Explore the winter wonderland of Northeast Minnesota and Northwest Wisconsin.
This area is incredible any time of year, but winter is the season that truly defines the Northland. Spectacular snowfalls, stunning scenery, winter festivals — the magic will confront you on your stroll through the woods or drive through town. Then there’s the multitude of cold weather activities that people enjoy during the chilly months — skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating, and much, much more.
First off, people take their winter sports seriously in this neck of the woods. Robust followings are built up around hockey, curling, and other team sports played on snow or ice. Hockey teams from this area regularly make national headlines, and just last year, the first U.S. team to take home the gold for curling was made up of four Minnesotans and one Wisconsinite.
On the other hand, if it’s solitude you seek, there are plenty of serene options to choose from. Whether you’re looking to go on a quick afternoon hike or an extended ice fishing weekend, the woods are deep and the lakes are plentiful. There are also three major trail systems worth visiting. Stretching from the Minnesota-Wisconsin border and Duluth to Grand Marais and just short of the Canadian border, the Superior Hiking Trail follows the ridgeline overlooking Lake Superior. On the Iron Range, the Mesabi Trail connects Grand Rapids, Hibbing, and Ely. To the north, the Gunflint Trail stretches from Grand Marais to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA).
Many stretches of trail are snowmobile-friendly, but not all. Check websites ahead of time for access guidelines as well as snow conditions — especially if you’re planning to do any fat biking. This sport is trending right now, but not all trails are equipped for the thick-wheeled activity. That said, you can count on the Fat Bike Birkie in Cable, Wisconsin — billed as your one-day-a-year-chance to ride a fat bike on the American Birkebeiner Ski Trail.
If you feel like going off the beaten path, parks and campgrounds are almost as plentiful as the lakes, rivers, and streams that shape this territory. Both Minnesota and Wisconsin are home to endless possibilities for camping — rugged, resort, and anything in between. You can also explore a variety of state parks ranging from Jay Cooke State Park along the St. Louis River to Gooseberry Falls, Split Rock Lighthouse and Tettegouche up the North Shore. Wisconsin is home to gorgeous Pattison Park as well as Brule River State Forest. Lying just off the shore of Bayfield, the scenic Apostle Islands include Madeline Island, which is accessible via “The Ice Road” when Lake Superior is fully frozen.
And that brings us to the Apostle Island Ice Caves. When conditions are right, these breathtaking ice formations are a not-to-be-missed experience that only comes around once every few years. Be sure to check the official government website for public safety notifications before making the trek across the ice of frozen Lake Superior to witness these crystalline wonders.
Another unique part of winter culture up north is sled dog racing. Home to the WolfTrack Classic Sled Dog Race in Northern Minnesota, Ely has an actual Dogsled Directory for those wishing to relax in a warm cabin or resort room after a thrilling day of hitting the trails. The John Beargrease is the best-known marathon, and there is also the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Races and the Northern Pines Sled Dog Race in Iron River, Wisconsin.
Downhill and cross country skiers alike can start with Spirit Mountain in Duluth and continue up the North Shore of Lake Superior to check out one world-class skiing destination after another — especially in Lutsen. At Lutsen Mountains, choose from 95 sweeping runs over the Sawtooth Mountains, which rise 1088 feet above the coastline. Featuring a lift-serviced vertical rise, this locale on Minnesota’s “Snow Belt” receives a staggering 10 feet of snow on average, annually. Think family ski vacations and romantic weekend getaways!
You can also ski to your heart’s content at Mont du Lac, a charming and family-friendly ski resort nestled among the cedars and overlooking the St. Louis River and Jay Cooke State Park in Superior, Wisconsin. Another adventurous option is Mt. Ashwabay, located right next to Bayfield’s Big Top Chautauqua concert venue. Overlooking the Apostle Islands, this ski hill and recreation area also supports a tubing hill, skijoring, fat tire biking, and more.
Finally, a host of annual wintertime festivals and ongoing events offer hotspots of seasonal cheer. During the holidays, the Bentlyville City of Lights in Duluth’s Bayfront Park is the world’s largest free walk-through lighting display. At the other end of winter, the first weekend in March marks the Bayfield Winter Festival — “a wild weekend of winter fun celebrating snow, ice, and cabin fever!” Neighboring Ashland is coming up on a quarter century of holding their Book Across the Bay in mid-February. This 10 kilometer nighttime race takes snowshoers and skiers of all ability levels across the starlit bay from Ashland to Washburn.
Warm up and chase away the winter doldrums with food and fun at these annual events:
- SnowBall Music & Ski Festival (Grand Marais)
- Dark Sky Festival (Grand Marais)
- Glensheen Duluth Winter Village (Duluth, MN)
- Music & Ski Party (Grand Marais)
- Hygge Festival (Grand Marais)
- Lake Superior Ice Festival (Superior, WI)
- Two Harbors Winter Frolic (Two Harbors, MN)
- Bayfield Winter Festival (Bayfield, WI)
For more info on everything from wintertime pursuits to snow conditions, as well as relocation resources, check out these regional links:
- Ashland Area Chamber of Commerce (Ashland, WI)
- Apostle Islands National Park Service (Bayfield, WI)
- Bayfield County Events (Bayfield, WI)
- Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce (Duluth, MN)
- Ely Chamber of Commerce (Ely, MN)
- Ely Winter Activities (Ely, MN)
- Hibbing Chamber of Commerce (Hibbing, MN)
- Laurentian Chamber of Commerce (Eveleth, Gilbert, Mt. Iron, Virginia, MN)
- Madeline Island Chamber of Commerce (La Pointe, WI)
- Recreation and Fitness Resources (Bayfield, WI)
- Superior Chamber of Commerce (Superior, WI)
- Visit Cook County (Lutsen, Tofte, Schroeder, Grand Marais, Gunflint Trail, Grand Portage, MN)