As the weather gets colder and the days shorter, attention turns to the frosted slopes and open fields ripe for a day of snowbound adventure. At least, that’s how it goes in the Midwest, America’s true winter wonderland. Winter is the perfect time to explore the outdoors in the Midwestern states — just make sure you have a warm jacket, gloves, a good pair of earmuffs, and a positive attitude about a little wind chill. Here are the 11 most unique outdoor things to do in the Midwest this winter, from ice luging to visiting a “candy palace.”
Things to do in Michigan in winter
Photograph snowy owls
Shutterbugs may want to consider heading to the Midwest in winter to take part in photographing the annual snowy owl migration every winter. However, you’ll still have to work to find them. Not only do they have excellent camouflage, but they’re also rather rare, even during migrations. Birdwatchers usually only record about 100 individuals each year, and it’s very lucky if you see more than two or three in a day.
Because they’re hard to spot, you should go with a pro who knows both how to find and shoot the stunning birds. So if you like photography, one of the best things to do in the Midwest in the winter will be taking a tour with a Michigan photographer like AJ Harrison or Brian Zweibel of Sabrewing Nature Tours.
Try ice luging
It’s easy to get confused about differences between similar winter sports, like luge vs. bobsled vs. skeleton. Fortunately, one of the best things to do in the Midwest in winter is to become an expert on that topic. Visitors can try luging at the Muskegon Winter Sports Complex, about an hour from Grand Rapids. The center has one of only four luge tracks in the US and is open to the public. A luge experience lasts about 2.5 hours and includes all the necessary equipment and instruction and time to try it several times. You can also visit at night if, for some reason, you already happen to be an expert luger.
Things to do in Wisconsin in the winter
Visit the ice caves at Apostle Island National Lakeshore
Apostle Island National Lakeshore is a beautiful place to visit in the winter. The ice caves offer some of the most stunning scenery, and if the conditions are right, touring them is one of the best things to do in the Midwest in winter. You can only visit the ice caves when Lake Superior is completely frozen — and even then, walking on ice is still risky. The national lakeshore maintains a webpage with the status of the ice and info on cave accessibility.
Attend the Merrill Sled Dog Race
The Merrill Sled Dog Race is a winter event every January. The race starts in Merrill, Wisconsin, and finishes at the intersection of North and West Main Street near the small downtown area.
The course winds for five miles through the snow-covered woods and over frozen lakes. It’s an official event from the International Sled Dog Association and visitors can attend to watch the race, meet the dogs and mushers, and watch other festival events like skijoring displays. It’s a great way to get outside, enjoy the beauty of winter, and meet friendly locals. There’s music, food, and a general spirit that embraces the unique side of winter. It’s held every January or February, depending on conditions.
Things to do in Minnesota in winter
See the northern lights
On days when solar activity is high, which you can check using NOAA’s space weather predictor, you can sometimes see the aurora borealis (northern lights) from the continental United States. And the wide-open spaces of far-north Minnesota make it one of the best places for doing just that. Voyageurs National Park is a popular place for northern lights viewing, but there are plenty of other places in Cook County that regularly offer aurora viewing. The Cook County tourism website offers a few northern lights road trip suggestions online for your viewing pleasure (but make sure to download the route in advance).
Try ice fishing
If you like fishing, why not give ice fishing a try? The best way to try it in Minnesota is to go with a guide or rent your gear near the frozen lake, unless you have all your stuff. Bundled up in your warmest gear, you’ll trapse across a frozen expanse to carefully drill a hole in the ice, then patiently wait to see what’s coming up from below. Good places to try it in Minnesota include Red Door Resort at Mille Lacs Lake or with Ice Fishing Warriors, near St. Paul.
Things to do in Indiana in the winter
Stroll through a Christmas market
You don’t need to go to Bavaria to enjoy mulled cider, hot pretzels, live music, and shopping for cozy wool mittens. Just go to Carmel, Indiana, which offers one of the best things to do in the Midwest in winter: a traditional German-style Christmas market. Much of what’s on sale and available to eat and drink comes from Germany, including herzhafte suppen (hearty soups), schnitzel with sauerkraut, and original German folk art and gifts. The market runs annually from just before Thanksgiving to the last day of December.
Visit Santa Claus
The town of Santa Claus, Indiana, is one of the quirkiest and most genuinely cute places to visit in Indiana in the winter. Visitors can attend multiple Christmas parades, have breakfast with Santa, listen to stories from elves, drive through a 12-mile light show, and visit the Candy Castle — irresistible to children and adults alike. Spending an afternoon in Santa Claus is one of the best things to do in the Midwest in the winter with children, though fans of the season will be happy to know that offerings like the massive Christmas shop and Santa Claus Museum are open all year.
Other things to do in the Midwest in winter
See the crane migration: Nebraska
Starting in early February, about a million sand cranes — elegant white birds up to three feet tall — make their way to Nebraska. The birds eat and rest in the state’s Platte River Valley. Even if you’re not a birdwatcher, seeing the cranes is still one of the best things to do in the Midwest in winter as the sheer number of birds is just incredible. Visitors can go for single-day hiking tours or stay for days at a time at purpose-built lodges dedicated to the cranes.
Celebrate bald eagles: Iowa
Iowa is a native habitat for bald eagles, and they’re celebrated every winter in Iowa. During the state’s Bald Eagle Appreciation Days, usually held at the end of January, visitors can hang out at the festival on the shore of the Mississippi river, where trained volunteers will help you spot the large birds. Also at the festival are activities for kids and adults, Indigenous cultural and educational activities, and plenty of food and drink vendors. Admission is free, and you can get all the details on the Keokuk tourism website.
Sightsee in the Badlands: South Dakota
South Dakota’s winters are certainly not mild, so it may not be the first place you’d think to go hiking in January. But South Dakota’s badlands are some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country when they’re covered in a dusting of snow. Driving the Hwy 240/Badlands Loop Road is one of the best things to do in the Midwest in winter, especially if you like landscape photography. Just be sure to check the Badlands National Park winter road closure information before you go. Along the way, you’ll pass more than a dozen scenic overlooks. Almost none require walking more than a minute or two, and some have trailheads nearby in case you want to walk a mile or two (or 10).