Get Out & Play! Ideas to Make the Most of Your Winter

Cabin Fever setting in? Feeling a little down from all those overcast days? Cheer up, sunshine! No matter if you enjoy the frigid outdoors or a cozy room with a fireplace, we’ve found some of the best quintessential Midwestern ways to enjoy the snowiest months of the year.

Stay and Play in Lake Geneva

A weekend escape to Wisconsin can be as simple as heading to Lake Geneva and its Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, where you’ll have easy access to 1,300 acres of outdoors activities. The resort features several restaurants, a 20-run ski hill, a spa and salon, an indoor waterpark and several hiking trails.

Special events this winter include Shred Fest, on March 11, when skiers can show off their moves with contests and races at the resort’s The Mountain Top ski slopes.
Stay-and-play packages are available all season, including:

Stay and Ski Free
Lodge at the resort between Sunday and Thursday and ski for free at The Mountain Top. Includes a one-night stay in a deluxe room, two lift tickets and a discount on spa service.

Paint & Sip Package
Enjoy a glass of wine while following a step-by-step painting tutorial. Spend one night in a deluxe guest room and receive two tickets to the painting event.

Waterpark Package
Gain access to Grand Geneva’s sister resort, Moose Mountain Falls at Timber Ridge Lodge & Waterpark. The 50,000 square-foot waterpark, located indoors, boasts two gigantic heated waterslides, a lazy river and tropical-style hot tubs. Package includes an overnight stay at Grand Geneva and four waterpark passes.

Nature’s Superheroes

As children around the region celebrate the release of “The Lego Batman Movie,” naturalists at Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, in St. Charles, are introducing them to the superhero’s inspiration.

Superheroes of Nature, held on Feb. 24, encourages youngsters and their parents to learn about a few of the humble bat’s true superpowers, including:

These nocturnal critters have their own form of radar to help orient themselves. The bat emits ultrasonic sound that bounces off objects and returns to the bat’s ears.

A Pair of Wings
The only mammal capable of flying, bats have “wings” composed of a membrane that stretches from each hind legs to their claws.

Big Appetites
Bats eat a wide variety of insects and can consume about 3,000 insects in a single night.
* Source: University of Illinois Extension.
* Food and drinks will be served. Advance registration is required.

Quiet Weekend Getaway

Need to get away for a few days? Consider heading to downtown Beloit, Wis., where there’s an urban renaissance in the making.

Stay overnight at the Ironworks Hotel and you’ll get a good feeling for the city’s transformation. This boutique hotel, located downtown, is adorned with rustic chic decor and incorporates actual mechanisms from the factory that once operated across the river. Some of the luxury suites inside come with accents such as fireplaces and soaker tubs. Downstairs is the casual yet classy Merrill & Houston’s Steak Joint, which offers a steakhouse menu and white linen tablecloths, in addition to views of the Rock River.

While you’re exploring downtown, keep in mind that Ironworks Hotel is an easy walk to several attractions, including:

Lucy’s #7 Burger Bar
Stuffed burgers with a distinctly Wisconsin appeal, like the Wisconsinite: a burger stuffed with beer, brats and cheddar, and topped with fried onions.

Beloit College
The private college boasts two museums: the Logan Museum of Anthropology, with artifacts from indigenous cultures, and the Wright Museum of Art, which displays an array of work.

Bushel & Peck’s
This cafe and grocer sells a variety of fresh, local and organic foods. Look for homemade preserves or enjoy sandwiches, soups and breakfast at the cafe.

Beloit International Film Festival
From Feb. 24 through March 5, catch some 100 indie films, most of them shown at venues downtown.

Explore the Animal Kingdom

Exciting things are happening at the Midwest Museum of Natural History, in Sycamore. Long known for its collection of mounted animals, this family-friendly museum is launching several new features this year. The Water World exhibit, open through March, introduces visitors to rare fish and collected specimens from the world’s waterways. Later this year, look out for the new Discovery Den, filled with interactive displays like Babies of the World, which has a sanitized playing floor so infants can enjoy some tummy time with mom and dad.

You’ll also meet a few of these fascinating creatures:

Blue-Tongued Skink
The museum’s downstairs level includes several live critters, most of which are rescued pets. The lizard nicknamed Spartacus is one such rescue, and he loves to show off his signature blue tongue – a flashy warning to would-be predators.

Polar Bear
Upstairs in the mounted collection, this polar bear shows off his many adaptations to the harsh Arctic climate. Did you know, for instance, that he has black skin hiding under all that fur?

African Bull Elephant
Affectionately called Ralph, this elephant is one of only 11 fully mounted elephants in the world, and is the largest in North America. He was 55 years old when he died, and you can see the hardships of life in his skull and tusks, which rest below his mount.

Make Some Maple Syrup

The above-freezing days and below-freezing nights common in late winter start to wake up the trees from their winter dormancy. As their sap begins to flow, our region’s maple trees are ripe for harvesting. Learn about the maple syrup production process every weekend from March 11 to 26, during the Lake County Forest Preserve District’s maple syrup program. Programs run every half-hour from noon to 2 p.m. at Ryerson Woods, in Riverwoods. Reservations are required and large groups are asked to call ahead. During your hike, you’ll learn about the anatomy of trees, how sap is made and how it’s transformed into syrup.

Identify the Tree
Without their leaves, sugar maples are best identified by their branching pattern and bark. Sugar maples yield more sugar from their sap than other tree species.

Drill a Tap
Using a hand drill, bore into the tree’s xylem, a part of trunk that resembles a series of straws. The xylem delivers sap from the roots to the branches and new buds.

Tap the Tree
Insert a spile into the drilled hole. This small metal spout channels the steadily dripping sap into a bucket. Once the bucket is full, it’s time to make some syrup.

Evaporate the Sap
Sap is mostly water, so it must be boiled for several hours in a process that concentrates and caramelizes the sugars into syrup. About 40 gallons of sap make 1 gallon of syrup.

Family Outing to Granite Peak

Why hibernate with the kids all winter when some of the Midwest’s premier ski slopes are a close drive from home? Granite Peak Ski Area, in Wausau, Wis., provides 75 ski runs, with options for skiers of all ages and skill levels, making it a popular choice for a drive-to family winter vacation. Keep an eye out for these late-winter attractions:

Family Festival Weekends
The most popular events all season, these select events appeal to skiers and snowboarders of all ages, with wagon rides, bonfires, fireworks and ski-and-stay packages. Festivals are held March 3-5 and March 31-April 2.
Spring Break for Families
Designed to fit any school’s spring break schedule, special lodge and lift ticket deals are available to families who want to enjoy some late-season skiing. Throughout March and April, Granite Peak provides petting zoos, scavenger hunts, costume contests for the kids and plenty of other entertainment. More details are online at

Spring Break for College Students
Both affordable and close to home, Granite Peak has several ski-and-stay packages and rentals available for college spring breakers – not to mention a lineup of music and live entertainment. Select hotels offer shuttle services for your group.

Take a Hike at Starved Rock

When the snow and ice settle in, the many miles of hiking trails at Starved Rock State Park, in Oglesby, Ill., lead you through amazing geologic and ice formations. Travel the low lands and explore the park’s 18 canyons, or stick to the high lands and spot bald eagles, which winter along the Illinois River. Or, explore everything on the guided hikes that depart from Starved Rock Lodge every weekend.

LaSalle Canyon
This canyon has one of the most stunning frozen waterfalls inside Starved Rock State Park.

St. Louis Canyon
This canyon is one of the best spots for a photograph.

Starved Rock Lodge
No matter what conditions Mother Nature delivers, hikers can cozy up at the historic Lodge and its Grand Hall fireplace, enjoy a meal at the dining room, or spend a night in the Lodge’s cozy accommodations.

Eagle Cliff
This high vantage point gives hikers a stunning panoramic view of the landscape and bald eagles in flight.

Wildcat Canyon
When conditions are just right, ice climbing is allowed inside the canyon. For the less-adventurous, two observation decks suffice.

Illinois Waterway Visitor Center
Located just across the Illinois River, along Dee Bennett Road, this lookout gives you an up-close view of the eagles and their hunting grounds.

Family Fun in Crystal Lake

No matter what the weather brings, Crystal Lake Park District is planning several indoor events geared toward multigenerational, family-friendly fun, including:

Mom/Son Luau
March 10-11, 6-8 p.m.
Grand Oaks Recreation Center.
For boys age 4-10 and their moms, these two evening dances include games and food, plus lots of dancing. Registration required.

Forts on the Courts
March 18, 6:30-9:30 p.m.
Crystal Lake Racket Club.
Your team is given duct tape and cardboard, but it’s up to you to build and decorate your castle. Prizes go to the best design, fan favorite and most original. Registration required.

Ivy Ford Band
Feb. 24, doors open 7 p.m.
Park Place Banquet Facility.
This young Chicago-area musician is making waves on the local blues scene. Tickets: $10 at door. Cash bar available.

First Saturday
@ Colonel Palmer House
March 4, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.
Celebrate Women’s History Month and learn about Crystal Lake’s trailblazing ladies.

Visit the Nature Center
All season, Veteran Acres Park.
Tour the newly redesigned displays, search for geocached treasures or take a hike around the hilly terrain.

Play Your Luck at Potawatomi Casino

Get away to Milwaukee for a few days and experience Potawatomi Casino, one of the country’s largest tribally owned and operated casinos. Boasting nearly 1.1 million square feet, Potawatomi has a 19-story hotel, thousands of gaming options and endless entertainment. Here’s a sample itinerary to guide you:

Start off with a casual brunch at the Canal Street Cafe, which is all about comfort food. Top it off with a Bloody Mary at Bar360, located in the middle of the gaming floor. Afterward, test your luck at the Nest of Life bingo hall, where snacks are available in smoking or non-smoking sections.

Following lunch at another of the casino’s top-notch restaurants (Italian cuisine or Japanese?), take up a game of poker or play some of the nearly 2,500 slot machines. When you’re warmed up, head to the group gaming options, spread across nearly 100 table games. Certain games have a progressive wager, allowing players to make a side wager in a progressive jackpot.

Head to dinner at the award-winning Dream Dance Steak, which boasts a menu of steaks, seafood and more than 600 complementing wines. Then, head to the intimate Northern Lights Theater. March entertainment includes One Night of Queen and UFO/Saxon, though there’s free nightly entertainment at the Fire Pit Side Bar and Bar360. Wrap up the evening with a new game, like baccarat, before heading to your hotel room upstairs.

Play in the Forest Preserves

The 28 properties maintained by McHenry County Conservation District provide a scenic backdrop for outdoor play this winter. If you enjoy hiking, cross-country skiing, ice fishing, snowshoeing or snowmobiling, you’ll find it in the forest.

Festival of the Sugar Maples
Learn about the history and process of maple sugaring and sap collection on March 4, 5, 11 and 12, at Coral Woods Conservation Area, in Marengo. On your way out, pick up a spile and learn how to tap your own trees.

Evening Hike & Ski
Explore the woods just after dusk with an evening hike or cross-country ski at Pleasant Valley, in Woodstock, and Hickory Grove Highlands, in Cary. Trails are lit by solar lantern and are open until 9 p.m.

Snowshoe Rental
Whenever there’s more than 5 inches of snow, hikers in Glacial Park, in Ringwood, can stop by the Lost Valley Visitor Center to rent a pair of snowshoes. Equipment is available for men, women and children for just $10.

Winter Camping
It’s camping as you’ve never done before. Bring your tent to Thomas Woods, in Marengo, and stay overnight while enjoying the quiet winter woods and access to the trails. Reservations for individuals or groups must be made 10 days in advance.

Family Night
Spend an evening with the family at Glacial Park, where you’ll enjoy games, activities and a night hike, all in search of night critters and their calls.

Challenge the Mountain

Wilmot Mountain is showing off its new face this winter. The beloved ski slope, located on the Wisconsin border near Chain O’Lakes, underwent a $13 million renovation last summer that brought several improvements, including new lifts, a transformed base lodge and new terrain park features. Meals can be found at the new Walt’s Tavern, named for the man who founded Wilmot Mountain in 1938.

Events including the terrain park competition and the Slush Cup end-of-season bash provide extra reasons to visit. And, no matter the weather, crews are armed with 56 new snow guns to keep the hills powdered.

While you’re at Wilmot, be sure to check out these activities:

Terrain Parks
Two expanded terrain parks boast a combined 40 features, with lots of rails, jumps and boxes. Use the new double high-speed rope tows for a quick ascent.

Kids Lessons
Young skiers now have a dedicated place to learn and practice the sport. Sign up the kiddos for full-day lessons, where they’ll be supervised by instructors from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Inside the Burton Riglet Park, Wilmot instructors teach the art of snowboarding to kids ages 3 to 6.

Tubing Hill
Jet down Wilmot’s 22 tubing lanes, which stretch for 1,000 feet. Hop on the conveyor belt with your provided tube and do it all over again.