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Find Big Fun on Minnesota's Lakes & Rivers This Winter

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The annual Kite Crossing on Lake Mille Lacs attracts competitors from over a dozen states / Mille Lacs Area Tourism
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Find Big Fun on Minnesota's Lakes & Rivers This Winter

By C.B. Bylander

Minnesota’s big waters provide big fun, even in winter. From carnivals on ice to eagle watching to the world’s largest vintage snowmobile expo, winter activities keep lakes and rivers busy year-round.

From southeast to northwest, consider visiting these fun destinations that refuse to hibernate.

People ice skating on frozen Lake Winona

Rent skates or BYO to Lake Winona in southeast Minnesota / Visit Winona

Winona

Between towering bluffs and the Mississippi River, anglers can enjoy fine panfishing in the river’s frozen backwaters or Lake Winona. During the city’s annual Winter Carnival, visitors can partake in 5K or 1-mile fun runs, snowshoeing, a polar plunge and much more.

All winter long, Winona offers excellent cross-country skiing at St. Mary’s University, where snow-making equipment assures great conditions. Want to try fat biking? Then visit Adventure Cycle and Ski, where bikes can be rented by the half-day, day or weekend. Ice skaters are in luck, too: Winona has an indoor skate park and an outdoor rink at Lake Winona.

Bald eagle in flight with blue sky in the background

Bald eagle in flight / Steve Allen

Wabasha

Just 30 miles upriver from Winona, Wabasha was the setting of the classic 1993 film “Grumpy Old Men.” To celebrate this cinematic slice of history, Wabasha will hold its annual Grumpy Old Men Festival in late February. Visitors can take part in an ice fishing tournament, minnow races, hot dish luncheon and Grumpy Plunge into the Mississippi River.

Wabasha is also home to the National Eagle Center, which hosts daily live eagle programs and has spotting scopes for up-close views of the many bald eagles and more rare golden eagles that congregate nearby to feed along the open river. For an additional fee, look for half-day bald and golden eagle field trips offered throughout the season.

Waconia

About 20 minutes west of Minneapolis, Lake Waconia is the second-largest lake in the Twin Cities area. It’s a great place to catch walleye, northern pike and panfish. It also hosts the Midwest Vintage Snowmobile Show, billed as the largest vintage and antique snowmobile event in the world.

Held in late January in and around the Waconia Event Center, the theme changes annually to pay homage to different aspects of Minnesota's proud snowmobile history. Lake-based events include drag and oval racing. The event also features a swap meet, trail rides, loud snowmobile contest, silent auction and snowmobile show.

Winter sunset on Lake Mille Lacs ice fishing shack

 Ice fishing shack, Lake Mille Lacs / Jim Hoffman

Lake Mille Lacs

Long one of Minnesota’s favorite ice fishing destinations, this 132,000-acre lake remains a focal point for outdoor recreation, especially ice fishing for largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, northern pike and walleye. Plowed roads lead to comfortable fish house rentals. Dark houses are available, too, for those who want to try northern pike spearing.

Cross-country skiers will find groomed classic-style trails at Mille Lacs Kathio State Park, as well as ski and snowshoe rentals. A number of naturalist-led snowshoe and skiing programs are offered in January and February, including a candlelight ski event in February.

For something truly unique, check out the Mille Lacs Kite Crossing winter kiteboarding festival in early March.

A bar shaped like an igloo on frozen Lake of the Woods

The Igloo Bar on Lake of the Woods

Lake of the Woods

Those seeking a unique experience may want to visit Zippel Bay Resort’s Igloo Bar, an igloo-shaped gathering spot on Lake of the Woods. Typically placed on fish-filled Zippel Reef once the ice is solid, the 1,000-square-foot building is heated and features fishing holes and rattle reels for those who want to wet a line while relaxing.

Hot food is served from noon to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday, along with a full bar and nonalcoholic beverages. Weather permitting, a toasty bonfire roars outside at night.

Nearby Zippel Bay State Park offers 11 miles of cross-country ski trails, with candlelight ski events in January and February.

C.B. Bylander

C.B. Bylander is a hunter, angler and outdoor enthusiast. He lives on a small lake in Crow Wing County. Now retired, he spent much of his career working for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.