Curving its way through two counties and washing the shores of 13 towns, Lake Minnetonka is Minnesota’s own Cape Cod. In the summer, it’s flush with seersucker-clad tourists eating clams and sailing skiffs. Off season, the beaches go white. The boats are dry-docked, away from the cold, and the water freezes into a 14,528-acre playground of another sort.
Lake Minnetonka becomes a refuge of revelry for winter amusements like snowshoeing and ice fishing (Minnetonka has good action on pike and panfish), but the fun of ’Tonka culminates in one frozen weekend in February.
For the past 36 years, the Chamber of Commerce has turned Wayzata Bay into a frigid putt-putt course. The Wayzata Chilly Open (February 7-8) takes all that’s stuffy about golf and inverts it for a come-one, come-all engagement. No golf experience or clubs required—anything from hockey sticks to canoe paddles will suffice, so long as it can drive a tennis ball down an icy fairway. Argyle knickers? Nah. Chilly Open etiquette is to dress as foolishly as possible while taking to the tundra. For this year’s theme of the Roaring Twenties, think Gatsby during a polar expedition.
Even if you skip the links, the outdoor carnival atmosphere includes ice skating, snow yoga, and bowls of hot comfort from 10 area restaurants in a chili cook-off, as the event’s name suggests. Of course, you can warm up the old-fashioned way and sip from a flask in your parka, as the event is BYOB and lake rules apply when it comes to drinking.
Other than with liquor, the other way Minnesotans chase winter is with sport. The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in Duluth has become one of Minnesota’s cultural treasures, and now Minnetonka is getting its own, toned-down version of the Iditarod qualifier in the form of the Klondike Dog Derby.
Taking place the day after the Chilly Open, on February 9, the Derby courses Lake Minnetonka’s entire perimeter. The panoramic chase is one-tenth the distance of the Beargrease, tracking 40 miles along the peninsulas and inlets from its starting point in downtown Excelsior, out to Woodland, around Gale Island, and back.
“We had races on the lake in the ’90s; we can do this again,” says Bethany Hway, president and race coordinator of Klondike Dog Derby. “Actually, Excelsior had hosted sled dog races in the early ’70s, and they’d even had a dog derby in the ’30s as part of what was called Klondike Days. That’s how the race ended up getting its name.”
Hway grew up in Ely, where her family bred and raised racing dogs. Her father is renowned musher Stan Passananti, and she has pictures of herself sitting on a sled as an infant. One day in 2018, she was staring out at frosty Minnetonka from her office in Excelsior, and the idea came to her.
“I was thinking, ‘This is a really unique spot in that we have access to a huge body of frozen water that could provide us with the miles of trails that we need,” she says. “We have a fun and charming downtown that would be a great host to the racers. I could picture it here in my head.”
Hway’s vision is a more-recreational—and, therefore, more-accessible—version of dog sled racing. Unlike Beargrease, you don’t need an outfitter to spectate. The race kicks off at 10 a.m. right in downtown Excelsior, and teams start and finish in waves. Whether you’re in Mound or Tonka Bay, you’ll see plenty of action. The day before, the public is invited to meet the dogs and mushers at open veterinary exams, an event Hway hopes will help destigmatize the use of huskies in the sport.
“There are misconceptions that these dogs are forced to run or treated poorly, but in reality, these dogs are treated like true athletes,” she says. “You put a harness on them and hook them up, and they know what to do. They’re so excited to get out there, and they love to pull, and the relationship between the musher and the animal is remarkable.”
There is something about seeing the thriving lake halted to a frigid expanse. Toward the center, you can see for miles, the waves silenced beneath your feet.
But for those who prefer to watch from afar, sheltered from the gales, try Wayzata new-American restaurant CoV. As mushers jockey down the shoreline, you’ll sit with a warm bowl of clam chowder and two fingers of Redemption High Rye Bourbon, wondering why you don’t spend more time out on the lake in winter.
Eat, Play, Stay on Lake Minnetonka
Up top at Birch’s on the Lake in Long Lake is a true-blue Wisconsin-style supper club specializing in smoked ribs and downstairs is the in-house brewery pairing confectionary wonders like the Coffee Chocolate Golden Ale with apps like bison tartare.
Simplicity is elegance at Olive’s Fresh Pizza Bar in Excelsior, which abuts Excelsior Brewing Company, which means you can get a freshly brewed pint with artisan-made pies, like the Fresno, combining fresh pears, caramelized figs, gorgonzola, and pancetta.
Bluegrass, country, and old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll draw crowds to the Narrows in Wayzata. It’s the best happy hour in Minnetonka’s reach. Don’t miss the steak bites.
Snuffy’s Malt Shop’s flagship St. Paul location closed, but their Minnetonka spot still has pudding-thick shakes and grease-bleeding burgers.
Back Channel Brewing Co. brewer/owner Josh Leddy turned a Country Kitchen Buffet in a Spring Park strip mall into a lakeshore outpost for all things trendy in craft beer. Back Channel are renowned for their aromatic hazy IPAs, often served in bowls rather than glasses—yes, bowls.
Sick of boring home decor? Golden Rule in Excelsior can spice up your living space with cute cotton pennants, macramé wall hangings, and cheeky wall art, much of it made in Minnesota.
An HGTV junkie’s dream, every room in the Hotel Landing in Wayzata is lavishly decorated, most notably the 1,089-square-foot, open-plan Presidential Suite.
Excelsior’s Bird House Inn has remained steadfast in its commitment to providing a homey stay for Lake Minnetonka visitors, with five whimsical rooms individually curated for a storybook experience.