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9 Must-Experience Winter Adventures

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We choose to see snow not as a deterrent to fun, but as the very thing that makes winter exceptional. Explore some of the destinations and activities that only get better when cold winds blow.

(TravelWisconsin photo)

Whether you’re an indoor enthusiast or an outdoor adventurer, wintertime 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 live in a premium spot for 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 an especially popular winter activity, Marshall says. Because no skills and minimal 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 conveyor 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. Participate or cheer along in the American Birkebeiner – the largest cross-county skiing marathon in the country – from Feb. 18-21 in Hayward, Wis. More than 10,000 skiers of all ages, genders and nationalities compete.

Other 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.

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 in flight. 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 more 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 will debut a sushi bar this February; 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.

Run Fur Fun with St. Charles Park District

Owners and dogs of all shapes and sizes are welcomed at the second annual Run Fur Fun coordinated by the St. Charles Park District. The event begins at 9 a.m. on March 6, at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, 3795 Campton Hills Road, St. Charles.

“This is a great opportunity to enjoy a fun and active outdoor activity with your dog,” says Rosie Fasching, St. Charles Park District recreation supervisor. “The event is geared toward participants looking for something active to do, and one of the best parts of the event is that it can be done with your four-legged and furry best friend. Who knows, you might even find a new playmate for your dog.”

The two-mile route winds throughout the park site. Runners may enter without a canine companion, but they will not be eligible for awards given to the first-place winners in each dog weight class. Human competitors receive long-sleeve T-shirts and their canine partners receive a race bandanna.

Participants ages 6 to 11 must be accompanied by an adult, and there’s a maximum of one dog per person. Dogs must also be kept on a non-retractable leash, have current vaccines and visibly wearable tags.

“This is the perfect opportunity to breathe in some fresh air on a Sunday morning,” Fasching says. “Hickory Knolls Discovery Center will also be open as a gathering place to meet other race participants before and after the race while staying warm.”

Register online at stcparks.org or in person at Pottawatomie Community Center, 8 North Ave., St. Charles. A portion of registration fees supports the Anderson Animal Shelter in South Elgin.

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 special four-day President’s Weekend, with extended ski hours and live music, occurs Feb. 12-15, while 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) takes small group tours up close to the action at the Lost Mound Unit of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, just north of Savanna, Ill.

“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 info@jdcf.org.

For more information, visit jdcf.org.

Hear the Blues at Park Place Banquets

Holing up indoors to hear some calming blues music is just what the rhythm doctor ordered.

“Park Place Banquets is proud to welcome Ivy Ford, an incredible singer, musician and artist, for a night of great blues music,” says Lauren Thibodeau, banquet manager & food and beverage coordinator for Park Place Banquet Facility, 406 W. Woodstock St., Crystal Lake. “At just 22 years old, Ford has already established quite a ground-shaking reputation for her showmanship and musical talents.”

Ford performs on Feb. 26 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $5 at the door and a cash bar is available.

Ford plays many instruments, including piano, guitar, bass guitar and drums. A Waukegan native, Ford has played bass guitar alongside Blues Hall of Famer J.B. Ritchie, and has opened for her proclaimed “No. 1 idol,” Buddy Guy.

Ford’s talent has earned her the title of “Chicago’s very own Blues Kitten,” Thibodeau says.

“Ivy Ford has been playing in many venues throughout the Chicagoland area and we are proud to bring such talent to Crystal Lake and McHenry County,” Thibodeau says. “Blues night is sure to be fun for everyone to attend, as we are bringing such outstanding talent to a local stage.”
For more information, call (815) 477-5871.

Retreat to Grand Geneva Resort & Spa

Valentine’s Day falls on a Sunday this year, which means you’ve got a whole weekend to spend the holiday with your loved one. However, Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, 7036 Grand Geneva Way, Lake Geneva, celebrates romance all month long.

“Whether you’re an outdoor adventurer or an indoor enthusiast, Grand Geneva has your romantic getaway covered,” says Courtney Nobilio, Grand Geneva publicist.

A special “Love at First Bite” Valentine’s Day experience includes a one-night stay in a deluxe guest room, a dining credit, one red rose and Anderson Chocolates. A “Lift of Love” package is also available, including a one-night stay in a deluxe guest room, two lift tickets for one day of skiing or snowboarding, ski or snowboard rentals for two, two apres ski cocktails and Anderson Chocolates.

“The ‘Love at First Bite’ package is designed to tempt more than just your taste buds,” Nobilio says. “You and your partner enjoy a special menu of aphrodisiacs – food and drink that is classically believed to stimulate desire. Inspired by the Greek goddess Aphrodite, your intimate meal is sure to enhance feelings of love, lust and the personal connection you share with your special someone.

“The Lift of Love package is sure to please the adventurous Valentine’s Day couple,” Nobilio adds. “You’ll spend the day enjoying the scenic views from The Mountain Top, with 18 runs and excellent snowmaking technology.”

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 4-11 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 4-11 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.

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