Features

10 Places to Play This Winter

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With so many events and destinations to explore this winter, we don’t see any excuse for cabin fever. Explore some of our region’s best reasons to leave the house and enjoy the outdoors.

Photo by Granite Peak, in Wausau, Wis.

Photo by Granite Peak, in Wausau, Wis.

Winter around the Midwest doesn’t mean staying cooped up inside. It’s a season to bundle up and head outdoors to enjoy a plethora of fun activities.

Whether it’s snow skiing, eagle watching or ice skating, there’s no shortage of fun for people of all ages. So, grab a cup of something hot and check out this sampling of wintertime fun right in our own backyard.

Bald Eagle Tours Near Galena

One of the coolest aspects of nature (pun intended) is seeing an eagle soar in flight, and there are plenty of them along the Mississippi River this winter. The Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation (JDCF) hosts its annual eagle tours every Saturday until March 14 at the Lost Mound Unit of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, which is just north of Savanna, Ill. Tours begin at 9 a.m.

During the two-hour tour, participants have the opportunity to see wildlife in its natural wintering habitat. “The eagles are the main attraction,” says Deb Kelly, communications director. “Sometimes, you can see 100 at one time, congregating along the Mississippi River.”

In late winter, eagles often can be seen nesting, feeding, and interacting along the secluded backwaters. These tours take participants behind the gates of the former Savanna Army Depot, offering views of eagles where most people are not allowed. Participants will learn from experienced tour guides about bald eagles and the history of the former army base. The tours are free and limited to eight people. To make reservations, call JDCF at (815) 858-9100.

For more than 50 years, the Eagle Nature Foundation (ENF) has offered four-hour bus tours to observe wintering bald eagles along the Upper Mississippi River. The bus leaves from Stoney Creek Inn, on the west side of Galena, at 8 a.m. on Feb. 14 and 28. The cost is $70 per person.

The bald eagles may be seen fishing, perching in trees, sitting on the ice, or even flying and migrating overhead, as the tour bus visits five historic bald eagle wintering communities. Each tour offers excellent photographic opportunities.

Guides will teach participants about the bald eagles’ daily feeding habits, migration movements and life history, as well as survival problems. Terrence Ingram, executive director, has been giving tours since 1964.

“If we’re lucky, we might see up to 450 eagles in an area that runs 20 to 30 miles long,” he says. “The eagle is a bird that demands respect. He doesn’t ask for it. I fell in love with eagles years ago, and I pass that along to people who come along. It’s our national symbol, which is a good enough reason for people to see them.”

In addition to the eagle tours, ENF will host a four-day Wildlife Historical Bus Tour from March 16-19. The tour leaves from Galena, with stops throughout Nebraska and Iowa. Participants will see sandhill cranes migrating and visit historic sites.

For information, call (815) 594-2306.

Gateway Parks/Alpine Hills Adventure Park, Rockford

Gateway Parks/Alpine Hills Adventure Park, Rockford

‘Snow’ Much Fun at Gateway Parks / Alpine Hills Adventure Park

Can’t get away for a weekend at a ski resort? Enjoy a brief getaway on the slopes at Alpine Hills Adventure Park, in Rockford, where a former golf driving range has been transformed into a snowboarding, skiing and tubing park.

The park includes a conveyor belt-style lift, three dedicated tubing lanes and a terrain park that has rails, boxes and jumps. The hilltop ski shop provides board and boot rentals.

The slopes occupy part of the former Alpine Hills Golf Course, which was purchased a few years ago by the Rockford Park District. The new ski slopes are now groomed by the privately owned Gateway Parks, which has created an environment that’s welcoming for snowboarders of all ages and skill levels.

“We have a state-of-the-art snowmaking machine and a groomer for grooming the runs, which we do daily,” says Donovan Gruner, a staff member and builder of the terrain park.

Visitors can also sign up for private lessons, and Gruner says group lessons may soon be available. A lift ticket is $15, board rentals are $20 and boot rentals are $10. Children under 3 ride for free.

“Right now, if someone comes out who wants to try for the first time, we’ll give them a board and boots for free,” says Gruner. “The whole idea of the park is to get kids out here to try snowboarding, and give them a place to go in the winter that’s close by.”

Alpine Hills is open until 8 p.m. every day, and it’s well-lit for evening snowboarders. On weekdays, the park opens at 4 p.m. On weekends and days when school isn’t in session, Alpine Hills opens at 10 a.m.

For a daily snow report, or additional information, call (815) 227-4604, or visit gatewayparks.com/alpine-hills-2.

Starved Rock Lodge, Utica, Ill.

Starved Rock Lodge, Utica, Ill.

Guided Hikes at Starved Rock Lodge

One of the best ways to soak in the beauty of winter at Starved Rock State Park, in Utica, Ill., is by taking part in a guided hike.

“Guided hikes are the best way to learn about the park and all it has to offer,” says Kathy Casstevens, marketing director. “You not only enjoy the beauty of the natural setting, but you learn about the park history, safe hiking practices and insight about the geology and cultural history of Starved Rock.”

Guided winter hikes are available every Saturday and Sunday through February. The cost is $12 and includes a “Starved Rock” backpack, a homemade granola bar, bottled water and a voucher for hot chocolate or coffee in the cafe.

Each hike lasts three hours, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and is led by guides who know the park inside and out. The hike begins at Starved Rock Lodge and makes its way to LaSalle Canyon. After leaving the canyon, the hike continues to Eagle Cliff and Lover’s Leap for a terrific view of frozen waterfalls and bald eagles in flight. The distance is about 4.5 miles round trip.

“It’s a beautiful walk and goes much faster with a guide who knows their way,” says Casstevens. “They tell you great stories along way, and they’re funny. If you’re not familiar with the park, we always suggest a guided hike.

“It’s very picturesque,” she continues. “You can see amazing sculptures of ice, limestone rock, even deer running through the woods, and of course the eagles. The trails run along the banks of the Illinois River. It’s a great way to enjoy winter and connect with nature.”

Casstevens has several suggestions for hikers. Dress appropriately for the weather and wear proper boots or hiking shoes. Consider purchasing a pair of Yaktrax, a lightweight and easy-to-use ice traction device that’s applied to your shoes and provides greater traction while walking on snow or ice. A walking stick is also helpful.

Remember to bring binoculars and a camera, and drink plenty of water. “It’s important to stay hydrated during a winter walk,” Casstevens says.

Advanced reservations are required for guided hikes. For information or to reserve tickets, call (815) 220-7386.

Photo by David C. Olson

Photo by David C. Olson

Escape to the Woods

When the weather gets cold and the snow starts piling up, plan an afternoon of snow fun in your local forest preserve. Winnebago County’s forest preserve district encompasses some 10,300 acres across 42 preserves, and is filled with all sorts of ecological habitats.

Many of these areas have beautiful trees, dramatic geographical features and miles of trails to explore year-round. This time of year, the trails are welcoming to cross-country skiers, snowshoers and hikers. Bring your own equipment and enjoy a peaceful escape into these wild lands.

Winter is an especially good time to spy a variety of birds who make their homes in our region. Inside Klehm Forest Preserve, you’re likely to spy critters like the dark-eyed junco (pictured below), the tufted titmouse, the evening grosbeak and the pine siskin. Listen closely enough, and you might also hear a great horned or a barred owl calling around dusk.

Three area preserves – Pecatonica Wetlands, Pecatonica River Park and Two Rivers – allow snowmobiling when there’s at least four inches of snow on the ground. Maps available on-site show where snowmobiling is permitted.

Special events also can connect you with winter wildlife in natural surroundings. Forest Preserves of Winnebago County sponsors special luminary hikes and critter explorations during February. The Byron Forest Preserve District hosts special cross-country ski events and evening skiing, as well.

If you’re looking for additional trails, Rock Cut State Park, in Rockford, maintains 15 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails that wind through scenic woods and prairies. The park’s concession stand offers rental equipment.

For information on preserves around Winnebago County, call (815) 877-6100 or visit winnebagoforest.org. For information on preserves and events in Byron, call (815) 234-8535 or visit byronforestpreserve.com.

Edgewater Hotel, Madison, Wis.

Edgewater Hotel, Madison, Wis.

Get Away to The Edgewater Hotel

If you haven’t visited the Edgewater Hotel in Madison, Wis., lately, you might want to plan your next trip soon. In late 2014, the hotel, which opened in the 1940s, underwent a $100 million renovation that includes a new 15-story tower, the remodeling of two existing buildings and the addition of a new 4,000 square-foot outdoor ice rink that’s open to the public and hotel guests alike.

“We wanted the plaza where the rink is located to be a center for the community,” says Amy Supple, chief operating officer. “You don’t have to be a guest of the hotel to enjoy the rink.”

The spacious plaza features breathtaking views of Lake Mendota and the State Capitol building. “When we developed the property, we saw it as a big opportunity to open the waterfront,” says Supple.

The ice rink is open Monday through Friday from 4 to 10 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 8 p.m. Cost is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and students with ID, and $4 for children ages 12 and younger. Skate rentals are $3; fees apply to the public and hotel guests.

“The ice rink is a hot-spot for date nights on both weekday and weekend nights,” says Supple. “We’ve already had a proposal on the ice.” It’s also popular with families during the day.

For skaters who get hungry, The Icehouse offers casual food, popcorn, hot chocolate, brats and hot dogs. For upscale dining, The Statehouse restaurant features dishes such as aged rib-eye steak, and walleye served with roasted root vegetables.

The rink features a number of special events throughout the winter season, including appearances by Bucky Badger and the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team. A curling exhibition is scheduled for February. The rink closes in April.

“It gives people a place to come and really enjoy the waterfront and the downtown area in a way like never before,” says Supple.

For information, call (800) 922-5512 or visit theedgewater.com.

Granite Peak, Wausau, Wis.

Granite Peak, Wausau, Wis.

Hit the Slopes at Granite Peak

One of the most popular ski resorts in the Midwest is Granite Peak at Rib Mountain State Park, in Wausau, Wis. Rib Mountain is the second-highest point in the state and, at 700 feet above the surrounding plain, is also the state’s tallest mountain.

Granite Peak features 74 runs that cascade down the 700-foot mountain face, five terrain parks, and seven chairlifts, including three high-speed models.

“We offer awesome skiing at Granite Peak,” says operations manager Vicki Baumann. “We’re a very family-oriented resort. We emphasize the luxury of a drive-to-ski vacation.”

More than 110,000 skiers from all across Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota head to Wausau every winter. Granite Peak offers a variety of skiing programs including women’s and children’s instruction, as well as easy access to Wausau’s many shops, restaurants and hotels.

Over the past several years, Granite Peak has continued to upgrade its facility, adding 60 new runs and seven new lifts, renovating the chalet and rental buildings, replacing the snowmaking system, and building a new ticket center and children’s center.

More upgrades may be on the way. In late 2014, Granite Peak requested permission from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to expand its leased area within Rib Mountain by 150 acres. A proposed $30 to $50 million expansion program for the ski area could take place over the next few years.

“We are lacking beginner and intermediate terrain,” Baumann says. “A possible expansion will open up mostly new terrain for lower intermediates and beginners, which will allow them access to the top of the mountain and an easier run down. Plus, it would really complement the lodging that we offer guests.” Construction could begin in 2016.

For information, call (715) 845-2846 or skigranitepeak.com.

Mill Creek Hotel, Lake Geneva

Mill Creek Hotel, Lake Geneva

Sleep in Style at Mill Creek Hotel

Nestled by the splendid lakefront, historic parks and the historic Main Street in Lake Geneva, the Mill Creek Hotel offers overnight guests the best of all possibilities when they’re in town.

Mill Creek is the only hotel in Lake Geneva located in a wooded nature preserve and close to shopping and restaurants. The hotel has 33 suites, each with a comfortable king- or queen-size bed, queen-size sofa sleeper, and fully equipped kitchen. Other room amenities include whirlpool baths, cozy fireplaces and spectacular views from your balcony.

“Winter is really a lovely time for our guests to get away from any hustle and bustle and truly relax,” says Mary O’Connor, marketing director. “They can enjoy plenty of wine tastings, excellent dining options or lounging in front of the fireplace in their suite after hanging out in the indoor pool or hot tub.”

If you feel like getting out, there are many winter activities right outside your room. Snowmobile trails are exist throughout Walworth County. Ice fishing is also popular on frozen Geneva Lake. A sledding hill is located near the old railroad bridge, near the parking lot at the intersection of Sage and Mill streets. The hill, open to the public, is lighted each day from 4 to 10 p.m.

On Saturdays, Big Foot Beach State Park partners with Clearwater Outdoor to offer snowshoe social hikes, while Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay offers free tours. Make plans to spend an evening at The Fireside Dinner Theater in Fort Atkinson, or visit Dancing Horses Theater in nearby Delavan.

For information on Mill Creek, call (262) 248-6647 or visit millcreekhotel.com.

Sundown Mountain Ski Resort, Dubuque, Iowa

Sundown Mountain Ski Resort, Dubuque, Iowa

Be a Ski Bum at Sundown Mountain Resort

Sundown Mountain Resort in Dubuque, Iowa, offers a unique winter experience for every skier or snowboarder, no matter if you’re experienced or just learning how to get down the hill.

The resort offers a variety of skiing and snowboarding terrain for people of all ages. The trails are carved through 85 acres of scenic cedar trees and maintained with state-of-the art snowmaking equipment. Sundown has 21 runs of varying difficulty, two terrain parks, four lifts and two conveyor carpets. At 475 feet high, Sundown has one of the highest vertical lifts in the Midwest. The resort opened in 1972.

“We’re known as a laid-back, friendly resort,” says Mark Gordon, general manager. “It’s really picturesque with the red cedar trees that fill the mountainside.”

Sundown is also known for its kids park. “We have a fantastic program for children from 4 to 11,” says Gordon. “We built a separate facility for them, where they can take ski lessons, enjoy their own hills, take part in special games and be around people their own age.”

Hungry skiers will appreciate two mountaintop lodges that overlook the Iowa countryside. The north lodge has a full restaurant and bar. The south lodge is open on certain weekends and holidays, and has a full-service cafeteria and lounge.

Sundown Mountain has many new features this year, including a welcome/ticket center. Many local bands now perform on-site and play everything from blues to rock.

The resort is a short drive from Dubuque, where guests can enjoy bustling restaurants, the National Mississippi River Museum or the Mystique Casino.

“Skiing is a leisure activity that people can do for the rest of their lives,” says Gordon. “My parents are still skiing and they’re in their 80s. We have a ski instructor who’s 92. Skiing is a great getaway from the complexities of the world.”

For information, call (563) 556-6676 or visit sundownmtn.com.

Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa, Galena

Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa, Galena

Retreat to Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa

There’s never a shortage of winter fun at Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa in Galena.

The Nordic Center is back for the winter, in partnership with Fever River Outfitters. All Eagle Ridge members and guests can take part in a variety of winter activities including ice skating on the property’s 1.5-acre skating pond, exploring more than seven miles of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails, or sledding down the signature 18th hole of the South Golf Course.

Guests are also encouraged to try skijoring, a winter sport where a person on skis is pulled by a horse or a dog.
Guests can also enjoy daily bonfires near the skating pond, cross-country skiing lessons and sunset snowshoe walks. There are cross-country and showshoeing races, too.

The Nordic Center is located at the South Course clubhouse, and offers food, beverage and winter gear. The Center is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, weather permitting.

If you’re looking for a winter run, plan to join Eagle Ridge’s inaugural Galena Classic Sasquatch Shuffle – a 2K or 5K snow shoe race – at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 28. Bring your own snowshoes, or rent them from Fever River Outfitters for $10. Rentals are on a first-come, first-serve service. Registration takes place at the Nordic Center from 8 to 8:45 a.m.

For hotel members and guests who are avid skiers, Eagle Ridge will provide complimentary shuttles to Chestnut Mountain Resort. The shuttle must be reserved in advance and will have one departure time in the morning, based on advanced reservations, and a pickup time in the late afternoon/evening with advanced reservations.

For information, call (800) 892-2269 or visit eagleridge.com.

Snocross Series at Grand Geneva, Lake Geneva

Snocross Series at Grand Geneva, Lake Geneva

Grand Geneva Resort & Spa

Grand Geneva Resort & Spa in Lake Geneva is the place to be March 13-15 to catch all of the high-speed action of snowmobile racing. The top professional racers will be on hand that weekend for the Nielsen’s Grand Finale of the AMSOIL Championship Snocross Series.

The most popular form of snowmobile racing, snocross involves specialized, high-performance snowmobiles on natural or artificially made tracks containing tight turns, banked corners, steep jumps and obstacles. Riders race at speeds up to 60 mph and hit jumps up to 30 feet tall, meaning they may travel up to 130 feet before they touch the ground. Temperatures below freezing are required to maintain the frozen track surface. Snocross became an event at the X Games in 1998.

Wisconsin pro snowmobile racers Ross Martin and Kody Kamm will be in the hunt for the title at the Lake Geneva event.

Martin is excited to return to Lake Geneva, the place where he won his first professional event. He started racing dirt bikes at age 9, and discovered snocross six years later. These days, he races dirt bikes during the summer, before turning his attention to the snocross season, which runs from November to March. Martin competes in Wisconsin, Minnesota, New York, and South and North Dakota.

“My dream was always to make a living at either dirt bike racing or snocross,” says Martin, who’s won three national championships. “Racing in Lake Geneva is awesome. It’s just 10 minutes from home, so I have plenty of local support. Fans can expect to see jumps, a fast track and plenty of excitement.”

Tickets are $40 for a weekend pass or $25 per day; children 6 and under are free. New this year is a $5 parking fee per vehicle for all vehicles. Special room rates at Grand Geneva are available.

For information, call (262) 249-4726 or visit isocracing.com.

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