Cold temps and snowy conditions don’t deter these Wisconsin festivals—in fact, chilly weather and having fun in the snow are required.
Sauk Prairie Bald Eagle Watching Days, January 18-19, 2019
The bald eagle has really made a comeback in Wisconsin, and sightings in summer are pretty common. But in winter they will gather in abundance around open water looking for a meal. The Wisconsin River between Sauk City and Prairie du Sac (jointly called Sauk Prairie) remains unfrozen beneath the dam and dozens of the majestic birds perch in the bare branches along shore. This weekend event brings in a crowd with binoculars. Watch for free public lectures, and stop at the viewing area in Prairie du Sac, overlooking Eagle Island, for telescope viewing in a protected area ideal for photographing eagles.
Good Eats: Vintage Brewing Co. is family-friendly and has a deck overlooking the river for a good chance to spot more eagles. The Blue Spoon Cafe is a casual spot with upscale, fresh cafe offerings on the river—and is good for breakfast. If you’re looking for a supper club experience, try Green Acres or the German-themed Dorf Haus.
Lake Geneva Winterfest, January 26-February 3, 2019
You’ll find snow art in a number of places, but nothing this good. Lake Geneva hosts the U.S. National Snow Sculpting Competition during this weeklong winter festival. Fifteen teams travel from all over the country to Flatiron Park and the Riviera Plaza, where with great skill and detail, they fashion snow into amazing sculptures over nine feet tall. But it’s not just a spectator’s week: taste the entries of the chili cook-off, participate in the human sled dog races, listen to live music, laugh at comedy shows, check out magic acts and take the family on a Cocoa Crawl at a gaggle of downtown establishments. An assortment of area resorts and bed and breakfasts offer a respite from the cold, perhaps with more hot chocolate and some time around a warm hearth.
The Ice Judge Cometh: The sculptors themselves judge the sculptures based on creativity, technique and message to award first, second and third place. Additionally, the public votes for the People’s Choice Awards.
Fish Creek Winter Festival, February 1-3, 2019
Door County does winter right with candlelight skiing, a chili cook-off and a bit of ice bowling—surely soon to be an Olympic sport. There’s also a costumed Fruit Loop Fun Run, an entertaining Stumpf Fiddle Contest and an awesome fireworks show. Fun and games include minnow racing, chocolate sampling, and free trolley rides to the cherry pit spitting contest at Orchard Country Winery & Market.
Grape Expectations: Stop in for a tasting at Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery & Market just south of town. A bit farther south are Stone’s Throw Winery and Harbor Ridge Winery.
Hudson Hot Air Affair, February 1-3, 2019
Nothing says winter quite like … hot air balloons? At least, that’s how it is along the St. Croix River in Hudson. A calendar of countdown events lead up to this three-day weekend. Friday evening features balloonists shooting bursts of fire into the night as they roll along a parade route amid kazoo marching bands, ending with fireworks over the river. More than 30 balloons launch at sunrise on Saturday and Sunday, and in the evening they inflate once more, lighting up the dark with glowing colors—making for some dazzling photo ops. Other activities include bingo and a pancake breakfast, kite-flying and ice-carving shows, and a fun run and an ice-fishing derby. Take part in some geocaching and a bit of birdwatching: eagles and trumpeter swans winter here.
Don’t Miss: See a current art gallery or catch a show at The Phipps Center for the Arts. Or, learn some local history on a tour of the Octagon House Museum.
Minocqua Ice Cold Beer Festival, February 9, 2019
One of the Wisconsin Brewers Guild’s annual festivals, this beer fest is a celebration of Wisconsin’s only rival to cheese for most popular product. Celebrated in the town of Minocqua, the festival is held on an island in frozen Lake Minocqua under a heated big-top tent. Brewers from Wisconsin and its neighboring Midwestern states offer over 250 different beers. Tickets go on sale on October 1 and sell out quickly. The four-hour event also features live music and food for sale, and a VIP ticket gets you in an hour earlier for a special premium beer tasting and complimentary food.
Beer Here: The Minocqua area has four breweries: Minocqua Brewing Co., which hosts the fest; Rocky Reef Brewing just minutes north in Woodruff; Some Nerve Brewing in Manitowish Waters; and Tribute Brewing Company in Eagle River.
Bayfield Winter Festival, March 1-3, 2019
The first weekend of March you may think the state’s northernmost towns might be crazy with cabin fever—but they’re just getting started. Past festivities (and likely this year’s, too) included a kickoff celebration with beer and free chili, a candlelight hike through a nature conservancy, a Penguin Egg Hunt, a snow sculpture contest and a fat-tire bike tour across the lake ice. Or, go night skiing at Mt. Ashwabay. It may not seem like swimming season, but festival attendees have the opportunity to take the Polar Plunge to raise money for the Bayfield Recreation Center. Costumes are encouraged. (Check their website to confirm all events before you go).
Bed Head: Bed and breakfasts are the way to go up here. Spend the night in the award-winning Old Rittenhouse Inn, a 12-room Queen Anne Victorian home, which serves great food as well in its gourmet restaurant. They also manage the nearby Le Chateau, originally built as a mansion for a lumber baron. Built in 1885, the Pinehurst Inn Bed & Breakfast is an eco-friendly B&B just south of town with a separat31e Garden House.
Madison Winter Festival, February 2-3, 2019
Hosted in Madison’s 250-acre Elver Park, this fest provides its own snow if Mother Nature doesn’t. With the best ski trails in town, the park hosts candlelight skiing, and the sledding hill is long and fast. Other events have included a 5K run and a fun run for the kids, ski clinic, ice skating and another Wisconsin appearance for the U.S. National Snow Sculpting champs. There’s also mini ice golf and s’mores by the bonfire. Sleds, skates and skis are available for rent. Warm Up: When you’re in the area, sip some spicy Mayan Hot Chocolate at Infusion Chocolates on Monroe Street. The Weary Traveler on the east side has several winter cocktails, including hot buttered rum, a quasi-mulled wine they call grog, and “Mayan Coffee” with Kahlua and a tequila-based liqueur.
This article originally appeared in the 2018 fall/winter issue of Experience Wisconsin magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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