An unforgettable, icy escape
By Glenda Winders // Photography courtesy of Explore Minnesota
With below-freezing temperatures throughout its long winter and International Falls on the Canadian border known as “the icebox of the nation,” why would anyone choose this time of year to vacation in Minnesota? For one very good reason: Minnesotans have made an art form of enjoying their chilly climate, and they’re happy to share it with anyone brave enough to come north.
“When the weather turns cold, we are not ones to hibernate,” says Alyssa Hayes, Explore Minnesota spokeswoman. “We embrace our winter culture and celebrate the season. With thousands of miles of winter trails, 10,000-plus ice-covered lakes, rugged winter sports, cozy lodges and more, there are endless ways to enjoy a winter vacation in Minnesota.”
What to do
You won’t run out of invigorating activities in Minnesota’s great outdoors. The land that gave you 10,000 lakes for swimming and boating last summer now invites you back for one of its favorite winter sports: ice fishing. Many lakeside resorts provide gear and rent ice houses. Some are large enough to sleep in and include bunks for up to six people, propane heat, lights, stove and oven, table and chairs, a bathroom and drinking water. Their proprietors will pre-drill holes in the ice so that you can get straight to fishing as soon as you arrive.
Meanwhile the non-fishermen in your group can spend their time ice skating or joining a pickup game of hockey or broomball. This game is like hockey, but instead of ice skates, players wear boots, and they use a stick with a triangular head to move the ball.
Cross-country skiing is a favorite here, with enough trails to reach from St. Paul to Los Angeles. One place to do this is in Theodore Wirth Park in northern Minneapolis. Or try skijoring, a rapidly growing sport that combines cross-country skiing with dog-sledding in what looks like water-skiing on snow. Dog-sledding on its own is another possibility.
There’s plenty of downhill skiing, too, with 18 ski resorts that include five in the Twin Cities area and two in far-northern Duluth. Sawtooth Mountains offers spectacular runs with a view of green pine forests and Lake Superior. Duluth’s Spirit Mountain is also popular.
Snowshoeing is a great family or group pastime on both groomed trails and off-trail excursions. Children in your group might want to sled or snow-tube. The state’s 15 designated sledding properties rent equipment and provide tow ropes and warming huts, but city parks and country hillsides work just as well.
Snowmobiling on 22,000 miles of trails provides a way to view wildlife and nature in a close-up manner you that can’t from the road. The North Shore Trail traverses the wooded ridgeline overlooking Lake Superior, while Luce Line State Trail is closer to Minneapolis and St. Paul. Concerned about noise and air pollution? Opt instead for a fat-tire bike ride. Bundle up and pedal along at your own speed or join the Arrowhead Ultra 135 Race on the Arrowhead State Trail from International Falls to Tower. Known as one of the 50 toughest bicycle races in the world, it is run during the coldest time of the year.
Ice-climbing is a fast-growing, adrenaline-filled yet peaceful sport where adventure-seekers climb frozen water using ice axes and special boots. Businesses throughout the state offer instruction and equipment rental, and several parks provide ideal climbing conditions. In Duluth try Gooseberry State Park and Casket Park. The Winona Ice Park in Winona is dedicated to the sport.
Where to eat
You won’t find many restaurants out there in the woods, and at the end of a day of freezing fun you might not feel like going out anyway. Minnesota’s 350 resort operators know this, so many of them have created dining options right on their properties. Want to cook your own dinner? Beacon Pointe Resort in Duluth provides full kitchens in its condos. Or relax and enjoy the view at Splashing Rock Restaurant at Grand Superior Lodge in Two Harbors. For casual dining try Ten Mile Lake Resort in Dalton. Or spring for dining beside the 200-ton stone fireplace at the Cree-ornamented Great Hall at Naniboujou Lodge, where Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth have also dined.
Where to stay
Many of the resorts in northern Minnesota are on lakes and rivers, and many throughout the rest of the state provide access to ski trails and rent the equipment. It’s a good idea to consider the activities you plan to enjoy when you book your lodging.
Assuming you aren’t already bunked in your ice-fishing hut, you might want to try winter camping. Boundary Country Trekking in Grand Marais offers yurt lodging as well as yurt-to-yurt ski trips with a Mongolian fire-pot dinner at the end of the day. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources provides yurts at Afton and Glendalough state parks and Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, and more than 20 state parks have camper cabins available year-round, many of which are heated and have electricity.
Resorts and hotels here also cater to outdoor enthusiasts. Gunflint Lodge and Outfitters in Grand Marais will put you up in its cabins and then kit you out for skiing, snowmobiling or ice fishing, and so will Cragun’s Resort in Brainerd.
More into charm and romance than cold-weather survival? Maybe a cozy bed-and-breakfast is the place for you, and there are plenty. The Baptism River Inn is a log cabin situated on the river’s edge and tucked among the great north woods. Each room has a hot tub where you can warm up and relax after a day of play. Berwood Hill Inn in idyllic Lanesboro has won many awards for its elegance and excellent food. Also in Lanesboro is the Scandinavian Inn, another Victorian home where all the breakfast food is organic and fair-trade. In Red Wing you have your choice of the Round Barn Farm or the Octagon House Retreat, among others.
City Stays Start in St. Paul
What to do
As much as Minnesotans love to play in the cold outdoors, they also know how to have a good time inside. The state’s major cities are filled with unusual museums, shopping and theater, especially the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
“Perhaps no destination in Minnesota is known more for winter than St. Paul,” says Nick Cusick, marketing and communications director for Visit St. Paul. “We have been embracing and celebrating the season since our first winter carnival more than 130 years ago, but as much as we love being outdoors, there are great indoor options during the season, too. We recommend exploring our museums and restaurants if you’re looking to warm up after enjoying our winter.”
Situated mostly across the Mississippi River from Minneapolis, St. Paul is the state capital, so you could start with a free tour of the capitol building. Within walking distance is the Minnesota History Center, which takes “interactive” to a whole new level. In addition to exploring Native American cultures, you’ll be able to huddle in a basement while a tornado destroys the home overhead and fly in a C-47 amid gunfire on D-Day. Just a short walk from there is the beaux arts Cathedral of St. Paul, a national shrine. Hands-on learning experiences abound at the Minnesota Children’s Museum and the Science Museum of Minnesota.
Where to eat
Hope Breakfast Bar, located in a former firehouse, gives part of its profits to neighbors in need. The Keg & Case Market, housed in the former Jacob Schmidt Brewing Co. building, is home to many eclectic dining establishments. The newest is Woodfired Cantina, where you can watch your dinner being cooked. Moscow on the Hill serves authentic Russian cuisine and cocktails made from vodka, while the German eatery Waldmann Brewery, established in 1857, is a trip back in time.
Where to stay
The Covington Inn is a former tugboat turned floating B&B on the Mississippi River within the reflections from the skyline, and it’s open year-round. Celeste of St. Paul Hotel and Bar is a former convent and renowned music and arts conservatory with artwork reflective of its past. Hyatt Place is built within a historic custom house and former post office. Since the city has the highest urban Hmong population in the country, you can’t leave without a visit to Hmong Village, where you can shop as well as eat.
More than Mary Tyler Moore’s town: Minneapolis
What to do
One staple here is the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Ranked among the top 10 comprehensive museums in the country, its collections range from ancient sculpture and modern photography to rooms fully outfitted in period furniture. Modern art aficionados will enjoy the Walker Art Center and the adjacent Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.
Many of Minnesota’s residents are of Scandinavian descent, and a good way to learn about that heritage is at the American Swedish Institute. The historic Turnblad Mansion where it is located is worth the trip for its sculpted ceilings, intricately carved wood, and Swedish rugs and porcelains. The city is also home to the largest group of Somali immigrants in the United States, and the Somali Museum of Minnesota is a wonderful way to learn about their culture. The museum is dedicated to advancing and elevating the work of Somali artists.
Prince fans will enjoy a trip to Paisley Park, just a 30-minute drive from downtown, and the Minnesota Zoo is open year-round. Since native animals are the stars here, they’re used to the weather and you can look at some exhibits from inside.
If your mind is already on next summer’s golf game, make time for Topgolf, with 100-plus hitting bays. Others in your group might want to shop at the Mall of America, and the children will beg for some time at its indoor amusement park and aquarium. The Great Wolf Lodge Water Park is just a mile away.
Where to eat
For sure make a stop at Midtown Global Market, an international collection of restaurants, grocers and gift shops. Cuisines from Africa, Asia, India, Italy, Mexico and the United States are all under one roof. Young Joni in the northeast arts district features a menu with a diverse array of globally influenced shareable plates, grilled meats and vegetables as well as signature wood-fired pizzas. Chef/owner Ann Kim, who also owns Pizzeria Lola and Hello Pizza, received the prestigious James Beard “Best Chef Midwest” Award. Graze Provisions + Libations is a food and beverage collective with seven chef-inspired food concepts. Psycho Suzi’s, a nationally recognized tiki bar, is an island escape right in the city. During the holidays it is transformed into a wonderland called Mary’s Christmas Palace.
Where to stay
The ultra-stylish Scandinavian-inspired Hewing Hotel downtown, located in a former brick and lumber warehouse, has been redesigned with modern amenities but still pays homage to its origins. The centrally located 300 Clifton will entice B&B lovers to rooms finely appointed with antique furniture and rugs. Large chain hotels abound close to whatever you plan to do.
Port-y down in Duluth
What to do
Another not-to-be missed city for indoor fun in the far north is Duluth. It’s famous for the bustle of its port and its many outdoor activities, but there are lots of places to snuggle in and get warm, too.
“Duluth is absolutely magical under a blanket of freshly fallen snow,” says Anna Tanski, president and CEO of Visit Duluth, “and when the thermometer dips below Lake Superior’s water temperature, the sea smoke creates a breathtaking backdrop you won’t find anywhere else. We also offer an array of indoor options, such as unique museums, galleries and local artisans.”
If you don’t do anything else in Duluth, be sure to visit the Glensheen Mansion, former home of Chester and Clara Congdon, who opened iron mining in this area and also set aside lands for public use. The 39-room home on a 12-acre estate was built between 1905 and 1908 and is the most visited historic home in Minnesota. If you don’t have room on your itinerary for the house, be sure to watch the virtual tour online. Another stop here is the Great Lakes Aquarium to see river otters, birds, freshwater fish and more.
Where to eat
Start your evening at one of Duluth’s many craft breweries — Bent Paddle Brewing Co., Ursa Minor Brewing or Blacklist Brewing Co. are just a few — or at Vikre Distillery, which overlooks the iconic Aerial Lift Bridge and serves tasty cocktails made from local ingredients. Then move on to Northern Waters Smokehaus in Canal Park on Lake Superior to enjoy sustainably raised smoked fish and handcrafted smoked meats as well as artisan salami and deli sandwiches.
Va Bene serves fresh Italian food in a casual environment directly above the Lakewalk and offers outstanding lake views. Located in the hot Lincoln Park neighborhood, OMC Smokehouse (O for “oink,” M for “moo” and C for “cluck), serves outstanding barbecue meals such as smoked pulled pork, beef brisket, smoked chicken, Nashville hot chicken and St. Louis ribs.
Where to stay
The A.G. Thomson House is an elegant B&B in the Congdon area where you can sit by the fire and look out over Lake Superior in beautifully appointed surroundings. Fitger’s Inn, located in the 1885 renovated Fitger’s Brewery, is Duluth’s premier historic lakefront hotel. Rooms have double whirlpools and fireplaces, so you can stay in and relax or head out to the hotel’s three restaurants, two nightclubs and many unusual retail shops.
Minnesotans are fond of saying there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes, so pack your thermals, heavy socks and down coats and start driving. On your way back south, make a stop in Winona to discover one of Minnesota’s best-kept secrets. In 1851 the artist Emanuel Leutze painted two versions of his famous “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” One hangs today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the other at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum in tiny Winona. That alone is worth this trip.