Put the ‘Win” in Winter

As tempting as it may be to hibernate until the summer breeze blows, there’s so much to enjoy about those cold days of late winter and early spring. Whether you’re into active pursuits or something low-key, look no further than these sports activities.

It’s one thing to watch the Winter Olympics and dream about one day skiing and skating like the professionals.

But why dream when you can get off the couch and make it a reality?

Our area is chock-full of winter sport activities, from daring sledding and ski hills to smooth and quiet ice rinks. (In fact, if you miss the baseball scene but love ice skating, you’ll love what’s brewing in Beloit.)

We’re all stuck at an in between a time where the holidays are behind us but spring still feels off in the distance. So, why not embrace this cold and dreary time of the year by taking advantage of everything this season has to offer? The adventure is what you make of it.

Golfing in the Winter
There’s no reason to wait for spring to break out that new driver you got for Christmas. Head over to PrairieFire Golf and Grill & Byron, Ill., to play some golf in a warm and comfortable setting.

This driving range facility has eight hitting bays, each including Toptracer technology and several exciting and interactive game modes, including longest drive and closest to the pin.

Toptracer’s cameras track every ball that’s hit, using the same kind of technology you’d see on PGA Tour tournament broadcasts.

The outdoor bays come with their own heaters, fire tables and lounge area, making this a year-round destination. If you come here after dark, no worries. The driving range has targets that light up the night.

Closer to Beloit, scratch that golfing itch at Ironworks Golf Lab, where HD simulators let visitors “play” more than 80 golf courses across the world. If golf isn’t really your thing, check out two other visual sports simulators where you can choose among 14 games including baseball, football, basketball and dodgeball.

“Walking distance from all of the downtown restaurants and shopping, Ironworks Golf Lab is the perfect place to cure the winter blues,” says Tracy Bliss of Visit Beloit. “Freshen up your golf game in the offseason or grab a group of friends, enjoy some adult beverages from the bar and have a great time. The Golf Lab is where you’ll want to get golf lessons led by the 2019 Wisconsin PGA instructor of the year, Travis Becker.”

Catch a Rockford IceHogs Game
The winter months scream hockey, and fortunately for us we’re blessed with the Chicago Blackhawks-affiliated IceHogs. With 36 home games played at the BMO Harris Bank Center this season, there are plenty of opportunities to check out this exciting team.

“Personally, I think this is the feeling of community and the joy of live entertainment in one package,” says Joseph Zakrzewski, the team’s manager of broadcasting and marketing. “This is an opportunity to gather with family and friends and cheer on your local team, sing along, dance to the music and have an incredible, all-around engaged experience. With the crisp, chilly weather you can’t help but to think of IceHogs hockey.”

Along the way, there are several giveaways and various theme nights throughout the season. One of those giveaways is a fleece blanket on Feb. 26.

“This is a popular favorite among fans,” Zakrzewski says. “We have been doing this since long before I arrived in 2017. That’s how in-demand they’ve become.”

Another popular giveaway is IceHogs Player Designer Hat night, on March 19. Fans in attendance get a hat designed by a player on the team.

“Defenseman and Blackhawks prospect Isaak Phillips designed a custom IceHogs hat that pays tribute to our alternate/gray jerseys,” Zakrzewski says. “They’re pretty sweet.”

Gliding Across the Ice
Ice skating is on full display during the Winter Olympics, and if you have an urge to pretend you’re teenage prodigy Alysa Liu, then look no further than the local ice skating rink.

ABC Supply Stadium, in Beloit, takes it up a notch with an ice rink over the outfield turf.

“It’s meant to serve as a fun, affordable gathering place for the community, and people of all ages can skate in a truly unique setting,” says Maria Valentyn, vice president of entertainment for the Beloit Sky Carp baseball team, which plays at the stadium. “The fact that it’s in the outfield of a professional baseball field is pretty incredible.”

Hours are 6-9:30 p.m. on Fridays and 2-5:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Skaters are required to supply their own skates. Each day is broken out to three open-skate sessions, each one lasting an hour. It’s $6 to skate, and children 2 and under are free.

“There’s something really special about skating under the stadium lights,” Valentyn says. “This time of year, it’s cold and feels like there isn’t much to do in Wisconsin, but that’s not true. Cities like Beloit are putting together tons of fun activities for the community, and we wanted to find a way to be a part of it.”

If, perhaps, you prefer just to watch the action, hang out in the Beloit Health System Club, located upstairs. Light concessions are available there.

“That’s located in the upper level of our stadium,” Valentyn says. “Guests can watch the skaters from the balcony or stay inside and enjoy the warmth.”

The fun lasts through February.

In Belvidere, residents can check out the Riverside Ice Arena. This NHL regulation-size ice rink has times set aside for open skating and pickup hockey games. In addition to the ice rink, there’s also a skate shop on site. The skating rink is open until March 6.

Anyone looking to ice skate in Rockford can check out the Carlson Ice Area or the Riverview Ice House. Carlson Ice Arena gives families a chance to enjoy the ice together. Music blares in the background, creating a family-friendly mood. These rinks are open for regular public skating sessions, with figure skating and hockey lessons available for both kids and adults.

Visit rockfordparkdistrict.org for skating times and rates.

Depending on the weather, ice skating and hockey are available in Freeport at Read Park Ice Rink, near the Family Aquatic Center. Bright lights overlook the rink, giving skaters and hockey players the chance to play well into the night.

Guided Hikes at Starved Rock
For an adventurous getaway, head down Interstate 39 to this hidden gem, in Oglesby, Ill.
Guided winter hikes offer a true workout and the opportunity for breathtaking photos to go along with incredible stories of the park’s past and present.

“The winter hike is a little more than a 3-mile walk from the Lodge out to Sandstone Point on the south bluff of the Illinois River, down the Lone Tree staircase and back to the Lodge on the River Trail,” says Joe Jakupcak, who’s been the Lodge’s guided hike leader for nearly 11 years. “On the way out, we walk the rims of three canyons, and coming back we stop at Eagle Cliff and Lovers Leap, where I point to Starved Rock and recite the legend that gave Starved Rock its name.”

Jakupcak says the highlight of the tour is visiting the floor of Wildcat Canyon to see the 80-foot waterfall. “Currently, it’s an icefall and there’ll probably be ice climbers on it,” he says.

The tours take place at 10 a.m. each Saturday and Sunday through March. Guests who participate in the tour also get a snack, bottled water, Starved Rock backpack and a small hot chocolate or coffee.

“Winter is my favorite season in the park,” Jakupcak says. “Fewer people are out, and there are more views not blocked by vegetation. I also wear traction whenever there’s ice/snow on the trails.”

Exhilarating Ski Slopes
Don’t let that large ski hill intimidate you. Seek out your inner Lindsey Vonn and attack it head-on.
Fortunately, you don’t have to travel to Vail, Colo., to follow in the footsteps of the former Olympic champion. We have some impressive ski slopes in our backyard.

Chestnut Mountain Ski Resort, in Galena, Ill., has spent more than 60 years impressing skiers of all skill sets. This sprawling resort overlooks the Mississippi River and features 19 trails and the 7-acre Farside Terrain park. There are also four triple chair lifts and three surface lifts.

Visit Wilmot Mountain Ski Resort, in Wilmot, Wis., for another rousing challenge. This massive slope has eight trails available for both skiing and snowboarding. There are also four terrain parks and a unique trail that’s just for tubers.

Even when there’s no snow falling, the ski resort at Grand Geneva Resort, in Lake Geneva, is still an excellent choice for a skier’s weekend getaway. The resort’s snowmaking capabilities give skiers a chance to enjoy the outdoors even if there’s no snow falling from the sky.

Twenty downhill runs and a mix of terrain keep skiers guessing well into the season.

Exciting Winter Thrills
Winter just wouldn’t be complete without an intoxicating trip down a big, intimidating sled hill. Whether you’re a child or an adult, there’s nothing wrong with letting loose and zipping downhill.

The Snow Park at Alpine Hills, in Rockford, provides thrills on 5 sloping acres – only this park takes things up a notch by offering oversized innertubes. Of course, you can still rent a snowboard and tackle the nearby terrain park, if you like.

The Snow Park at Alpine Hills has an outdoor recreation area that gives both amateur and professional snowboarders the chance to channel their inner Shaun White while performing tricks and stunts on various equipment.

If that’s not your thing, that’s OK. Just rent some ice skates and meander around the outdoor ice-skating rink.

Meanwhile, Sinnissippi Golf Course and Twin Sisters Hills Park, both in Rockford, are also prime places to sled in Rockford. At Sinnissippi, head straight for the fairways on Hole No. 2.

In Freeport, locals head straight for Krape Park Sled Hill, located next to the Koenig Amphitheater. Check on conditions before heading out, because the hill is occasionally closed when the snow is too worn down.

Beloit locals know the best spot in their town is at Hospital Hill, located on the far-south side of Krueger-Haskell Golf Course, just off Olympia Drive.

“Pack up your kids and grab your sleds for some old-fashioned fun,” says Bliss, of Visit Beloit.

Out in DeKalb County, Shabbona Lake State Park, in Shabbona, Ill., has rolling terrain that’s ideal for sledding. There’s also a small sledding hill that starts off Bluebird Lane and goes down to the main boat launch parking lot.

Shabbona Lake State Park also plenty of space for snowmobiling, which is allowed once a minimum of 4 inches of snow has fallen. There’s a snowmobile trail that’s a one-way loop, which is about 7 miles long. Snowmobiles must be registered at the kiosk in the park’s main office.

Calmer Winter Sports
There are other fun ways to get moving this winter without overdoing it. Take time to truly relax and explore some of our native land with an easy hike or ski.

Oakdale Nature Preserve and Krape Park, in Freeport, boast trails for cross-country skiing, fat-tire biking and snowshoeing. There are more than 4 miles of trail winding through the preserve, where 133 acres of oak and hickory woodlands mix with restored prairies.

Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, in Lake Geneva, has more than 5 miles of trails to explore. They’re well-suited for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, weather permitting.

Visit Sinnissippi Golf Course, in Rockford, and enjoy skiing of the cross-country variety. To do this however, there must be at least 4 inches of snow on the ground.

Relaxed winter sporting options abound in Beloit.

“Cross-country skiing and hiking trails are easy to find, as Beloit sits at the midway point of the 320-mile Rock River Trail, spanning Wisconsin and Illinois,” Bliss says.

There are several ways winter adventurers can enjoy the trail, including hiking, snow shoeing and cross-country skiing.

There are long and short trails at Big Hill Park and Turtle Creek Greenway, Bliss adds, with wildlife sightings and spectacular views of water at each location.

“The Welty Environmental Center at Big Hill Park offers winter-themed programs and hikes for all ages,” she says.

Cross-country skiing is also available at Shabbona Lake State Park, in Shabbona, Ill., on the Arrowhead, Papara and Tomahawk Trails. There are more than 8 miles of scenic trails that meander through the quiet, calm and wooded areas of the park.

Make the Most of Winter
By this time of year, most people are probably anticipating the start of spring. That’s still a few weeks away, so why not decide to make this most of this cold weather and all that it has to offer? Kick those winter blues to the proverbial curb and have some fun while finding your unique adventure.