If you’re new to Wisconsin, you might think winter is the season to stay inside and cozy up to the fireplace with besties, a book or a mug of hot cocoa. To be sure, you can find plenty of that here, but the outdoorsy nature of the Badger State is as strong as ever even when the snow flies and a great chance to experience Wisconsin in a new way. Here are a few things you should know in order to make the most of this magical season.
Let it Snow
Weather varies from year to year, but on the average central and northeast Wisconsin gets about 40-50 inches of snow each season, often (but not always) less in the south. But we also have what is called the Lake Superior Snowbelt. In Wisconsin that’s the region from the Apostle Islands and Bayfield Peninsula curving along the south shore into the Hurley area where “lake effect” snow can produce 100 to 150 inches. This reliable abundance supports snowmobiling, skiing and other sports, and kids of every age will have ample opportunity to make snow angels.
Lakes Freeze Over
You may see a thin layer forming already by late November, but in December you can expect most Wisconsin lakes to freeze over entirely – as in, you can walk on them, with ice thick enough to support vehicles and ice shanties (see ice fishing!).
And that sometimes includes the Great Lakes! Lake Superior freezes to some extent (and rarely, all the way across) and when it is thick enough, the Ice Highway opens up, a two-mile path marked by a row of Christmas trees for vehicles traveling between Bayfield and Madeline Island. Ice conditions there are monitored by local authorities, but one should always exercise good judgment. Watch for Book Across the Bay, a ski and snowshoe race across the ice of Chequamegon Bay between Ashland and Washburn. In Madison, get together with friends and family and watch as kiteboarders strap on snowboards and sail across the frozen lakes!
Winter’s For the Birds
When the rivers freeze is your best time to go eagle watching. In areas of open water, especially beneath river dams, large numbers of eagles often gather for the limited fishing. On the Wisconsin River near Sauk City and Prairie du Sac is one of the most reliable places for this and in January they celebrate Bald Eagle Watching Days, where you and your crew can watch the birds fish the open water of the river and learn from local eagle experts.
Another important feathered visitor is the Snowy Eagle, more and more common in open fields and sure to create a buzz among birders on social media. Stay warm with your friends in the car as it makes a great bird blind.
Ice Caves and Frozen Waterfalls
Along the sandstone cliffs of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore are dazzling ice cave formations, a natural wonder drawing visitors from all over the world. Lake ice stability must be just right, so the park office keeps updates on ice caves conditions. If it’s not a go for you and your crew, other icy formations can be found – from nearby Red Cliff to Cave Point in Door County. Add to that the abundance of spectacular frozen waterfalls throughout the state. But sometimes we create our own magic: check out the Ice Castles in Lake Geneva, with slides, crawl tunnels and an ice maze – fun for the whole family.
Surfing and Plunging
The colder months are also prime surfing season. You read that right. In places such as Sheboygan on Lake Michigan surfers head out to catch the larger winter waves. You and your bravest buds can don thick wetsuits or drysuits to enjoy the Malibu of the Midwest. And then there are the Polar Bear plunges. Often part of winter festivals or charitable events, Wisconsinites hop into a hole in the ice. A rite of passage or bragging rights? Either way, warm up afterward together in the hot tubs often onsite for these events.
If the water’s a bit too cold for your blood, round up your team for some snow sculpture competitions. Lake Geneva hosts the only national snow-sculpting competition, but other communities also invite teams to compete at winter festivals throughout the state including Wausau, Prescott, Mount Horeb, Lake Superior and more!
Think of them as winter trail angels, but groups of volunteers look after the snowy surfaces of trails designated for cross-country skiing and snowmobiling. In some cases, such as Lapham Peak Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, the Friends of Lapham Peak not only manage lighting for night skiing, they raise funds to provide snowmaking when Mother Nature fails to deliver. Lapham Peak also has cross-country sit skis available to use for free so that winter adventurers with mobility impairments can explore trails in the snowy season.
Remember, if you and your friends hit the trails for snowshoeing or hiking, you should stick to ungroomed trails. These “Friends Of X Park” groups are often a great source of information for snow accumulation, trail conditions, and special events such as candlelight skiing/snowshoeing, but for a comprehensive look at current conditions throughout the state, check the Wisconsin Snow Report.
Nordic or cross-country ski trails abound in Wisconsin, many of them regularly groomed and rated from novice to expert. In fact, Wisconsin is home to the largest cross-country ski event in North America: the Slumberland American Birkibeiner or the “Birkie”.
Wisconsin also has many choices for thrilling downhill ski runs. Granite Peak Ski Area near Wausau is the state’s largest, but there are several other destinations for skiing, snowboarding, sledding and tubing, many with snack shacks perfect for warming up and refueling with friends after the outdoor fun. Ski lessons are often available, and with so many runs for different skill levels, there’s guaranteed fun for the whole family.
Sleep Outside and Ski by Candlelight
Some Wisconsin state parks offer winter camping as a unique opportunity to soak up refreshing winter scenery. A ski or snowshoe hike lit by ice lanterns – candleholders fashioned from ice – is another unforgettable experience, and several parks – such Governor Thompson State Park – host such events in January and February. After these whimsical outings with friends, you'll never look a winter the same way again.
Explore more winter fun – check out 10 things to do this winter in Wisconsin.