8 Indoor + Outdoor Minnesota Winter Activities

What to do during winter in Minnesota | Photo by Ian Schneider via UnsplashPhoto by Ian Schneider

Yes, it’s true. Despite what you may have heard (or quite rationally assumed), people really do continue to live in and travel to the US state of Minnesota during the winter — subzero Fahrenheit temperatures and all.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that winter in Minnesota is not *my* personal idea of paradise. I may have grown up there, but after seven years in more temperate climates, I’m a big old baby when it comes to icy roads and cold temperatures. (Although I do still think it’s hilarious when everything shuts down after a couple of centimeters of snowfall. That might never go away.)

So, if you’re not particularly fond of arctic conditions yourself, I’m not here to tell you to suck it up or get over it. I sure as hell haven’t.

But the fact that their winters last a solid five to six months of the year means those folks really know what they’re doing. Minnesotans don’t just tolerate the blizzards and bone-chilling temperatures, they embrace them — and they invite you to join in.

Here are a few ideas for Minnesota winter activities to get you started.

Minnehaha Frozen Falls
Photo by Albert Leung via Flickr

Find a frozen waterfall

Do I even need to say anything else? (Probably not — but what kind of blogger would I be if I let that stop me?)

Minnesota’s got some fantastic waterfalls, and they’re arguably even more magical when frozen into giant icy monsters. Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis is especially popular, partly because it’s right there in the city, and partly because you can also climb up behind the waterfall for an extra-special view. (Very, very carefully, of course.)

Other great options include Gooseberry Falls (located in Gooseberry Falls State Park, along Minnesota’s North Shore), Ramsey Falls in Redwood, and Winnewissa Falls in Pipestone.

Snowy tree | Photo by Das Sasha via UnsplashPhoto by Das Sasha

Hit the snowy trails

If you think Minnesotans just stay inside all winter…well, for some of us, you’d be right. But for others, winter means it’s time to strap on your snow shoes or cross-country skis and get moving (albeit maybe a bit slower than normal).

On top of being a pretty decent full-body workout, a hike or ski through Minnesota’s wintry forests provides peace, serenity, and the opportunity to spot a range of wildlife. And with hundreds of miles of groomed trails and more than 75 state parks and recreation areas to explore, you’ll have enough to keep you busy all season.

Of course, it’s important to keep an eye on the weather forecasts and keep up with any advisories in the area[s] you’ll be visiting. In case I haven’t mentioned it enough times already, Minnesota winter is no joke. Dress appropriately, and take warnings seriously.

Be aware that if you’re over 16, you’ll need to purchase a ski pass to ski on any of MN’s groomed trails. For more info on passes, as well as the various trails and parks throughout the state, check out the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Bentleyville, Duluth | The Mindful MermaidPhoto by The Mindful Mermaid

Explore Bentleyville in Duluth

by Alex at The Mindful Mermaid

Although I’ve now traded winters in Minnesota for Croatia, I regularly get nostalgic about my favorite winter activities back in my home state. The northern city of Duluth, located about 150 miles from the Twin Cities, is worth the trip just for the Bentleyville “Tour of Lights” festival. It’s a seasonal tradition for locals, yet one that many tourists and other Minnesotans completely miss! [Note from Emily: I can vouch for this, as I spent 22 years in Minnesota and never visited this once. Oops?]

Bentleyville is actually the largest walk-through light display in the US. In addition to the Christmas lights strung up everywhere, you’ll find nativity scenes, hot chocolate stands, and cozy bonfires all along Duluth’s waterfront. Walking through all of the festival’s colorful displays is truly like walking through a winter wonderland, and it’s something I look forward to doing with my family each year.

Bentleyville takes place from the 18th November till the 26th of December, and entrance is free. Make sure to bundle up because it does get chilly along Lake Superior. For more info, see the Bentleyville website here.

Snow falling on people walking across a bridge in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota -- Photo by Hal Tearse via Pixabay
Photo by Hal Tearse

Catch a Minnesota Wild ice hockey game

Confession time: I grew up in Minnesota and I’ve never been to a hockey game.

Not only that, but if you took me to a hockey game, I’d probably sound something like Kirk in that episode of Gilmore Girls where he brings a big old dictionary to consult while he “commentates” (you remember: it was right before we found out that Dean was dating Lindsey, like she’d ever been in the show before or like anyone still cared about Dean*). Except I wouldn’t bring a dictionary, I’d bring a flask (and cab fare, because what the hell are you doing taking me to a hockey game?).

All this is to say, I can’t personally vouch for the Minnesota Wild, or hockey in general — but I’ve heard it’s an iconic thing to do during winter in MN. And if my supremely lackluster approach to the sport has you convinced, you can find more info about Wild games and tickets here.

* Sorry, but Dean was the worst, and in the rotation of Rory’s Godawful Terrible Boyfriends, that’s saying something.

Ice Fishing Huts, Winona | International HotdishPhoto by International Hotdish

Delight in wintry Winona

by Hayley and Scott at International Hotdish

Tucked away in the Driftless area, Winona is a wintertime lover’s dream come true. The sleepy town of 25,000 people may seem lifeless, but really comes into its own during the winter.

Folks can enjoy a wide range of winter sports. They can Nordic ski the extensive trails behind St. Mary’s University, ice skate at the lake lodge, snowshoe the trails behind Holzinger lodge, or ride snow bikes throughout the prairie. Need something faster? Winona is a great starting point for riding snowmobiles with the trails spanning the entire state, north to south. More in the mood for cheap fun? Winona offers countless hills to sled down.

Don’t feel like breaking a sweat? Ice fishing (more fun that it sounds, honestly!) lasts all winter and is a rite of passage for those living in Minnesota. In the evenings, you can watch a showing from the Frozen River Film Festival, or catch the holiday train coming through town. And since Winona is in a river valley and surrounded by hills, the snow hanging off the trees makes for amazing photo opportunities.

And when you’re done for the day, curl up with a cup of coffee from local roasters Mugby Junction and a doughnut from Bloedow’s. What else could you ask for?

Check out Visit Winona for more tourist info.

Guthrie Theater in the Snow

See “A Christmas Carol” at the Guthrie Theater

The Guthrie Theater is a renowned Minneapolis institution, and their annual showing of “A Christmas Carol” is a time-honored tradition that’s been going on for over 40 years. It’s one of the first things that comes to my mind when I think of the holiday season in the Twin Cities (especially now that there is no more 8th floor Dayton’s display).

Obviously, the cast and crew change regularly over the years — but the story and the spirit behind Dickens’ classic holiday tale remain the same.

The play usually runs from mid-November to late December each year. For more information, see the Guthrie’s website here.

Ice Castles, Stillwater | Parenthood and PassportsPhoto by Parenthood and Passports

Visit Ice Castles in Stillwater

from Melissa at Parenthood and Passports

Ice Castles is one of the more unique outdoor winter activities in Minnesota. True to its name, this attraction in Stillwater is a towering castle made entirely from ice.

Stepping inside the frozen palace is like entering a mythical world found only in childhood fairy tales. Intimidating icicles dangle overhead while serene lights illuminate the ice and twinkle along to music. Even when surrounded by crowds of other awe-struck visitors, it was perfectly peaceful and strangely quiet inside the icy paradise.

While the beauty of the castle is the main draw for visitors, there is plenty to do in and around Ice Castles to keep you entertained for a couple of hours. Kids and adults alike will enjoy the acre-sized winter playground that includes ice-carved slides, tunnels, and fountains.

Though it may be more crowded and expensive, visit on a weekend and you’ll get to watch fire dancers perform at night. There are also Disney princesses there on select days to take photos with the little kids.

Tickets for Ice Castles must be purchased in advance. For more info, see the website here.

Standing on a frozen lake in Minnesota -- Photo by Jenny Salita via Unsplash
Photo by Jenny Salita

Experience the Eelpout Festival

I don’t know if anything is more stereotypically “Minnesotan” than a wintertime festival held on a lake and named after a fish. Maybe tater tot hot dish, or kids with gloves clipped to their jackets — both of which I’m sure you’ll find here, anyway.

The Eelpout Festival is held annually at Leech Lake in the town of Walker, and includes a range of different activities and some rather questionable decision-making. On top of a competition for the biggest eelpout caught, there’s also eelpout rugby, whatever that is, and something called the “Polar Plunge,” which is just a cutesy name for jumping into a frigid lake in the middle of winter. (Honestly, I need an extra pair of socks just thinking about it, but do you, friends.)

Intrigued? Find out more about the festival here.


Of course, you can also do what I did, and move to a different country. New Zealand is just lovely this time of year.

On a more somber note: It’s all fun and games when you’ve got a heated home to return to; but Minnesota’s been experiencing extremely cold temperatures lately, and there are a great deal of people without a warm place to sleep this winter. If you’re able to, consider making a donation to a nonprofit organization that deals with homelessness, such as Youthlink MN or Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. (Disclaimer: I have no affiliations with these organizations, and encourage you to do your own research before donating.)

Thanks to my fellow bloggers for contributing their favorite Minnesota winter activities to this post! If you’ve got any of your own to suggest, feel free to do so in the comments.

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Hockey games, holiday traditions, and fish festivals: how to while away those long (actually short) days during winter in Minnesota, USA. Including indoor and outdoor activities in Minneapolis, Winona, Duluth, and more. | Photos by Ian Schneider and International Hotdish | #Minnesota #Winter

Hockey games, holiday traditions, and fish festivals: how to while away those long (actually short) days during winter in Minnesota, USA. Including indoor and outdoor activities in Minneapolis, Winona, Duluth, and more. | Photo by Das Sasha | #Minnesota #Winter

Hockey games, holiday traditions, and fish festivals: how to while away those long (actually short) days during winter in Minnesota, USA. Including indoor and outdoor activities in Minneapolis, Winona, Duluth, and more. | Photo by Das Sasha | #Minnesota #Winter

Hockey games, holiday traditions, and fish festivals: how to while away those long days during winter in Minnesota, USA. Including indoor and outdoor activities in Minneapolis, Winona, Duluth, and more. | Photo by Jenny Salita | #Minnesota #Winter