As the weather gets colder and the days shorter, attention turns to the frosted slopes and open fields ripe for a day of snowbound adventure. At least, that’s how it goes in the Midwest, America’s true winter wonderland. Winter is the perfect time to explore the outdoors in the Midwestern states — just make sure you have a warm jacket, gloves, a good pair of earmuffs, and a positive attitude about a little wind chill. Here are the nine most epic experiences to have.
1. Ice fishing in Michigan.
Bundled in the warmest gear, traipsing across a frozen expanse, carefully drilling a hole in the ice, and dangling a line through that ice to reach the frigid water underneath your feet can be an adrenaline-inducing activity. Add in the expectant wait for a bite of something swimming in the unseen liquid lake below, and for many around the world, ice fishing is an exciting wintertime activity. In the US, the Midwest is the place for ice fishing. In Michigan, Higgins Lake has deep waters filled with a variety of fish, including perch closer to the shore and spot trout near the center.
2. Looking for northern lights in Minnesota.
When solar activity is high, which you can check using the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s aurora tracker, it actually is possible to see the northern lights from several places in the continental United States. Minnesota, with its high latitude and wide-open spaces, is one such place. At Voyageurs National Park right on the border with Canada, position yourself at the south end of one of its many lakes and look north. You could even try your luck further south, since Cook County offers excellent views of the aurora over Lake Superior.
3. Dog sledding in Minnesota.
Alaska may have the Iditarod, but Minnesota has the longest dog-sledding races in the Lower 48, the 300-mile-long John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. This is all to say that dog sledding is arguably as much a winter sport in Minnesota as snowshoeing or cross-country skiing are, and there are plenty of places to do it. Wintergreen Dog Sledders have been taking people on multi-day guiding dog sledding trips, complete with expert guides and photographers in Minnesota — as well as on trips as far as Greenland and Scandinavia — for over 35 years.
4. Winter sightseeing in South Dakota.
South Dakota’s winters are certainly not mild, so it’s not exactly a place you’d love to go for a long winter trek. But South Dakota’s badlands look somehow more special with a light dusting of snow, which lends the forbidding peaks a gentler aura. An early winter drive on the Hwy 240 Badlands Loop Road will show these spectacular formations in a different and quiet light. Just be sure to check the Badlands National Parks’ winter road closure information before you go. Then warm up for the evening with a stay in Rapid City or another small Black Hills town, which is a fascinating way to spend a winter weekend.
5. Cross-country skiing in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin is home to the largest cross-country ski event in North America, the American Birkebeiner, and with good reason. It has open meadows, forested lanes, and gentle rises that make for an exciting cross-country circuit, whether you are in a race or simply out Nordic skiing with a friend. And while we are big fans of cross-country ski races, we think Wisconsin’s beauty is best enjoyed with a pair of skis in places like Nine Mile Forest Cross-Country Skiing and Snowshoeing in Marathon County or the Wolverine Nordic Trails near Lake Superior.
6. Ice skating in Chicago, Illinois.
Ice skating on a frozen lake is a wonderful thing to do in winter, and there are plenty of places to do so throughout the Midwest — such as the 10-acre-lake you can skate on in Edina, Minnesota. But there is also something to be said for ice skating on a city rink, particularly before the holidays, when everyone is in town and in an end-of-the-year festive frame of mind. In Illinois, ice skating on the McCormick Tribune rink in Millennium Park is Chicago’s answer to NYC’s Rockefeller Center — but nearly twice the size. It’s urban winter at its best, with the Chicago skyline and its own oversized Christmas tree. Right next door to Millennium Park you’ll find the Maggie Daley Park Skating Ribbon, which wends its way between trees to cover twice the distance of a normal lap around an ice rink.
7. Snowshoeing in Wisconsin.
The morning after a big snowfall, it’s a privilege to be somewhere where you can put on a pair of snowshoes and walk through the forest, savoring the silence of the snow. It’s at this time of year, in these kinds of expeditions, that you can spot the furry creatures, which are easier to find in the winter. Wisconsin is a tremendous place to snowshoe in winter, not only for its many forests but also for places like the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, where you can snowshoe on the mile-long Lakeshore Trail from Meyers Beach to the area’s impressive sea caves. (Just be sure you check in at the Visitors Center about weather conditions before doing so.)
8. Snowmobiling in Wisconsin.
Snowmobiling is a part of life in Wisconsin, as much a functional way to get around during the frozen months of the year as a fun way to enjoy winter’s bounty of snow. One thing cheeseheads love to do is race snowmobiles, and Eagle River, Wisconsin, is home to the World Championship Snowmobile Derby, which takes place in January every year. Snowmobiling is of course a great way to get out on Wisconsin’s natural wilderness and ride over its frozen lakes.
9. Sledding in Ohio.
Let’s not forget the cherished winter tradition of sledding. While the Midwest may not have the mountain peaks you want for downhill skiing, it’s chock full of hills and even fuller of the snowfall needed to prep those hills for a winter season of dive-bombing on plastic, wooden, or even flimsy makeshift cloth sleds (that would be a parka). Just outside Cleveland, Ohio, the rolling hills of its leafy suburbs make great sledding ramps after the first flakes fall.