Head North for Winter Fun

By Loren Green

Eelpout Polar Plunge Leech Lake Walker

In Minnesota, where the winter sun sets early and the trees are bare, the fun doesn’t move indoors. Instead, we pull on our snow pants, or in some cases, strip down to our swimsuits: It’s polar plunge time!

In addition to the many outdoor activities, from cross-country and downhill skiing to snowshoeing and ice fishing, Minnesota hosts numerous festivals and events that celebrate our northern climate and foster a sense of community in spite of the cold. So bundle up and head out into the Minnesota winter: The only thing you have to lose is the experience of a lifetime.

Sandstone Ice Festival, Sandstone (Jan. 4–6)

Many towns across the state host some form of cold weather-themed weekend, but the Sandstone Ice Festival is unique. It has its own chili cook-off and winter campgrounds, but it truly stands out because of the climbing. Sponsored by The Minnesota Climbers Association, the event transforms Robinson Park into Robinson Quarry Ice Park for a three-day weekend of ice wall climbing and adventure sports that combine education for first-timers and slippery slopes for the most skilled.

The Great Northern, Minneapolis & St. Paul (Jan. 24–Feb. 3)

Sledding at the State Fairgrounds in St. Paul during The Great Northern
Sledding at the State Fairgrounds in St. Paul during The Great Northern / Photo by The Great Northern

Three signature winter events—the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships, City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival and Saint Paul Winter Carnival—are under a new umbrella known as The Great Northern. In addition to these mainstays, the festival adds new elements including an outdoor public art display and other arts, sports and culinary-related programming.

Lake Harriet Kite Festival, Minneapolis (Jan. 26) 

Watch colorful and unique kites soar over frozen Lake Harriet. The contrast of the bright and colorful kites against the snow is a sight to see. Find family friendly activities like ice fishing, horse-drawn wagon rides, snowshoeing, and a marshmallow roast.

Arrowhead 135, International Falls-Tower (Jan. 28–30)

It’s difficult to comprehend the “ultra-endurance” of the Arrowhead 135, a winter ultramarathon that pushes athletes to the limit, racing 135 miles across northern Minnesota in subzero temperatures, over patches of hard compact snow and through piles of newly fallen fluff. The race—which can be done on foot, bike or skis—takes participants down the Arrowhead State Trail from International Falls all the way to Tower. Approximately 150 typically enter, but only a few cross the finish line.

Beer Dabbler Winter Carnival, St. Paul (Feb. 23)

Crowd at the Winter Beer Dabbler in St. Paul
Crowd at the Beer Dabbler Winter Carnival in St. Paul

This now-annual beer festival has grown in parallel to the state’s brewing scene. Boasting samples from more than 150 breweries near and far, Beer Dabbler takes over the Minnesota State Fairgrounds for a giant outdoor party that isn’t just about beer, but embracing cold weather and togetherness. Meat and cheese samples fill the heated Coliseum for a quick getaway, while outdoor fire pits and live music spread cheer on the Fairgrounds as if it were August.

Polar Fest, Detroit Lakes (Feb. 7–18)

Little Detroit Lake is in the heart of Minnesota’s winter wonderland. This community festival includes kid and adult activities ranging from arts to sports and fireworks. There’s the Freeze Your Buns 5K, curling and hockey on the sports side, while the entertainment takes the weather into play with a polar plunge and “frozen fireworks.” After all, a frozen lake isn’t a desert; it’s a winter playground.

Winterama, Glenwood (Feb. 9)

A city festival on Lake Minnewaska in central Minnesota, this one-day event combines all elements of lake culture and winter wonder into a single snow-packed Saturday. It begins with the Sweati Yeti obstacle run and later includes kids games on ice, a chili cook-off and polar plunge before ending with a classic fireworks show. Hosted by the town of Glenwood, area businesses from Starbuck, Alexandria and beyond come together to celebrate the season.

International Eelpout Festival, Walker (Feb. 21–24)

The International Eelpout Festival from above
The International Eelpout Festival takes place in Walker every February

More than 10,000 people gather in Walker each year for this three-day party on Leech Lake. The annual event is, by name, a celebration of a distinct and not-so-pretty bottom-feeding fish. The festival includes a fishing contest, but is ultimately so much more. There are auto races on the ice, a rugby game, a kid’s perch contest, an eelpout nugget fish fry, and a serious beer pong tournament.

Grumpy Old Men Festival, Wabasha (Feb. 22–23)

Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon have both passed on, but “The Odd Couple’s” influence remains strong in the Mississippi River town of Wabasha, where they filmed both of the “Grumpy Old Men” movies late in life. Like the namesake films, the festival finds fun on the ice, on the river, and in costume. There’s a goofy costume contest and minnow races that bring the movies to life, and more classic fare in the form of the ice fishing contest, and cribbage and Texas Hold ‘Em tournaments.

Find more festivals and events throughout Minnesota in our extensive events calendar.