Photos: © Bayfield Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, © Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce, and © Vertical Illusions

When you live in the Upper Midwest, you’ve got to embrace winter. Wisconsinites have been doing so for well over 150 years — and no, it’s not just about developing a fondness for skiing and snowmobiling. The people here have mastered the art of creating innumerable unique ways in which to enjoy the beauty and snowy bounty of this fourth season. Here are a few of the endless possibilities for frosty fun.

  1. Snowshoe or Ski the Timm’s Hill Trail.

Timm’s Hill, 1,951.5 feet above sea level, is the tallest point in Wisconsin and one of the highest natural points in the Upper Midwest. An observation tower atop the hill affords sweeping 30-mile views of the countryside. While you can reach Timm’s Hill by car, it’s much more enjoyable to get there via the 10-mile Timm’s Hill Trail. The path rolls north toward Timm’s Hill from a trailhead along the Ice Age Trail, winding through scenic stands of hardwood and pine. Winter travel along the trail is restricted to cross-country skis or snowshoes; various access spots allow you to create the trip length of your choice.

  1. Ice Skate Across Lake Superior.

Not across the entire Great Lake. Just the two-mile stretch of water separating Bayfield, a town in the farthest reaches of northwestern Wisconsin, from Madeline Island, one of the state’s famous 21 Apostle Islands. Normally, a ferry connects these two locales. But come winter, the bay freezes over into what locals dub the “Ice Road.” Once that happens, you’re able to skate to the island and back. (Walking and skiing are fine, too.) Don’t worry about losing your way; evergreen trees set into the ice festively mark the route.

  1. Zipline from Chimney Rock.

Ziplining has been around for a while, yet many people view it as a warm-weather activity. Not so. Vertical Illusions runs its ziplining trips year-round from 500-foot Chimney Rock, a towering bluff offering incredible 120-mile views of the Wisconsin Dells area. Fourteen lines ferry you high above the frosted landscape below, a stunning mix of cliffs, canyons and snow-covered forest. Dress warmly!

  1. Learn to Skijor.

Love to enjoy the great outdoors with your pooch? If he’s 30 pounds or larger, the two of you can learn to skijor this winter. Skijoring involves strapping on a pair of crosscountry skis, then tethering yourself to your dog. You ski, Fido pulls, and you both have a lot of fun. Minocqua Winter Park holds skijoring clinics for beginners, while the staff at Justin Trails, an eco-luxury resort in Sparta, also provides skijoring sessions. (Justin Trails’ sumptuous cabins are pet-friendly, too.) Once you’re a pro, you can skijor at any number of Wisconsin’s dog-friendly parks with multi-use trails.

  1. Hit a Winter Festival.

Nothing gets you jazzed about a new season like an energetic festival. After all, they typically feature fun foods, live music, entertainment, and sporting events both serious and silly. At the Kickapoo Valley Reserve Winter Festival in La Farge, activities include horsedrawn bobsled rides and ice cave hikes. Over in Elkhart Lake, February’s Pig-inthe-Ice Festival kicks off with a pig roast and ice fishing tournament, while kids go on an ice cube hunt. A spectacular winter fireworks display caps off the festivities. In Cedarburg, the signature event at its Winter Festival is the costumed bed race on ice. (Yes, it’s just as zany — and fun — as it sounds.)

  1. Hop Aboard a Snow Train.

Hate the cold, but love the beauty of the season? Then head for the Mid-Continent Railway in North Freedom on February 11-12, 2017, where you can hop aboard a vintage train and then just sit back, relax and enjoy. For the next 55 minutes you’ll chug past sugar-coated trees and snow-covered hills, all while being kept toasty by a coal-fired stove or steam heat. If you’ve got kids, opt for the Santa Express that runs November 26-27 and features a guest appearance by a certain red-suited someone.

  1. Climb an Ice Wall.

Crabbing your way up a wall of ice seems like a slippery proposition, but it’s actually a whole lot of fun. Several guiding companies are available to help you experience this unique sport at various spots around the state, including Governor Dodge State Park, Lone Rock and Wyalusing. During your adventure, which takes place on a sparkling, frozen waterfall, you’ll be provided with all of the necessary equipment, plus instruction from experienced climbers. On your way up, make sure to take in the myriad interesting formations in and around the ice.

  1. Ski by Candlelight.

Winter in Wisconsin means skiing. Downhill and Nordic, both classic and skating, the state has it all. Try a more intimate experience by seeking out a candlelight ski outing. Candlelight skiing can be found in every corner of the state, including several dozen state park properties. The popular events, which typically include snowshoeing and hiking options, feature pretty, snowcovered trails softly lit by innumerable candles. Afterwards, many venues offer participants steaming mugs of hot cocoa and roaring bonfires to warm up frosty appendages. At Horicon Marsh, your candlelight ski outing includes astronomers to help you identify the night sky, plus birders who will demonstrate owl-calling.

  1. Nosh on a Special Dinner.

The holidays usher in the winter season, and with them come a raft of special dining events. At Old World Wisconsin, one of the state’s historic sites, you might be able to score tickets for a Polish or Scottish Holiday Dinner featuring ethnic dishes, decorations and entertainment. Many college campuses offer madrigal dinners, where old English pageantry and songs are mixed with foods such as pheasant and figgy pudding. Dinner theaters like The Fireside in Fort Atkinson serve up holiday shows with their meals; this holiday season, the featured production is “A Fireside Christmas” (November 3 – December 23).

  1. Attend the U.S. National Snow Sculpting Competition.

Lake Geneva, long a southern Wisconsin tourist mecca, has been hosting this national snow competition for the last two decades. Stroll past the competitors’ amazing, larger-than-life creations and try not to let your jaw drop. The pieces, created by the most talented snow sculpture artists in North America, are unlike anything else you’ve seen. P.S. The contest is part of the city’s Winterfest celebration, so there are plenty of other things to do while you’re in town.

This article originally appeared in the 2016 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.

No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.


Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer specializing in travel. She has received numerous awards for her travel writing, most notably Lowell Thomas gold and grand awards, considered the most prestigious in the field. Her book "Thousand-Miler: Adventures Hiking the Ice Age Trail" was published in 2017 by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.