15 of the Best Outdoor Winter Activities and Festivals Around the Midwest
1. Let It Go, Wisconsin and Minnesota
Calling all Queen Elsa-wannabes: Your palaces await. In New Brighton, Minnesota, and Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, ice artists create walk-through castles with tunnels, slides and frozen fountains etched into natural-looking formations. (Another version in Stillwater, Minnesota, includes a half-mile maze and an ice bar.) At night, colorful LEDs illuminate the ice. Looking for the perfect Insta shot? Take a seat on an icy throne—the cold never bothered you anyway.
2. Ice Picks and Chill, Michigan and Illinois
Most of us try to avoid falling on ice. Some adventurous souls actually want to tempt gravity, using axes to climb frozen waterfalls or sheets of ice. Munising, on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, hosts an annual ice climbing festival and is near several popular spots. (Beginners can book a guided trip via Ice Climbing Michigan.) Starved Rock State Park in Oglesby, Illinois, has three canyons for experienced climbers.
3. Let the Games Begin, Okoboji, Iowa
January 27–30 You'll hear the University of Okoboji Winter Games before you see them. The throttling of an ATV as it skids around a frozen lake. The yelps of slipping and sliding four-man human "dogsled" team. These raucous games, named for a fictional university, started more than 40 years ago and now include 25 events. If you're brave, take the polar plunge into Iowa's Great Lakes. The Burning of the Greens closes out the festival—a massive bonfire of discarded Christmas trees.
4. Walk on (Not) Thin Ice
Walk the walk, while the ice talks the talk. Or rather, sings. When you step onto a frozen lake (remember, the ice must be at least 4 inches thick!), it responds with groans, hums and creaks, flexing with each step. Like a note plucked on a string instrument, the sound reverberates across the expanse. Even in the stillest of winters, the lake reminds you, it's still here—and still alive.
5. Play with Art, Minneapolis
January 15–February 6 Colorful structures pepper Lake Harriet, like a cartoon village on ice. Created by local artists and inspired by traditional ice fishing villages, the imaginative Art Shanties have popped up on area lakes since 2004. Past iterations have included a star-shape Lite-Brite illuminated by the sun, and a butterfly shanty where visitors could ride bikes with attached monarch wings.
6. Attend a Winter Festival
Festivals served over ice celebrate the chilliest season—sometimes for several weekends in a row.
Frostival, Fargo, North Dakota
January 15–February 26 Fargo leans into a seemingly never-ending winter with a six-week festival. Check the calendar for activities like ice fishing tournaments or a movie on the ice. Warm up with yoga in your parka—or go the other way, and strip down for an undie run. (Brr!)
The Great Northern, Twin Cities
January 27–February 6 The Great Northern festival celebrates winter while highlighting current issues like climate change through art, film and wellness. The 10 days encompass several different events, including the City of Lakes Loppet Winter Festival (with the popular ice luminarias night) and the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships.
Festival of Ice, Carmel, Indiana
January 8–9 Ladies and gentlemen, start your chain saws. At the Festival of Ice in suburban Indianapolis, professional ice-carvers wield picks and power tools to create intricate designs and vie for People's Choice.
7. Fly a Kite, Clear Lake, Iowa
February 19 An octopus floats through a sea of clear blue. A school of fish flaps in the wind, tailed by a hungry, fiery dragon. Look up, and you're floating in a fantasy world. Look down, and you realize you're grounded—on solid ice. Clear Lake's Color the Wind kite festival began 20 years ago to brighten up monotonous winter days in northern Iowa. When kites lift on the prairie breeze, they carry spirits with them.
8. Go Fish
Sitting around a hole in the ice waiting for walleye doesn't reward impatience. But it's a winter ritual for thousands of Upper Midwesterners. Some do it for the sport, but most treasure the camaraderie. Piling into (heated) huts with friends or family and clinking beers with fellow anglers warms both body and soul. And the fish tales that come out of it are even better.
9. Take the Plunge, Cleveland
Every town has its best sledding hill. Cleveland boasts two—twin 700-foot toboggan chutes atMill Stream Run Reservation. (You know those racing slides at water parks? Imagine that, minus the splash.) Riders shoot down the hills on wooden toboggans, reaching speeds up to 50 mph.
10. Chill Out, Duluth
Cedar and Stone Nordic Sauna on the edge of Lake Superior trades in pure hygge. During private guided experiences, an expert takes you through the thermic cycle: hot, cold, rest, rehydrate and repeat. In winter, you can try the temporary ice sauna. (Think igloo meets sweat lodge.) Though warmed by a Finnish wood-fired stove, it's cooler than Cedar and Stone's permanent hot house—both literally and figuratively.
11. Tee Off, Wayzata, Minnesota
February 11–12 Who says you can't golf in the snow? Not Minnesota. Since 1984, the Chilly Open has been held on frozen Lake Minnetonka. Organizers carve out three 9-hole golf courses in Wayzata Bay, and golfers—often wearing wacky costumes to match that year's tourney theme—arrive with clubs and hockey sticks.
12. Sled Like an Olympian, Muskegon, Michigan
Live out your Beijing 2022 fantasies at Muskegon Luge Adventure Sports Park. Three-time Olympian Frank Masley designed the facility to be one of the few in the country where novices can try the sport. Sleds can reach speeds of up to 30 mph on the naturally frozen 650-foot track. Book the 21/2-hour Luge Experience to learn what it feels like to hurtle down an icy chute on your back. (Don't miss the park's forest skating trail, a magical path that winds through the trees.)
13. Kick into Gear, Door County, Wisconsin
Last year, Door County Kicksled introduced Scandinavian kick-sleds to Wisconsin. Imagine a cross between a scooter and a dogsled—stand behind it, kick to get moving, hop on, and glide across ice or firmly packed snow. Order one starting at $300 or try before you buy at Crossroads at Big Creek's annual Ski for Free days.
14. Skate On
Forget skating in dizzy circles around a temporary oval rink. Glide around a winding path or between multiple ponds at these notable city parks.
Maggie Daley Park, Chicago
The Ice Skating Ribbon is an artificial trail that snakes a quarter-mile around towering climbing walls, with glittering skyscrapers for a backdrop. A beginner-doable elevation change adds interest—have you ever skated uphill?
Centennial Lakes Park, Edina, Minnesota
In a suburban park, skaters flit across 10 acres of well-groomed ice—three ponds, linked by narrow, meandering canals. A shelter building provides a comfy break.
Tenney Park, Madison, Wisconsin
This peaceful, groomed lagoon and hockey rink in an East Side park loops under photogenic bridges and past houses and a skate-rental facility.
15. Go All Natural
You can schedule a festival or rink hours, but ice reminds us that nature follows a private calendar. The magic is in the surprise. Waking to droplets hanging like jewels from branches. A pristine leaf, glazed on the sidewalk. Bubbles dimpled on a frozen pond, evidence of life below.
Along the Great Lakes, ripples of ice start to rim the shores in early winter, gradually expanding farther out. Each day offers a new view. Broken chunks pile on beaches, stirred up by waves that roll in from the open water. Tiny icicles hang from brittle dune grasses. Thick ones drip from piers and lighthouses.
These marvels, once annual rituals, can't be taken for granted. Across the far-north Midwest, ice caves pock the landscapes, but warming temperatures have made them more challenging to access. In Wisconsin's remote Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Lake Superior crashes into rocky recesses, exploding against the walls and leaving frozen fingers. To get there, you have to trek more than a mile over the frozen lake from the mainland. In recent years, that hasn't been safely possible. Photos like these remind us what climate change threatens. The chance to see these fragile formations—the mark of winter, nature's best architect—is a rare gift.