Uncovering Wisconsin's Hidden Gems: Northern WI in the Winter

Photo by Travel Wisconsin

Where exactly is “up north?” Trust me when I say that you’ll know when you get there! Wisconsin’s northwoods are an unmistakable treasure, overflowing with breathtaking natural landscapes, thousands of lakes, streams and rivers, over half a million acres of public forest, a vibrant art scene, one-of-a-kind places to eat and drink, cozy accommodations, and friendly folks excited to welcome you.

Maybe you’ve visited the northern part of the state in the summer, but if you haven’t experienced the magic of up nort’ in winter, this is the year to do it! This winter, discover the unexpected along the shores of the largest freshwater lake in the world. The snow falls a little heavier up here, which has inspired unique events perfect for enjoying the beauty of the winter season.

Before you hit the road, don’t forget to check out Travel Wisconsin’s Snow Report, updated regularly throughout the season for natural and man-made snowfall. The report is kept up to date thanks to a dedicated network of more than 100 reporters in all 72 counties. Use the report to find the latest status of favorite local trails and hills or discover a new hidden gem to explore. The Snow Report can be found online on travelwisconsin.com/snowreport .

Photograph provided by Travel Wisconsin

Nestled on the shore of its namesake lake, the city of Superior gets better every time I’m lucky enough to visit. In winter, enjoy the stars over Superior’s iconic lighthouse or take a trip just south to Big Manitou Falls, the state’s largest waterfall (just two feet shorter than Niagara Falls), where you’re bound to see gorgeous views.

This January 28 and 29, check out the Lake Superior Ice Festival. With a myriad of family-friendly events—ice sculptures, a snow slide, fireworks, ice racing, and events just for kids (you may even meet Elsa)—you are destined for several fun-filled days and nights.

While you’re in town, consider staying at Barkers Island Inn, with a wonderful lounge, indoor pool, and incredible harbor view. For serious relaxation, try out the hot tub and sauna. The on-site restaurant, Barkers Waterfront Grille, features locally caught fish and views of Lake Superior for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Photograph provided by Travel Wisconsin

Chequamegon Bay Area
It may not be easy to spell, but it’s so very easy to love. The Chequamegon Bay area’s incredible natural formations are a wonder to explore in winter. When the temps drop, the Apostle Islands Sea Caves become the ice caves, a site for stunning photos and a lifetime of memories. If the weather conditions are right, you can access the caves from the ice (always check conditions in advance), but some can also be seen from above on the Lakeshore Trail. You can even drive on a road entirely made of ice on Lake Superior from Bayfield to Madeline Island (ice conditions permitting).

Opportunities for big adventures continue into February. On February 19 in Iron River, the Northern Pines Sled Dog Race runs from the Northern Pines Golf Course through the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest back to the golf course. Spectators get to experience the unique thrill of dogsled racing from vantage points along the route. Free family-friendly events are hosted in the heated event center, including an opportunity to meet the Northern Pines Sled Dog Race mushers. Warm up with a hot drink and fresh pastry at Angie’s Bakery or stop by White Winter Winery for handcrafted meads, spirits, and ciders. The race runs from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Later that same day is the bucket-list-worthy Book Across the Bay event. In the early evening, more than 3,000 participants ski or snowshoe across frozen Chequamegon Bay from Ashland to Washburn. Participants navigate the 10K course by the light of the stars and hundreds of candlelit ice luminaries.

When staying in Ashland, check out The Hotel Chequamegon, a historic Victorian style hotel. Enjoy a meal at their in-house restaurant, Chequamegon Grill, or choose from the many other great local flavors—a local microbrew at South Shore Brewery, Cajun-smoked salmon at River Rock Inn & Bait Shop, and handmade lavender truffles from Gabriele’s German Cookies & Chocolates.

Photograph provided by Travel Wisconsin

The cities of Cable and Hayward anchor the largest and most prestigious cross-country ski marathon in North America, the Slumberland American Birkebeiner. This year, the event will be held from February 23 through 27, when 12,000 skiers from around the world will participate in the Birkebeiner (Skate 50K/Classic 55K), the Kortelopet 29K, Prince Haakon 15K, the children’s Barnebirki, and Junior Birkie. The annual racing festival draws over 40,000 people each year.

If you plan to visit during Birkie festivities, make sure to book your lodging early. Check out the Treeland Resorts and rent a cabin on the Chippewa Flowage in Hayward, perfect for families and nature lovers. Or maybe you’d prefer to book a room at Lakewoods Resort & Golf in Cable, a perfect place to unwind and a great place for a bite to eat. Or you can stop halfway between the two towns at the Seeley Sawmill Saloon and Lenroot Lodge, a place to eat, sleep, and play.

Even if you don’t make it for the Birkebeiner, there are incredible trails to check out any time of the year. In fact, this area boasts the largest community-wide multiuse trail system in the United States—1,200 miles of snowmobile trails, 94 miles of cross-country ski trails, 400-plus miles of mountain bike trails, 150-plus miles of ATV/UTV trails, and 125 miles of hiking/snowshoe trails.

These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to places to explore and discover in the northwoods this winter. Check out travelwisconsin.com for more inspiration and to plan a winter of adventure you won’t soon forget.

Anne Sayers is the secretary-designee at Wisconsin Department of Tourism.