Complete Winter Traveler 2015

On an early winter morning, everything is still, peaceful, quiet. A snow-covered landscape sets a wintery scene. Whether you choose to appreciate this beauty from a cozy spot in front of a fireplace, by immersing yourself in the Great Outdoors, or from indoors at a local attraction, we have you covered. 


Home to Lake Superior (the largest freshwater lake in the world), the Superior National Forest, and some of the best snow in the state, the North Shore is transformed into a winter playground when the temperatures drop. The winter months can be some of the best months to visit, particularly when you know where to stay and how to play. Guests staying at the Bluefin Bay Family of Resorts—Bluefin Bay on Lake Superior, Surfside on Lake Superior, and Temperance Landing on Lake Superior, in the Lutsen-Tofte area—can enjoy a “bounty of incredible outdoor adventures,” says Lori Schaefer, marketing director. The resorts, located approximately 240 miles from Minneapolis, are close to cross-country, snowshoe, and snowmobile trails; skiing, boarding, and dogsledding at Lutsen Mountains (just down the road); and entertainment at Papa Charlie’s (everyone from Dessa to Communist’s Daughter have performed at this venue). The three resorts, all on the shore of Lake Superior, have a totally different vibe. Bluefin Bay offers upscale lakeside comfort in hotel-style guest rooms, studios, and one, two-or three-bedroom condos and townhomes; Surfside, the newest property and home to the full-service Waves of Superior Spa, features luxurious master suites and contemporary two and three-bedroom townhomes; and Temperance Landing is a collection of three-bedroom luxury log homes. Stay at any one of the three resorts and take advantage of complimentary shuttles to and from Lutsen Mountains and area trailheads, free use of cross-country skis, snowshoes, and skates (there’s an ice skating rink at Bluefin Bay, perfect for skating, hockey, or broomball), guided activities, on-site dining, spa services, and some of the prettiest views around. At Bluefin Bay Family of Resorts, it’s easy to customize the “perfect winter getaway.” Check online for Ski and Stay packages, Half-Price Weekday specials, Gales of November and December discounts, and Extended Stay packages, valid throughout the winter. 


Lutsen Mountains in Lutsen, nicknamed the “Vail of the Midwest,” has the most ski acreage in the state, with 1,000 skiable acres (offering a huge variety of options), 95 runs, five terrain parks, 60 acres of tree-skiing runs, and an impressive 800-foot vertical drop. People travel from all over the Midwest (and Canada) to ski here. According to one review, “We pick Lutsen over Colorado because of the slower pace, more elbow room than an overpriced and overcrowded Colorado resort, awesome views of Lake Superior, and really great skiing.” When planning your next ski or boarding adventure, the Lutsen-Tofte area has quiet, out-of-the-way B&Bs, modern condos with fireplaces, Jacuzzis, and heated pools, rustic Northwoods lodging, and hotels or inns right along Lake Superior.  

Courtesy of Cook County CVB

Cook County

“In the winter, Cook County is like Arendelle in Frozen, a fairytale kingdom of mountains, forest, and sea,” says Linda Kratt, executive director of Visit Cook County, consisting of Lutsen, Tofte, Schroeder, Grand Marais, the Gunflint Trail, and Grand Portage.  Winter fun can be had at Lutsen Mountains, out on snowshoe trails, and while cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, or dogsledding. There’s delicious food (Food & Travel Quarterly called Cook County “a mecca for adventurous foodies”);  and a natural setting ideal for relaxing and reconnecting with what’s truly important in life (hint: it’s not your smartphone). Friends reconnect by renting condos, cabins or villas together, skiing or boarding all day at Lutsen Mountains and then—in the evening—enjoying craft beer, good food, and great music. Coworkers reconnect at work retreats and planning sessions (the North Shore is a great place to “clear your head,” says Kratt), and solo vacationers have been known to travel to Cook County for “inspiration vacations,” getting away from it all to focus on writing, photography, painting, and other creative mediums.  Another draw of a winter getaway in Cook County? The exciting possibility of spotting a moose or seeing the Northern Lights.



Giant's Ridge
Giant’s Ridge; courtesy of Explore Minnesota

Giant’s Ridge

If you’re ready to take your kids on a ski vacation (but not quite ready to conquer a mountain), Giant’s Ridge—about a three-hour drive from the Twin Cities, just outside Biwabik—is a family-friendly, non-intimidating resort. Sign the kids up for Giants Ridge Mountain Explorer Youth Camps, where patient and friendly professional instructors teach skiing and boarding skills, help build confidence, and encourage fun. There’s a beginner’s area with a Magic Carpet conveyor belt, and a hotel right next to the slopes, convenient if the kids want to take a little break before returning to the slopes. Giant’s Ridge offers 35 alpine runs, 60 km of Nordic trails for cross-country skiing and fat tire biking, three terrain parks varying in skill level, snowshoe trails, and snowtubing. Visit December 5 for Weihnachtsfest, Biwabik’s winter lighting festival; Microbrew Mondays (buy one tap, get one free in the chalet) December 28 through March 28, 2016; World’s Largest Lesson Day January 8, 2016; Pepsi Challenge Cross-Country Race February 27, 2016; or Slush Cup & Spring Carnival March 19, 2016. Check online for special weekday deals and discounts on lift tickets, rentals, and lodging. A new Event Center, to open next June at the base of the mountain, will replace a 30-year-old chalet—giving guests the opportunity to host events, conferences, or parties in a modern venue. 


With recently renovated cottages, peaceful lakefront views of Lower Cullen Lake, and a location on the Paul Bunyan Trail just minutes from the shops and boutiques in downtown Nisswa, Good Ol’ Days Family Resort is a cozy winter escape for snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, ice fishing enthusiasts, and anyone who wants to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Those staying at its sister resort, Wilderness Resort Villas on Middle Cullen Lake in Nisswa, have access to  a clubhouse with a fitness center, indoor swimming pool, game room, hot tub, and sauna. Lodging is often discounted in the winter, and most villas are pet-friendly.



National Eagle Center;  Courtesy of The National Eagle Center

National Eagle Center

The eagle is a national icon of strength, independence, and freedom, but how often do you have an opportunity to see one up close (other than, you know, on the back of a dollar bill)? At the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, about 85 miles south of the metro along the Mississippi River, you can stand four feet from a live trained eagle. In the winter, hundreds of wintering eagles congregate along the river in and around Wabasha, the majestic birds’ massive seven-foot wingspan making them easy to spot from the observation deck. 

Aside from excellent eagle watching during the winter, the National Eagle Center’s largest annual event, the SOAR With the Eagles Festival, runs the entire month of March. “This includes special weekend events like live animal programs, flying bird shows, and other exciting events not normally part of the Eagle Center experience,” says Edward Hahn, marketing manager. The National Eagle Center also hosts guided eagle viewing field trips from November through March.

Admission to the center is valid for the entire day, so you can always leave for lunch in Wabasha in-between checking out two floors of interactive exhibits (including an eagle vision display, a life-sized replica eagle’s nest, and live-eagle programs). “There is absolutely no pressure for you to rush,” Hahn says. “Many visitors take two hours or more to explore, read displays, and photograph the resident eagles. We’re dedicated to helping you get the most out of your visit.” 

Another interesting feature of the National Eagle Center, the Watershed Gallery, is open year-round and showcases the beauty and diversity of life in the watershed through the lens of regional creative artists. 


It’s easy to see why Northfield, a historic river town within less than an hour’s drive of the metro, was named a “Best Small Town for a Weekend Visit” by the Star Tribune. There’s a vibrant, creative energy here, thanks in large part to this small town being home to both Carleton and St. Olaf Colleges. Creativity is showcased in museums, theaters, historic attractions, galleries (five on main street alone!), boutique shopping, and a variety of unique dining attractions (the Contented Cow, an English-style pub house, is located in a former 1900s jail). When it snows, head out on cross-country ski trails from Cowling Arboretum to Carleton College, River Bend Nature Center, or Nerstrand Big Woods Park, or snowmobile along the 42.5-mile Waterford Trail (beginning at Sechler Park, winding through forests, open fields, and pastures). See downtown by candlelight during the Northfield Winter Walk December 10.

Winona Ice Skating
Winona; photo by CynthYa Porter


With its snow-dusted steeples and Victorian architecture, Winona looks like a vintage postcard in the winter months. Located about 115 miles south of St. Paul (a beautiful two-hour drive on the Great River Road), the city’s natural setting—featuring scenic blufftop vistas and the Mighty Mississippi River—provides the ideal ingredients for winter mountain biking, ice climbing, and some pretty incredible views while out cross-country skiing or snowshoeing.  Lodging options include historic B&Bs (the luxurious Alexander Mansion is perfect for romance; while groups of friends can relax at the country-chic Village House Inn), and modern hotels mixed into the city’s landscape. Visit during the popular Frozen River Film Festival, showcasing a sophisticated roster of local, national, and international films (and plenty of ways to mingle), from February 24-28, 2016.



Arrowwood Resort
Courtesy of Arrowwood Resort

Arrowwood Resort

When the temperatures drop and the white stuff starts falling, a trip to Arrowwood Resort, about 130 miles from the Twin Cities metro in the Alexandria area, is the perfect close-to-home escape. Kids love the sprawling 38,000-square-foot indoor waterpark, including three four-story slides that twist and turn and twist some more, lily pad water walk, lazy river, and water fort, complete with water blasters, geysers, and the “Calypso Cabana” 500 gallon splash bucket. Adults appreciate the on-site Darling Reflections Spa and convenient dining at the Lake Café. Guests can rent a snowmobile (Kiddie Kat snowmobiles are available for the young’uns), go ice fishing, sledding, ice-skating on the lake, or cross-country skiing (ski rentals available). New Year’s Eve is really hopping at Arrowwood, complete with a family-friendly New Year’s Eve Bash in the ballroom.

New Ulm Herman the German
Photo by Greta Alms

New Ulm

While the city of New Ulm may best be known for their Oktoberfest celebration in the fall (named by USA Today as “One of the Top 10 Places to Celebrate Oktoberfest”), that doesn’t mean the city lies dormant in winter. If you prefer to stay indoors, tour the August Schell Brewing Company (their “Snowstorm” beer is a testament to winter in New Ulm), learn about the area’s history at the Brown County Historical Museum, attend a performance at Martin Luther College, or unique shopping in town. For outdoor enthusiasts, there’s excellent ice fishing on the Minnesota or Cottonwood Rivers, and cross-country skiing or snowshoeing along flat trails in Flandrau State Park, where cabins are available year-round.

New London

After skiing or snowshoeing through New London’s Sibley State Park or Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center, stop in at The Happy Sol and The Rugged Sun to warm up, buy a fashionable outfit, or purchase unique Christmas gifts. The cheerful service is as bright as the fashion on the racks. “We offer a slice of the sun even on the coldest days,” says Gina Lieser, who co-owns The Happy Sol (women’s clothing and gift boutique) and The Rugged Sun (men’s style and gear), along with Stacey Roberts. Located in downtown New London, about 90 minutes west of the metro, a visit to the side-by-side stores is worth the drive alone—quality brands, stylish selections, and personalized service and assistance (it’s a total shopping experience)— but once in New London, make a day of it and dine at a local restaurant, grab a pint in the taproom of Goat Ridge Brewing, or stop in at Glacial Ridge Winery’s tasting room in nearby Spicer. A great time to visit downtown New London is December 12 for Candlelight Christmas. During this annual event, Charles Dickens-inspired characters sing carols, boutiques offer special deals, and residents and guests gather for sleigh rides and a community bonfire.

The Lodge on Lake Detroit
Photo courtesy of The Lodge on Lake Detroit

The Lodge on Lake Detroit

At The Lodge on Lake Detroit, owners Scott Mehlhaff and Chris Holland-Mehlhaff realize that every couple—whether newlyweds or celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary—needs a romantic getaway every now and then, without “real world” distractions or interference. All rooms and suites of this beautiful, eco-friendly hotel face the lake to take advantage of the views (and the sunsets). In addition to scenic wintery lake views and sunsets, guests enjoy an extensive menu of select spa treatments available at the on-site day spa, and daily Sunset Serenades in the two-story lobby. For the most romantic stay, book a Renewal Spa Suite, featuring an aromatherapy whirlpool tub and fireplace, and arrange for pre-arrival “extras” including roses, rose petal turndown, champagne or wine, even an in-room couples massage. 




Okoboji, Iowa is a resort community positioned along a chain of five interconnected lakes in Northwest Iowa, only three hours south of the Twin Cities. From January 28-31, 2016, those in the city will brush off the snow and hit the ice for the University of Okoboji Winter Games. The lineup includes broomball, hockey, and flag football and softball competitions, a bags tournament, a polar plunge, a chili cook-off, and a fireworks show. Stay in a lakeside cabin or traditional hotel, check out the Winter Games, and see why Okoboji is one of Iowa’s top vacation destinations.




A sled dog race. Check. Ice caves (weather permitting). Check. Gateway to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Check. Unique stores and galleries. Check. Winter in Bayfield—a quaint harbor town on the shore of Lake Superior—is a magical place, indeed. One of the most popular winter activities is the Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race, scheduled for February 6-7, 2016. The race, similar to the Iditarod in Alaska, includes mushers and dogs competing in either 40, 60, or 80-mile races, warming areas for spectators, and weekend parties. Other winter attractions include Mt. Ashwabay, three miles south of Bayfield, where guests can cross-country and alpine ski with views of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and the Chequamegon (that’s Shuh-WAH-muh-guhn, in case you didn’t know) National Forest in the background. Cross-country ski trails, all groomed and tracked, cover 35 km of wilderness with ratings from beginner to expert. If skiing isn’t your cup of tea, snowshoeing is also a great adventure (rent snowshoes at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center).

Fountain City

It’s a steep climb to the five hillside cottages—prepare for stairs—when you stay at Hawks View Cottages in Fountain City, Wis. (about six miles north of Winona). These “treehouses for adults” offer a completely nontraditional lodging experience with unforgettable views  from a unique vantage point within the trees. For those who prefer to stay on even ground, there’s additional lodging available at the vineyard site. Service is exceptional, the rooms are bright and clean, the beds are comfortable, and breakfast food is provided in the fully-equipped kitchen. Should you decide to stay in front of the fireplace all weekend, there’s a collection of games, books, CDs, and videos available. If you choose to venture out, you can snowshoe down and around the vineyard (you can rent snowshoes in nearby Alma at Riverland Outfitters), grab a drink at the Monarch Bar or Seven Hawks Vineyards tasting room, or explore the neighboring towns.