The last winds of winter aren’t a deterrent to fun, but rather an opportunity to enjoy activities that make our region special. Explore some destinations that only get better when cold winds blow.
Whether you’re an indoor enthusiast or an outdoor adventurer, energizing late-winter activities are plentiful throughout our region. Take to the slopes, experience guided hikes and eagle tours, or test your luck at one of the Midwest’s most impressive casinos. The fun ranges from family-friendly to adults-only. So, if you’re looking for something exciting to do, look no further than right in your own backyard.
Snowy Suggestions in Wisconsin
From downhill skiing to snowmobiling, our neighbors to the north offer premium snowy recreation.
“There are more than 30 ski areas in Wisconsin, many of which make their own snow, and all of them offer different experiences for all levels of abilities,” says Lisa Marshall, communications director for Travel Wisconsin.
Snow tubing has become especially popular, Marshall says. Because no skills or equipment are needed, anyone can participate. Marshall recommends visiting Sunburst Ski Area in Kewaskum, Wis., now boasting more than 45 tubing chutes, making it the “World’s Largest Tubing Park.” Another favorite is Wilmot Mountain near Lake Geneva, with a tubing lane that’s 1,000 feet long and has an easy conveyer belt ride back to the top.
Cross-country skiing is also big, with more than 250 locations around the state for beginners and experienced skiers alike. Prime cross-country skiing destinations include Minocqua Winter Park in Minocqua, Wis., the Midwest’s premiere Nordic Center with 45 miles of groomed trails and 10 miles of un-groomed backcountry ski trails; and Nine Mile Forest Recreation Area in Wausau, Wis., with more than 18 miles of groomed trails – a portion of which are lighted for nighttime skiing.
For the latest updates on conditions at ski areas, snowmobile trails and cross-country ski trails, visit TravelWisconsin.com and look for the Snow Conditions Report.
Guided Hikes at Starved Rock State Park
Every Saturday and Sunday through the end of March, Starved Rock Lodge, in Utica, Ill., offers 4.5-mile guided hikes with the possibility of seeing frozen waterfalls and Bald Eagles. Kathy Casstevens, Starved Rock marketing director, recommends bringing binoculars and a camera, in addition to warm clothing and proper footwear.
“Winter in LaSalle County is one of the best times of the year,” Casstevens says. “Hiking into a canyon is an awesome feeling, and frozen waterfalls make incredible photo subjects. Starved Rock is the best photographic playground in Illinois, and you can capture great photos with your smartphone.”
Guided hikes begin at 11 a.m. at Starved Rock Lodge, located inside the park. Participants pick up a snack (a granola bar and bottled water) and a Starved Rock drawstring backpack reading “Hike It Like It.” The journey leads to LaSalle Canyon, Eagle Cliff and Lover’s Leap – the best view for spotting majestic eagles this time of year.
The adventure concludes at 2 p.m., when hikers can head to the Lodge Cafe and trade a voucher for a small hot chocolate or coffee.
“It’s fun for families, friends and people of all ages,” Casstevens says.
Hikes are $12 per person and can be booked online at starvedrocklodge.com. For additional information, call (815) 220-7386.
Weekend Retreat to Potawatomi Hotel & Casino
As temperatures drop and blustery winds howl, plan for a warm getaway at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, 1721 W. Canal St., Milwaukee. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Potawatomi offers a diverse lineup of hot entertainment.
“Gaming options are endless,” says Ryan Amundson, Potawatomi external communications manager. “There are options to suit anyone’s tastes.”
Enjoy thousands of slot machines; 100 table games with everything from blackjack and craps to baccarat and roulette; a 24-hour, non-smoking poker room featuring 20 tables; greyhound and thoroughbred racing in the casino’s spacious off-track betting room; and a 1,350-seat bingo hall with multiple sessions daily and average daily payouts of $75,000.
“Guests have plenty of choices when it comes to dining, too,” Amundson says. “Dream Dance Steak offers award-winning cuisine and features the best in steaks and seafood; Wild Earth Cucina Italiana offers both traditional Italian dishes and twists on old favorites; RuYi captures the time-honored traditions of Asian cuisine and recently debuted a sushi bar; The Buffet continues to please with fresh, all-you-can-eat entrees; and The Fire Pit Sports Bar & Grill serves as a great place to grab a bite while watching the big game.”
Guests can also experience a show in the Northern Lights Theater, an intimate two-tiered setting that features first-class entertainment. Performers such as Aretha Franklin, B.B. King and Jay Leno have appeared onstage.
For more information on upcoming events and entertainment, visit paysbig.com or call (800) 729-7244.
Hit the Slopes At Granite Peak
Skiing and snowboarding are the epitome of winter fun. With the greatest vertical descent in Wisconsin, at 700 feet, Granite Peak Ski Resort at Rib Mountain State Park, 3605 N. Mountain Road, Wausau, Wis., is one of the most exhilarating options.
“This is the perfect place for an action-packed getaway,” says Vicki Baumann, general manager of Granite Peak. “Whether it’s skiing, snowboarding or simply relaxing on a heated patio, visitors have ample opportunity to enjoy some snowy fun.”
Granite Peak has 75 runs, with high-speed lifts servicing 72 of them. The level of difficulty varies for skiers of all abilities.
“The high-speed lifts allow visitors to spend more time on the slopes and less time waiting in line,” Baumann says. “It’s one of the most modern and convenient lift systems in the Midwest.”
A Family Festival Weekend occurs March 4-6, with live music, horse-drawn wagon rides and Saturday-night fireworks.
Romantic getaway packages are also available, which include a two-night stay in a suite at Jefferson Street Inn, two days of lift tickets for two, plus a couples’ massage. The package is available through the beginning of April.
“A getaway to Granite Peak is a wonderful way to make lifelong memories,” Baumann says. “Kids and adults alike love skiing and snowboarding here.”
For more information on Granite Peak, visit skigranitepeak.com.
Eagle Tours with Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation
Along the secluded backwaters of the Mississippi River, large numbers of bald eagles spend their winters nesting, feeding and interacting with one another. Beginning in mid-February, the Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation (JDCF) leads small group tours close to the action at the Lost Mound Unit of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, just north of Savanna.
“We take you beyond the gates into a part of a former Army base normally off-limits to the public,” says Deb Kelly, JDCF communications director. “You will be driven to two observation areas where telescopes are set up for viewing, and en route, you’ll learn about bald eagles, as well as the fascinating history of the former Savanna Army Depot.”
Trained guides teach participants about the bald eagles’ migration movements, daily feeding habits and the survival problems these majestic creatures face. Excellent photo opportunities arise throughout the journey.
“It’s possible to witness up to 100 eagles at a time,” Kelly says. “They congregate along the Mississippi River.”
The tours last two hours and are offered on six consecutive Saturdays from Feb. 13 through March 19, starting at 9 a.m. Advanced reservations are required and can be made by calling (815) 858-9100 or by emailing [email protected].
Learn more at jdcf.org.
Retreat to Grand Geneva Resort & Spa
Nothing breaks cabin fever quite like a luxurious getaway. Kids and adults alike can bask in indoor and outdoor fun at Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, 7036 Grand Geneva Way, Lake Geneva.
Your snow sports adventure starts at The Mountain Top – the resort’s very own ski haven with 18 runs, three chairlifts and state-of-the-art snowmaking technology. A staff of certified instructors can help you conquer the art of downhill skiing or snowboarding at your own pace.
“Grand Geneva teamed up with Burton’s Learn to Ride Program this year, which is designed to make learning to snowboard fun and easy by combining proven teaching methodologies with beginner-specific equipment,” says Courtney Nobilio, Grand Geneva director of marketing communications. “There’s also a variety of skiing lesson packages available.”
The resort has 1,300 acres of wintery terrain to explore via snowshoe or cross-country ski, as well as opportunities for cold-weather classic pastimes such as sledding and ice-skating.
Dan Patch Stables is also on site, with sleigh rides or trail rides for the whole family. Consider ditching the kids at Grand Geneva’s Kids Are Grand Childcare Center while you and your significant other enjoy a romantic horse-drawn carriage ride.
“We’re more than just babysitters,” Nobilio says. “Our daily recreational center inspires children to be creative and innovative. While parents enjoy an adventure, they can have peace of mind knowing their little ones are safe and having fun while learning.”
Discover more resort activities at grandgeneva.com, or call (262) 248-8811.
Learn to Ski at Sundown Mountain Resort
Kids who are learning to ski can find great opportunities at Sundown Mountain Resort, 16991 Asbury Road, Dubuque, Iowa.
“Childhood is a great time to learn how to ski,” says Mark Gordon, general manager. “At Sundown, kids can take ski lessons, enjoy a park built separately for them, play games with people their own age and have a lot of fun in the process.”
Sundown Mountain Resort has a Kids Park where children ages 4 to 11 can participate in skiing lessons. Instructors formulate creative sessions that emphasize both safety and fun, Gordon says.
Children in first through third grade can also participate in the resort’s Free Lift Ticket Program. When parents fill out a registration form and provide proof of the student’s current grade, their children receive a pass that allows free entry throughout the season with an adult companion.
“We want children to have a fun and safe experience on the slopes,” Gordon says. “Parents bring their kids here because they know we can provide just that.”
In addition, parents visiting for a weekend or holiday with children ages 4 to 11 can enroll them in a four-session program that occurs over two consecutive days. A morning session occurs from 10 a.m. to noon, while an afternoon session is from 1 to 3 p.m. Children rejoin their parents for lunch between lessons.
“It’s a great way for kids to get better at skiing, but it can also be a great way for parents with more-advanced skills to get some quality ski time in as well,” Gordon says.
For more information on Sundown Mountain Resort, call (563) 556-6676 or visit sundownmtn.com.
Sample Syrup at Welty Environmental Center
As March approaches, the days warm up and the nights stay cold.
“This is the perfect weather for the sweet sap to run up the sugar maple trees,” says Lena Verkuilen, center director at Welty Environmental Center, inside the Big Hill Center at 1201 Big Hill Court, Beloit. “We have lots of opportunities for you to get in on this seasonal fun.”
For the kids, bring a group to the Welty Environmental Center after school on March 9 or 16 to see the maple sugaring process from tree to table, and of course sample the fresh syrup. In addition, sugar camp on March 12 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. allows elementary-aged children to spend the day like settlers of old: being outside in late winter, experiencing all the work and reward of sugar camp days, and finding out what animals do this time of the year.
For the whole family, visit Big Hill Park for the “Friends of the Welty Environmental Center annual Maple Sugar Fest” on March 19 from 9 a.m. to noon. The event is sure to provide a sugar rush.
“You can park at the Big Hill Center and take a horse-drawn wagon to the sugar camp in the park,” Verkuilen says. “Learn to identify a maple tree before it leafs out, check out the trees being tapped, smell the sap being cooked into syrup, and even try your hand at drilling and tapping a tree. There are activities for kids of all ages.”
The adventure ends with a wagon ride or walk back up to the Big Hill Center for a breakfast of pancakes with real maple syrup.
For more information on Welty Environmental Center events, contact (608) 361-1377 or visit weltycenter.org.
Get Outdoors with Rocktown Adventures
With Old Man Winter comes a sickening disease called Cabin Fever. But don’t despair; Rocktown Adventures, 313 N. Madison St., Rockford, has plenty of fun things for you and your family to do.
“In addition to an abundance of parks and trail systems that are great for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, Rocktown Adventures has the staffing, programming and expertise to help newbies and longtime adventurers alike take advantage of these winter-exclusive opportunities,” says Kevin Versino, general manager.
For friendly winter fun, participate in Rocktown Adventure’s weekly Women on Winter series, which alternates between cross-country skiing and snowshoeing outings in a low-key, social environment every Wednesday (and sometimes on Saturday) at the Sinnissippi or Aldeen golf courses in Rockford.
Rocktown Adventures also offers introductory classes and outings for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing on weekends – a perfect opportunity to get the family out and enjoy the outdoors. Some favorite spots include Rock Cut State Park, Sinissippi Golf Course and Atwood Park.
“Or maybe winter isn’t for you, and you are looking for a taste of summer to get your outdoor fix,” Versino says. “In that case, join Rocktown Adventures at Boylan High School for weekly paddle sport classes. Held every Sunday, these classes teach the skills needed to safely and confidently take advantage of our area waterways once the ice melts.”
No matter your passion, Rocktown Adventures offers something to help you gear up and head out for winter fun. For more information on these and other events, visit rocktownadventures.com or call (815) 636-9066 in Rockford and (630) 506-5706 in Aurora.
Explore the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County
Right now, nature’s “offseason” is brimming with subtle beauty. Winnebago County has no less than 42 individual forest preserves for the purposes of education, recreation and protecting our land’s natural beauty, and although snow and ice can cover roadways and limit vehicle access to certain areas, all Winnebago County forest preserve locations allow walk-in visitors to enjoy the wonder of the winter season.
“All of the preserves are open to foot traffic,” says Jamie Johannsen, director of marketing and community relations with the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County (FPWC). “Now is the time to discover winter beauty by walking, hiking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. There are also fun winter workshops coming up.”
As winter continues to bluster on, Severson Dells Forest Preserve offers exciting ways to make the most of our Midwestern weather. On March 5, from 9 to 11 a.m., kids ages 6 to 10 can go on a hike, learn about birds, play some games, make a craft and toast marshmallows.
In addition, if you’ve never seen a squirrel fly, now is the chance. All ages are welcome to join Severson Dells Biologist/Educator Greg Keilback on March 9 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. for an indoor presentation about the life of flying squirrels, before going on a hike to search for our flying friends in the trees.
“If you want to go on an outdoor wintertime adventure, Severson Dells is the place,” Johannsen says. “But if staying indoors sounds more appealing, we have workshops for you, too.”
From frogs to bumble bees to dragonflies, FPWC Headquarters has a series of free workshops aimed at educating visitors about our land’s fascinating creatures. Learn about the unique calls of the 13 species of frogs and toads in our area on March 5, the necessity of bumble bees to our lives and landscapes on March 12, and the tricks to surveying local dragonflies and damselflies on March 19.
“There’s always something fascinating to learn,” Johannsen says.
Register for events by calling (815) 335-2915 and learn more about our land at winnebagoforest.org.
Ice Skate with Rockford Park District
Whether you’re with family, friends or a date, ice skating is a great go-to wintertime activity, and Rockford Park District has plenty of options.
“The mission of the Rockford Park District is to ‘help people enjoy life’ by providing a quality park and recreation system,” says Laura Gibbs-Green, public relations and internal communications manager. “There are many ways to make the most of the winter months – whether you want to stay indoors or head outside.”
For outdoor winter fun, grab your skates for a one-of-a-kind experience at Eclipse Lagoon on the campus of Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens, 1354 N. Second St., Rockford. Ice skating and open hockey are free from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, weather permitting. Hockey is set up at the north end of the lagoon only, and goal nets are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Make sure to bring your own skates, as no rentals are available.
If you need to warm up, head from the rink to the tropics by visiting the Nicholas Conservatory & Garden just to the south. This glass-enclosed landscape is the third-largest conservatory in Illinois, offering an 11,000-square-foot plant exhibition area complete with water features, seating areas and sculptures.
A tropical setting greets visitors year-round, but hundreds of orchids are creatively decorating the inside of the conservatory through March 6. Be sure not to miss out by visiting the exhibit Tuesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
For skating lessons or public skating opportunities, consider a trip to Carlson Ice Arena, 4150 N. Perryville Road, Loves Park, Ill., or try Riverview Ice House, 324 N. Madison St., Rockford. Carlson Ice Arena features public lessons on a 185-foot-by-80-foot indoor ice rink; Riverview Ice House offers an 18-foot-by-80-foot regulation-size main rink and a 60-foot-by-80-foot instructional studio rink. Both facilities offer a spacious lobby, a concession counter and a community meeting room.
For additional information about the Rockford Park District, call (815) 987-8800 or visit rockfordparkdistrict.org.