Why you should head to Minnesota and Wisconsin for winter thrills

written by Michelle Bhatia

updated 4.11.2020

Though it may be tempting to escape to the sunshine this winter, there's a lot to be said for revelling in the snow and ice, too. And there’s plenty of beautiful (and bracing) backcountry to explore in northern Minnesota and neighbouring Wisconsin.

As Minnesota gears up for February's Super Bowl, all eyes are on the state. So, whether you want to whiz across frozen lakes on a snowmobile or wander the woodland on snowshoes, we take a look at the wintry delights the region has to offer. Just make sure you don’t skimp on the thermals.

For downhill childish thrills: snow tubing

Who’d have thought that hurtling down a hill at speed in, what amounts to, a big fat rubber doughnut, could be so thrilling – and terrifying? You don’t need hi-tech gear, or even a whisker of skill – just a gutsy streak.

Try it: Spirit Mountain is a 15-minute drive from Duluth, Minnesota. It has three groomed lanes and a draglift to hoik you up the hill. All you have to do is sit tight until you get to the top and then scream your way to the bottom.

Spirit Mountain, near Duluth, Minnesota

Michelle Bhatia

For working up a sweat: cross-country skiing

It might look leisurely but cross-country skiing is a full-on aerobic workout, and if you’re new to it you’ll rapidly discover muscles you didn’t know you had.

Minnesota and Wisconsin offer some of the best cross-country skiing in the USA, with hundreds of kilometres of trails to explore. There are no ski-lifts, so no ugly chunks of metal blighting the landscape, and no clatter of machinery.

And because you’re not flying downhill at speed there’s time to absorb the crisp beauty of the landscape and appreciate the quietness. Look out for skittish deer among the trees, or even an elusive wolf.

Try it: You’re spoilt for choice. But for fantastic groomed ski trails and unmatched scenic beauty, head for The Gunflint trails, in Cook County, MI, winding through the Superior National Forest to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Trails follow undulating hills through deep woods of spruce, aspen, and fir trees, passing sharp cliffs and frozen lakes. The only sound you hear is the swish of your skis on the soft snow.

If you’re a seasoned pro, take on the Birkebeiner, or "Birkie" challenge. This cross-country race, imported from Norway in 1973, takes place each February and runs from Cable, WI, to Hayward, a distance of 55km, attracting more than 10,000 skiers. If that sounds a tad strenuous, go for one of the less taxing events over the season on the Birkie tour. Or buy a Birkie Trail ski pass, giving you access to the entire 107km of the trail system.

For vicarious kicks: car racing on ice

Locals breezily remark that the ice is 15 inches thick, which doesn’t sound enough to carry the weight of the 50, or so, stock-cars careering across the surface, let alone the spectators’ vehicles flanking the track. But the zigzags of cracks are apparently nothing to worry about.

Competitors ensure their vehicles stand out. A pink Ford Thunderbird with a large stuffed-toy rabbit on its roof may be in the line-up, revving its engine next to a purple station wagon with large golden flames stencilled along its body.

Check it out: Races take place in various locations during the season. One of the best is Ashland, Bayfield, WI, where competitors battle it out on the edge of Chequamegon Bay, Lake Superior.

ice racing, Minnesota

Michelle Bhatia

For a wintry ride: dog sledding

The din of barks and yelps shows the huskies’ high spirits as the musher pairs them up and hooks them to the harness. But once they’re off there’s an easy quiet, as they run effortlessly along the twisting forest trails.

You can opt for the relaxing way, by sitting in the sled and letting the musher take the reins while you get to gaze at the enchanting landscape of snowy trees, misty ice-covered bogs and lakes. Or you can control the dogs yourself – which takes concentration and an acceptance of a certain amount of face-planting in deep snow.

Try it: The Superior National Forest ticks all the wonderful winterland boxes. You can take dog-sledding trips from Gunflint Lodgeat the edge of Gunflint Lake, and the musher will have you calling all the dogs affectionately by name by the end of your ride.

Musher, dog sledding, Gunflint area, Minnesota, USA

Michelle Bhatia

For an adrenaline rush: snowmobiling

Signposts slap-bang in the middle of a lake may seem odd, but when the ice is thick enough, temporary routes open up. And with thousands of kilometres of snowmobile trails winding around lakes and through the pristine forests of Wisconsin and Minnesota, there is no shortage of places to go for a spin. You can go with a guide or rent a snowmobile and go it alone.

Try it: Gunflint Lodge offers snowmobiling sessions through the surrounding boreal forestland.

For taking it easy: ice fishing

Brightly coloured tents sit on the ice, breaking up the expanse of glaring white. Some have smoke chuffing out of makeshift chimneys that are attached to wood-burners inside, providing a modicum of warmth. You drill a hole into the ice inside the tent until you reach the black water below, and drop a line down. Then you wait for a fish to bite. It helps to have a cushion for your backside and something warm in a flask.

Or, you can opt for the hi-tech speedy method and go with a company using sonar equipment to help locate your catch.

Try it: Mike Best Guiding offers trips in the Hayward Lakes Area, WI. With heated fishing shacks and electronic equipment for locating fish, you can catch a fair few walleye, crappies and northern pike, while keeping your digits toasty.

Ice fishing, Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, USA

Michelle Bhatia

For a walk in the park: snowshoeing

A great way to soak up some splendid scenery is to strap on a pair of snowshoes and head off into the wilderness. Getting away from the marked tracks is a chance to appreciate solitude and the muffled hush of deep snow (and means you’re more likely to encounter a shy moose).

Try it: You can follow any of the designated snowshoe trails in one of the many state parks. Many of them have snowshoes for loan and offer guided walks.

For a day trip: visit Madeline Island

Until the big freeze you can hop on the small ferry from Bayfield, WI, across Lake Superior to La Pointe on Madeline Island, the largest of the Apostle Islands. Otherwise, when the ice is thick enough, taking the two-mile ice road, its route marked out by Christmas trees, by car, on skis or simply by walking is an adventure.

With only 300-odd year-round residents in La Pointe, visiting in winter is a quiet affair. And if you explore Big Bay State Park – on snowshoes, cross-country skiing or hiking – the chances are you’ll have the beautiful snowy setting to yourself.

Try to make time to duck into the homely Farmhouse Madeline Island café/restaurant for a delicious brunch (off season, Saturdays only), made from seasonal and local ingredients.

Where should I stay?

For kicking back in the back and beyond: Gunflint Lodge

Gunflint Lodge resort perches right at the edge of Gunflint Lake, so is a great base from which to access the Gunflint ski trails. You can book activities from here as well as rent equipment for outdoor activities.

And when you’re not out having a snowy adventure, you can cosily pass the time in front of a log fire in the pine-clad lodge, decked out in Northwoods paraphernalia (bear skin, moose head, canoe…). Whatever the North American equivalent of Danish hygge is, it’s here.

For lake views and a gourmet supper: Old Rittenhouse Inn

Not short on lavish décor, involving much wood panelling and sumptuous furnishings, this Victorian bed and breakfast sits on the edge of Lake Superior. Meals are delicious: look out for special dining events, such as the five-course gourmet dinner with wine pairing, guaranteed to give you a rosy glow. A good overnight stop if you’re popping over to Madeline Island.

For historical charm: Phipps Inn, Hudson

This Victorian bed and breakfast oozes opulence: floral wallpaper, four-poster beds, lacy curtains and doilies, claw-foot bathtubs, a billiards room and a parlour in which to sip tea from china cups and twiddle your moustache.

Proprietor Mary Ellen dishes out a splendid home-cooked breakfast. It’s 30 minutes from Minneapolis and St Paul, Minnesota, so a good stopover if flying in or out of Minneapolis.

Discover more of the USA with The Rough Guide to the USA. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.

Michelle travelled with Great Lakes USA. Header image: Michelle Bhatia

Michelle Bhatia

written by Michelle Bhatia

updated 4.11.2020

Planning your own trip? Prepare for your trip

Use Rough Guides' trusted partners for great rates

Ready to travel and discover

Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels

Plan my trip ⤍