MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Trip Hints

Favorites for winter

Serious reservations
Here's a guide to the lodgings, campsites and permits you should nail down now for travel in 2015.
Great winter festivals
Enjoy the chilly season with snow sculptures, ice castles, sleigh rides and lots of hot chocolate.
Inn retreats
If you don't like the weather, spend a weekend where everything is under one roof.
Owls, owls, everywhere
An influx of magnificent birds has birders hurrying up north.
20 perfect cabins
They're in the woods, with views, vintage charm and modern luxuries (but maybe not all together).
The best in snow tubing
With their multiple lanes, conveyor lifts and snow-making, these aren't your grandma's hills.
Best of winter
Here are 20 things that will make you fall in love with snow season.
Dog days of winter
Deep in Superior National Forest, novice mushers tag along with some huskies.

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FastPlans/Winter in Wausau

Skiing at Nine Mile County Forest.

This town in north-central Wisconsin is all about the outdoors in winter.

But in addition to a variety of snow sports that's among the best in the Midwest, Wausau has fine dining, lovely hotels and a popular art museum. Best of all, it's easy to reach from the big cities.

What to do: Ski downhill at Granite Peak. Ski cross-country at Nine Mile County Forest. Snowshoe at Rib Mountain State Park. Tube at Sylvan Hill Park.

Visit the free Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum. See a concert or show at the Grand Theater.

Events to catch: Jan. 23-25 and 30-Feb. 1, Badger State Winter Games.

Details: For more, see Winter in Wausau.

Past fast plans: Itasca in winter, Swans in Monticello, Shops of Cedarburg, Christmas in Chicago, Milwaukee Christmas

This weekend

Bet on skaters and human sled racers.

The human sled race in Grand Haven.

Winter Carnival in St. Paul. Join the Moon Glow parade Jan. 22 and see ice sculptures in Rice Park, snow sculptures at the Fairgrounds and the Grande Day parade on Jan. 24. Jan. 22–Feb. 1.

At the cathedral, watch high-speed downhill skating at the Ice Cross Downhill World Championship Jan. 24.

Winterfest in Grand Haven, Mich. In this Lake Michigan town, there's a human sled race, dog pull, long johns run and snow-angel contest. Jan. 22–25.

Winter Games in Lake Okoboji, Iowa. This resort area will offer human sled races, snowman painting, a Freeze Yer Fanny bike ride and fireworks. Jan. 23–25.

Norge Ski Jumping Tournament in Fox River Grove, Ill. See some of the nation's best jumpers compete in this Chicago suburb. Jan. 24–25.

For more events, see our Events Calendar.

Ski or snowshoe by candlelight

On a cold winter's night, follow the twinkling lights.

Candlelight skiing in a state park.

If you do only one thing outdoors in winter, do it by candlelight.

Nothing is more magical than a forest full of flickering lights. I got hooked when I skied in Minnesota's Mille Lacs Kathio State Park.

A fat blue moon hung in the sky, sparkling hoarfrost made twigs as nubby as reindeer antlers and more than 400 glowing bags gave the forest a fairy-tale aura.

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Great places to snowshoe

In winter, the outdoors is wide open to those who walk on snow.

North Country Trail on the Black River.

Everyone likes to snowshoe. It's cheap, easy and you can do it anywhere. Or can you?

Often, I've wound up ditching my snowshoes when I'm in a state park, because the trail to wherever I'm going is so packed I don't need them. Yet trails give you a cleared path through brush and are laid to take in the best scenery, so it's hard to ignore them.

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Bacon bashes

If you fry it, they will come. Here's where to pig out around the region.

Baconfest in Chicago.

Have you ever had enough bacon?

If not, you can get your chance at a rasher of pork parties around the region. At Des Moines' Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival one year, a Nebraska woman put away 2½ pounds in less than five minutes.

If you're wondering how the bacon boom started, Business Week can give you the official answer. It has to do with pork-belly futures (seriously).

Here's a better answer: The world is complicated, and bacon is simple. 

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Winter adventure on a budget

High ropes course at Wolf Ridge.

In winter, it's hard to find a lodge getaway that fits every budget.

Lodges that offer skiing on groomed trails, sled-dog mushing and wood-fired saunas aren't cheap.

But if you'd like to try those things — and be greeted by a plate of warm chocolate-chip cookies afterward — you have a friend in environmental learning centers.

These non-profit centers are the low-cost Club Meds of the north woods, offering all-inclusive weekend packages that include home-cooked meals, indoor lodgings and winter fun — cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice fishing, even wolf-tracking and sled-dog mushing.

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Living in a lighthouse

Around the Great Lakes, volunteers keep the light on for tourists.

Pottawatomie Light on Rock Island.

Around the Great Lakes, love for lighthouses is unlimited. Often called "America's castles,'' lighthouses are symbols of a more adventurous era, and tourists find them irresistible.

Now, the state parks and friends associations who care for them have found a way to harness all this passion: They're turning tourists into volunteer keepers. 

For a week or two, volunteers live at the lighthouse, hosting visitors and doing chores. Some get to sleep under quilts in the historic keepers' quarters.

Some stay at nearby cabins, and others, like Molly and Rich Hoeg of Duluth, choose to camp at the remote 1875 Crisp Point Light near Michigan's Shipwreck Coast.

"We liked having it to ourselves,'' said Molly Hoeg. "There wasn't anyone allowed to stay over but us.''

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Where eagles land

Near winter gathering spots, towns capitalize on the birds' popularity by throwing festivals.

An eagle looks for fish at the lock and dam in Genoa, Wis.

Eagles don't really have lovable personalities. But, man, are they fun to watch.

Those haughty pale eyes, that 6-foot wing span, those wicked talons and the flesh-shredding beak — eagles are just plain cool.

Everything about them is larger than life, right down to their nests, which are so big and sturdy that bears sometimes climb into them to hibernate.

To watch an eagle wheeling and dipping through the air is treat enough. It's even more of a thrill to see an airborne food fight or the tandem plummet of mating eagles.

As eagle populations have increased, it's no longer uncommon to spot a bald eagle. But that's only increased the number of tourists who want to do so.

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