MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Cheap winter getaways

Here are 20 places where a fun weekend costs $100 or less.

Snowshoeing on the St. Croix River.

© Beth Gauper

In St. Croix State Park, guests snowshoe on the St. Croix River.

In the Upper Midwest, finding a good deal is a sport second only to football.

Some of us need a bargain. Some of us just like them. But we all need to get away occasionally, especially when cabin fever strikes in winter.

Round up a group of friends, and you'll save a bundle. Last February, we rented one of the modern guesthouses in Minnesota's St. Croix State Park. We skied by candlelight, went snowshoeing on the river and spotted a rare boreal owl sitting in a tree near our house. Total cost per person, including food: $30.

That's among 20 weekend trips you can take for $100 or less per person in 2015.

You also can snowshoe from a yurt in the Upper Peninsula, help decorate a mansion in Milwaukee and hit the museums in Chicago. 

For winter getaways that cost a bit more, see Near escapes in Minnesota and Near escapes in Wisconsin.

See our Girlfriend Getaways section and, for general getaway ideas, Plan a Trip.

For the rest of the year, see Cheap spring getaways, Cheap summer getaways and Cheap fall getaways.

Skiing and snowshoeing on the St. Croix

On the St. Croix River in Minnesota's St. Croix State Park, two modern guesthouses, $215, are a great deal for groups. One sleeps 12 and one sleeps 15, and each has a full kitchen and two bathrooms.

In 2015, the park's annual candlelight ski is Jan. 10. The park has 11 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails and 80 miles of snowmobile trails that connect to state forests.

For more about St. Croix and nearby state parks, see A Minnesota snow sampler.

For more on guesthouses, see Lodgings in Minnesota state parks.

Scads of snow in Copper Harbor

When you go to the Keweenaw Peninsula in winter, you don't have to worry about snow. There'll be plenty outside the door of your two-bedroom cabin, $65, on the shore of Lake Fanny Hooe, in Fort Wilkins Historic State Park. 

The high ropes course at Eagle Bluff.

© Beth Gauper

A guest at Eagle Bluff's Adult Getaway Weekend braves the high-ropes course.

It's next to a cross-country ski trail, but if you like black-diamond runs, Mount Bohemia is nearby. It also has yurts that sleep 10 and trailside cabins that sleep four.

High ropes and ice fishing in bluff country

On a bluff high above the Root River, near Lanesboro, Minn., Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center hosts schoolchildren during the week but offers public programs on weekends.

Its Becoming an Outdoor Family Weekend features snowshoeing, ice fishing, archery, indoor climbing and a high-ropes course on the bluff.

Cost is $80 per person, $300 for a family of four, including meals. The center has made a point to offer superb food since it became a residential campus in 1992.

"We're more traditional during the week, but we like the opportunity to get all fancy-pants at our adult getaways,'' says public-program coordinator Megan Duffey.

For more, see Escape to Eagle Bluff.

A yurt in the Porcupines.

© Debra Gagner

Three yurts are available year-round in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.

Snowshoeing in the Porkies

In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park has everything you need for great snowshoeing — 100 miles of trails, guaranteed snow and a cheap place to stay.

It also offers lantern-lit skiing and snowshoeing on a one-mile loop every Saturday night from Dec. 27 through Feb. 21, plus New Year's Eve.

The park gets piles of lake-effect snow from November through April. In winter, you'll need snowshoes or skis to get to its four year-round yurts, which have wood stoves but no running water.

The yurts sleep four in bunk beds and cost $60. The park also has rustic cabins that sleep eight, also $60.

For more, see White gold in the Porkies.

Decorating a Victorian B&B in Milwaukee

On Nov. 14-16, stay two free nights at the imposing Schuster Mansion B&B in Milwaukee in exchange for help decorating for the holidays.

Here's a fun story about it from Milwaukee on the Cheap, which offers tips on bargains along with its sister site, Madison on the Cheap.

Museums in Chicago

January and February are the slowest months of the year in this always-fun town, and also the cheapest time.

It's easiest to catch a free day at one of the museums (especially if you're an Illinois resident).

You also can get a reservation at the Hostelling International hostel in the South Loop, which is so popular that it now screens guests by zip code (too many people from the suburbs wanted to stay there). Beds start at $30, including breakfast.

For more, see Cheap Chicago.

Ski out the door at Giants Ridge

This resort on Minnesota's Iron Range is a great place for nordic as well as alpine skiers. Near the bottom of the ski hill, next to the lodge and cross-country trails, four people can stay in a room with private bath at the Sports Dorm for $65-$70 and fix snacks in the common kitchenette, though it doesn't include an oven. 

Guests also get discounts on lift tickets, $48 for two days downhill, $20 cross-country.

Giants Ridge Sports Dorm.

© Beth Gauper

The Sports Dorm at Giants Ridge is next to the chalet and across from a chairlift.

For weekends, reserve far in advance. For availability and information on inexpensive group lodgings nearby, including the YMCA in Virginia, the community center in Biwabik and two camps south of Eveleth, call 218-865-8008.

Cost at those places comes out to about $80 per person for two nights and downhill lift tickets.

For more on skiing, see A Giant advantage (cross-country) and King of the hills (alpine).

Shop in southwest Wisconsin

Need some new warm clothes? Lands' End donates its catalog returns to five Bargain Nooks in Spring Green, Mineral Point, Mount Horeb, Platteville and Darlington, run by the Hodan Center, a non-profit that helps adults with disabilities.

Expect to pay as little as $25 for a down parka and $5-$10 for pants and shirts.

This is a good girlfriend getaway, so split the cost of a two-bed suite at the House on the Rock Resort in Spring Green

For more, see Power shopping in Wisconsin.

Skiers in front of Mississippi Headwaters Hostel in Itasca.

© Beth Gauper

The Mississippi Headwaters Hostel makes a cozy base for exploring Itasca State Park.

Play in Itasca State Park

The headwaters of the Mississippi River in Minnesota's Itasca State Park are a must-see destination in summer.

In winter, the park grooms 32 kilometers of cross-country ski trails, many of which wind through old-growth pine forest, and there's ice-fishing right outside the Mississippi Headwaters Hostel, in the 1923 former park headquarters.

It's open weekends from January through March. It sleeps 31, and there's a wood-burning fireplace.

Rooms are $27 per person, $15 for children 14 and younger, but renting a family bedroom, wing or whole hostel brings the cost down to $20 a person.

And if that's too much togetherness for you, stay in the park's newer Itasca Suites near Douglas Lodge, which have kitchenettes and satellite TV. They're $99 in winter.

There's also a guesthouse and cabin, both with full kitchens, at La Salle Lake State Recreation Area, eight miles north of Itasca.

The three-bedroom Black Bear Guesthouse sleeps 10 in four queen beds and a futon and rents for $225. The two-bedroom Lone Wolf Cabin sleeps four in two queen beds and rents for $200.

Lutsen skiing on a shoestring

It's a lot of fun to ski at Lutsen Mountains on Minnesota's North Shore, though not cheap —the walk-up rate for a lift ticket is $72 (but always buy in advance and online).

It's more affordable if you go with a group and buy a lodging package. But it's downright cheap if you stay nearby at  Birch Grove elementary school in Tofte, also known as the Lake Superior Hostel on weekends.

The hostel serves only groups, and it charges $134 per person for two nights of lodgings, two lift tickets, three meals and a pass to the municipal pool complex in Grand Marais. Guests provide their own bedding and sleep on foam mattresses.

Guys and dolls in Ely

Just north of this outdoorsy town, off the Echo Trail, YMCA Camp du Nord offers winter camps for families.

They include the Winter Wonderland Family Camp Feb. 26-March 1 and the Cabin Fever Family Camp March 19-22. There are 21 heated cabins, some with gas fireplaces, in three villages. Some are rustic, but most are quite luxurious.

Rates depend on size of cabin; 16 people sharing Thor's Lodge pay $88 apiece, and seven people sharing Jack's II Cabin pay $109. Reserve early to get your choice of cabins.

An ice fall along the trail to the caves.

© Beth Gauper

In the Apostles, hikers can see ice formations from the blufftop Lakeshore Trail.

See ice caves in the Apostles

Snowshoeing or hiking over Lake Superior to see the magnificent ice caves at Mawikwe Bay on the Bayfield Peninsula is the coolest thing you can do in winter (aside from mushing your own sled-dog team for a day, which costs about $300). And it doesn't cost a thing.

In 2014, the shoreline ice froze early, and park rangers gave the green light to visitors on Jan. 15. The ice stayed solid until mid-March.

When the ice doesn't freeze,  you still can walk along the top of the cliffs on the Lakeshore Trail from Meyers Beach.

Stay at the Village Inn in nearby Cornucopia, where rooms go for $65-$75, including a continental breakfast.

Get away to Lanesboro and Preston

This burg in southeast Minnesota bluff country, so popular with bicyclists in summer and fall, is very quiet in winter. In recent years, however, it's been dumped with snow, allowing skiing on the groomed Harmony-Preston Valley and Root River state trails.

Skiing is excellent on the quiet and scenic stretch of the Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail between Isinours Junction, five miles west of Lanesboro, and Preston. (To get to Isinours, turn south onto County Road 17 from County Road 8, halfway between Fountain and Lanesboro.)

Skiers on the Harmony-Preston Valley trail.

© Beth Gauper

Skiers glide along the Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail near Lanesboro.

In January, there's a candlelight ski on the trail from Preston, with chili around a bonfire. On the Root River State Trail, there's a Feb. 7 candlelight ski from Whalan, with a soup supper in the village hall.

In Preston, stay at the Trail Head Inn for $50-$75, $100 for a cabin that sleeps six. Dogs are allowed, $20 per stay.

In Lanesboro, stay at the Cottage House Inn, where rooms are $60, or the Green Gables Inn, where they start at $78. There's shopping and Amish tours, too.

Winter in Duluth

These days, nearly every visitor to Duluth wants to stay on Canal Park. But the Spirit Mountain ski hill is in West Duluth, and so is the modest but perfectly nice Willard Munger Inn.

The motel offers good deals on skiing and snowboarding at Spirit Mountain. During the week, stays that include lift tickets for two start at $92, and on weekends, they start at $116.

If you're a cross-country skier — and Duluth has great cross-country trails near the Munger and across town — you can stay there for $56-$60. 

Culture in Northfield

In this two-college town an hour south of the Twin Cities, the entertainment is free. St. Olaf College, whose music program is renowned, regularly brings in professional musicians, including the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Check the calendar for free concerts.

At Carleton College, the Friday-morning Convocation lectures are free and open to the public. 

There are many other free or inexpensive events around town. Stay at the 1877 Archer House River Inn, which includes restaurants and shops under its roof. 

River House at ABR.

© Beth Gauper

Two ski trails pass the River House at ABR in Ironwood.

Rooms start at $80, and several have two beds or sleeper sofas, good for girlfriend getaways.

Skiing in Ironwood

Thanks to lake-effect snowfalls, this Michigan town on the Wisconsin border never has a bad snow year. It has two cross-country ski trail systems, Wolverine and ABR, and both have inexpensive lodgings.

In 2015, the Sisu Ski Fest is Jan. 10, featuring ski and snowshoe races, the Taste 'n' Tour and a Finnish reggae concert.

Across the street from Wolverine Nordic, Wolverine Village is a newly built skiers' retreat. Small cabins that sleep up to three go for $65, and large cabins that sleep up to 12 go for $200. There's also a dining hall, laundry area, showers and wax rooms.

ABR (short for Active Backwoods Retreat) has lodgings right on the trails. It's known for its fastidious grooming, so that's a big plus. Overnights at six rustic, ski-in heated cabins cost $40-$60 for one, $8 for each additional person. A sauna and shower costs an extra $6.

The resort also has two modern houses, and groups can get by for $100 per person or less there, too.

Stay cheap in Madison

In summer, the Hostelling International Madison hostel is packed with tourists from around the world. But in winter, guests may have a room to themselves. The cost for a bed in a dorm room is $24-$27; in a private room, it's $52 for one, $55 for two and $58 for three. 

The hostel in Madison.

© Beth Gauper

The Madison hostel has an excellent location between Capitol Square and Lake Monona.

The hostel is ideally located two blocks from Capitol Square and State Street, which is packed with shops, restaurants and museums. Winter is the cultural high season, and the Overture Center for the Arts hosts international artists and Broadway shows as well as the local symphony, opera, theater and dance troupes.

The calendar is packed, including the free Madison Winter Festival on Capitol Square, Feb. 14-15, and the giant Canoecopia paddle sports expo, March 13-15 at the Alliant Energy Center.

For more, see At home in a hostel (it includes information about the hostel in Chicago's Loop, too).

Tracking wolves in central Wisconsin

Twenty minutes west of Wisconsin Rapids in Sandhill State Wildlife Area, the Sandhill Outdoor Skills Center offers several winter workshops, including a Timber Wolf Ecology workshop. 

In 2015, it's Feb. 7-8. Cost is $90 and includes a field trip into wolf territory, dorm lodgings and two meals.

A wolf in Ely.

© Beth Gauper

A wolf has dinner at the International Wolf Center in Ely.

Winter in Ely

In this north-woods Minnesota town, the International Wolf Center offers programs year-round.

There's also a lot to see and do Feb. 5-15 during Winter Festival, which features a voyageur encampment, snow-sculpting contests, an ArtWalk and snowshoeing to see ancient pictographs.

Stay west of town in Bear Head Lake State Park, which has a guesthouse and camper cabins. For more, see Ensconced in Ely.

A cabin and gliding by candlelight

If you love to ski or snowshoe by candlelight in state parks but you have a hard time leaving the house in the dark, just make your home in the park for the night.

Minnesota has heated camper cabins in many of the parks that host candlelight events. They're a little expensive at $55-$60 plus the $8.50 reservation fee, but they sleep six, so you can split the cost.

Or not — the cabins are rustic, but a couple can make them romantic with a roaring fire under the stars.

Camper cabins at Jay Cooke.

© Beth Gauper

Camper cabins are popular year-round.

The candlelight ski at Mille Lacs-Kathio  is one of the region's best, and that state park has five camper cabins.

Other best bets: Wild River near Taylors Falls, (six cabins and a guesthouse); Lake Carlos near Alexandria, (four cabins); Afton near St. Paul, (four cabins); St. Croix near Hinckley (two guesthouses) and Lake Maria near Monticello, (three cabins).

For more, see Ski or snowshoe by candlelight.

For camper cabins in all states, see A roof in the woods.

More ideas for affordable travel

On Minnesota's North Shore, the four cabins on Mic Mac Lake in Tettegouche State Park rent for $90-$115 in winter, and even though they have no running water (there's a shower house) and guests have to haul everything over a 1¾-mile trail, they're very popular.

Minnesota rents several modern guest houses. For more, see Lodgings in Minnesota state parks.

In Wisconsin, Black River State Forest near Black River Falls rents a two-bedroom cabin that sleeps 12, $40. There are good ski trails nearby.

It's always cheapest to travel with a group. To find out about inexpensive places for groups to stay, see Cabins for a crowd.

To find out about outdoors clubs, which offer many great trips for $100 or less, see Join the club.


Last updated on November 17, 2014

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