not all days are good for spotting eagles. When the skies are as blank as an artist's gray canvas, a one-hour live eagle show awes visitors unaccustomed to seeing these 8-14-pound birds up close. Inspired, they tie scarves on tight and head out to River Front City Park Pavilion, then peer into scopes for peeks at eagles in the trees. Fried catfish lunches, served alongside ham, beans and corn bread, satisfy at the American Legion Hall and the Methodist church; the VFW Hall holds a barbecue lunch.

To round out an eagle-spotting weekend, some travelers find their way to Overlook Farm, a Missouri-proud story of history and heritage rolled up into quiet, plush inns and a farm-to-fork restaurant known for creative twists on comfort foods. It's a perfect end to a day spent admiring American royalty. 

TRIP GUIDE
For more information, contact the city of Clarksville. (573) 242-3336; clarksvillemo.us
WHAT TO DO
Clarksville Eagle Days, January 25-26, 2014. (573) 242-3336; clarksvillemo.us
WHERE TO EAT
Eagle's Bluff Restaurant and Lounge Enjoy river views and great sandwiches. (573) 242-3309; clarksvillemo.us/eaglebluffgolf.html
WHERE TO STAY
Overlook Farm This 200-acre farm offers a lovely restaurant and guest suites. From $150. (573) 242-3838; overlookfarmmo.com

Book Across the Bay: Fire and ice

A line of 1,000 luminarias stretches across Wisconsin's Chequamegon Bay, beckoning skiers down Book Across the Bay's 10K track. Their welcoming flicker--and more than a little adrenaline at the idea of cross-country skiing across Lake Superior after dark--pulls 3,000 adventurers away from the enormous on-ice bonfire behind the Hotel Chequamegon and across the starting line.

As skiers glide past each kilometer marker, cheers erupt from volunteers working the water tables: 1K down, 9 to go on the journey from Ashland (70 miles east of Duluth, Minnesota) to Washburn. The skiers (and more than a few snowshoers) clump up at the start, but the hard-core racers eventually pull ahead, exhaling puffs of steam in a measured cadence.

Book Across the Bay: Party on the lake

Sunset's ruddy glow on the ice dissolves to reveal mirrored moonlight, and fireworks sprinkle red, green and gold over the course as the leaders raise their arms in victory and rush inside heated tents, eager to grab a mug of hot chocolate or steaming bowl of chili. Slower skiers and snowshoers trickle in later, smiling to hear their names called out on loudspeakers as they cross the finish line, thanks to the computer chips strapped to their ankles. As they pop off their skies, a band revs up, determined to keep the party going.

This frigid fund-raiser for the local library has blossomed since it started more than 15 years ago, and it's easy to see why. Bonfires. Luminaria-lined paths. Fireworks. Cheering crowds. Steaming chili and ice-cold beer. And an invigorating trek with several thousand fun-loving folks across the largest freshwater lake on earth. That's how you do winter in northern Wisconsin. -- Melanie Radzicki McManus

TRIP GUIDE
For more information, contact the Ashland Area Chamber of Commerce. (800) 284-9484; visitashland.com
WHAT TO DO
Book Across the Bay The 2014 event will be February 15. (800) 284-9484; batb.org
WHERE TO EAT
Good Thyme Feast on fig-and-fromage pizza in a pretty house-turned-restaurant. (715) 373-5255; goodthymerestaurant.com
WHERE TO STAY
Pinehurst Inn This ecofriendly B&B near Bayfield has a small spa. From $99. (877) 499-7651; pinehurstinn.com

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