Just a half hour west of Minneapolis, this lakefront town shines during the dog days of winter.

Leading up to race day, businesses in Excelsior, Minnesota, are plastered with confessions: "It was us. We let the dogs out." Held the first Friday and Saturday of February, the Lake Minnetonka Klondike Dog Derby brightens the grayest days of winter. Tons of snow is hauled in and packed down the spine of Excelsior's central district, which plays host to both the start and finish line. The 40-mile course skirts frozen Lake Minnetonka before returning.

urban dogsled race
Credit: Kate Evans

The night before, kids can "hug a husky," talk to the mushers, watch the dogs be examined by veterinarians and even take short sled rides. On race morning, spectators flood Water Street to cheer the start. Children clutch plush huskies that sell out before noon, adults nurse hot toddies hawked by the corner pub Bull and Wren, and a lucky handful of raffle winners claim primo viewing seats inside the display window of Excelsior Bay Books.

As the teams find their rhythm along the lake, fans trickle down to an empty lot transformed into Klondike Village with food trucks, firepits and a bar. Speakers broadcast live commentary while miles away, mushers and dogs lay it all on the snow, racing back to the downtown finish. 

Where to Eat

Cozy and chic restaurants line Water Street and dot the surrounding area. Find ultra-crispy thin-crust pizza piled with flavorful ingredients at Olive's Fresh. Go old-school with burgers, chicken, soups and wraps at Haskell's Port of Excelsior, adjoining a 1930's-era liquor store at the bottom of Water Street. For something more refined, score a window table at Coalition and watch the activity from your front-row seat. At happy-hour time, sample whatever is on tap at Excelsior Brewing Company; order a buttered rum at the Bull and Wren pub; or join the crowd at lakefront Maynards, where guests arrive by snowmobile in winter. Many restaurants offer live music on weekends, including ticketed concerts at 318 Cafe

What to Do

If you choose to visit Excelsior on a weekend when the town hasn't gone to the dogs, explore along the plowed 15-mile Lake Minnetonka Regional Trail. Enter the trail one block up Water Street from Hotel Excelsior; by foot or by pedal, you can't go wrong heading either direction. Then spend a few hours perusing Excelsior's shops. It's a great way to meet locals and perhaps pet a shop dog or two. Highlights include vintage art posters at Golden Rule Gallery, Lake Minnetonka throw blankets at Faribault Mill and top-shelf outerwear at Brightwater Clothing and Gear

Where to Stay

Wake up at the center of Water Street in Hotel Excelsior, which isn't really a hotel but rather four luxe guest suites on the second floor of a fully restored 1895 building. The Lobby—which isn't really a lobby—is a street-level coffee bar run by the hotel's owner. It is a jewel box of a space, featuring daily pastries from Minneapolis' Patisserie 46 and beans by Tony Querio of Silverbird Roasting Company.