Our 7 Favorite Winter Activities

By: Ashley Smith & Anders Hanson

December 23, 2019

Category: Recreation

It’s no secret that many Minnesotans embrace winter with relish.

Sometimes it is a point of pride for us, a "thumbing our nose" at anyone else in the country who even dares to think they know what “real” winter is. 

Sometimes it is a genuine love of our considerably varied weather and being out in it, loving the weather for what it is rather than loving what we are doing in spite of the weather.

Regardless of our motivations to embrace winter, we've compiled a list of our favorite Minnesotan activities to do this time of year. Some of them might be things you've done before and a few of them might be new activities you want to try!

1. Birding

black-capped chickadee at a feeder

Recommended ages: 5+ 
Time: 10 minutes to 2 hours          
Exertion level: Low to moderate, depending on how much you want to get out and moving

Why we like it:

Birds are such a great way to connect to nature! Unlike so many other animals, birds can be found almost anywhere at any time and even if you can’t see them, you can often hear them.

Plus, you don’t really need to be in a natural area for birding. Simply observe and monitor bird feeders in your yard or attached to your window and record who’s been visiting you!

Birding can help hone your observational skills, which helps give your brain a break from any other stresses in your daily life and can also relax you.

All you really need for birding is to take the time to observe and a willingness to focus. However, there are a few tools that can be helpful, such as binoculars and a field guide.

If you’re a beginner, we suggest using the Birds of Minnesota Field Guide by Stan Tekiela. If you’re an avid birder, we suggest The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley.

Where to try it:

Your favorite place to be outside or from the comfort of your own home. You can bird anywhere!

2. Fat Biking

woman on a fat bike riding through snow

Recommended ages: 10+    
Time: 30 minutes to 3 hours          
Exertion level: Moderate if snow trails are packed/groomed; high if snow is fresh and deep

Why we like it:

Fat biking extends the joys of pedaling into the cold and snowy months of winter. Not to mention they are fun and good for inspiring confidence!

Another reason we love fat bikes is that they are equally as effective at helping you commute on snowy streets or taking a joyous stroll on a nearby trail as they are at cruising through snow-covered mountain bike trails.

Fat bikes also get some bonus points from us because they are very functional for off-road exploring in the warm months as well. 

While the wider tires and extra stability help in loose or bumpy conditions, they also add some extra rolling resistance. Couple this rolling resistance with soft snow and you got yourself a super fun way to burn calories — you can burn up to 1,000 calories per hour depending on the conditions!

Where to try it:

Almost all of the local mountain bike trails stay open in the winter as long as the ground is frozen and the temperature is below freezing. 

Three Rivers offers fat bike trails at Elm Creek, Lake Rebecca and Murphy-Hanrehan park reserves. At Baker Park Reserve, Cleary Lake and Eagle Lake regional parks, fat biking is allowed on mixed-use trails.

Paved trails or roads are also great places to pedal, especially after a fresh snowfall! 

Learn more about local trails and conditions from Minnesota Off-road Cyclists and plan a winter fun day.

If you need to rent a bike, there are a few options available:

  • Talk to your local bike shop.
  • Stop by the Loppet Trailhead in Theodore Wirth Regional Park where there are loads of great trails out the back door and rentals and food in the building.

If you are feeling competitive, sign up for the Quality Bicycle Products Fat Bike Rennet held on January 11. This race offers a unique and fun opportunity to ride fat bikes on cross-country ski trails at Hyland Lake Park Reserve and guarantees snow thanks to our wonderful snowmaking equipment and trail grooming staff.

3. Fort Building

a group of kids building a stick fort in winter

Recommended ages: 3+   
Time: 30 minutes to 2 hours          
Exertion level: Low

Why we like it:

Most people think summer is the ideal time to build forts, but there are plenty of sticks and logs to be found in winter AND snow adds an entirely new layer of fun.

Not only can you use snow to dig or build a fort, but you can use it to fill in the holes. And the best part? It is legitimately an excellent material to help hold in heat – the prime goal of a winter shelter!

Forts are also a cool way to exercise the brains of the children in your life, as well as your own adult brain. Building a fort requires engineering, problem solving, spatial awareness, large motor skills and creativity.

Where to try it:

Anywhere you can find the supplies is a good place to build a fort, but some of our favorite places include the natural play areas at Mississippi Gateway Regional Park and Eastman, Lowry or Richardson nature centers — they are chock-full of building materials!

4. Ice Fishing

two people ice fishing on a lake

Recommended ages: 3+ 
Time: 1 to 6 hours          
Exertion level: Moderate

Why we like it:

In the land of 10,000+ lakes, fishing is a way of life for many of us and a wonderful way to catch happy and healthy food.

The fish don't stop biting when the lakes freeze up and in some ways, the barriers to entry for fishing are decreased because you don't need a boat to access good fishing spots when the lakes are covered in ice.

When properly layered or if you have access to an ice shelter, ice fishing is terrific way to spend part of a day outside in Minnesota.

Where to try it:

Any lake that offers good fishing in the summer months is a good option for ice fishing, too. That is, as long as the ice is thick enough. 

There is no such thing as 100 percent-safe ice but the Minnesota DNR recommends 4 inches of ice for people and at least 8 inches for cars. Check out this helpful guide for more information.

5. Sledding

girl sledding down a hill

Recommended ages: 2+    
Time: 1 to 5 hours          
Exertion level: Low to moderate (depending on how big of a hill you have to walk up)

Why we like it:

Flying down a hill at what feels like epic speeds is a great adrenaline rush for all ages. Not to mention the walk up a hill with a sled in tow makes for really good exercise.

Where to try it:

If you’ve got your own sled, just about any park with a decent hill that gives permission for sledding will do or sled down one of the many hills in Three Rivers.

Need a sled? Rent one at Baker Winter Trailhead, French Regional Park and Lowry or Richardson nature centers.

6. Snowshoeing/Winter Hiking

man snowshoeing on a wooded trail

Recommended ages: 4+    
Time: 1 to 3 hours    
Exertion level: Low to moderate

Why we like it:

Snowshoeing is one of our favorite winter activities! It gets you out and about in nature and it can be as easy or hard as you choose. 

Looking for an easier walk? Go on well-traveled trails.

Looking for a good workout? Find trails less traveled or go out right after a snowfall and break trail to work up a sweat.

Where to try it:

Honestly, just about anywhere with trails open for hiking during the winter is a good place to snowshoe.

Need to snowshoes? Rentals are available at:

  • Baker Winter Trailhead
  • Cleary Lake Regional Park
  • Mississippi Gateway Regional Park
  • French Regional Park
  • Gale Woods Farm
  • Eastman Nature Center
  • Lowry Nature Center
  • Richardson Nature Center

7. Winter Artmaking

kid using ice to make winter art

Recommended ages: All ages   
Time: 30 minutes to 3 hours          
Exertion level: Low

Why we like it:

While we like to encourage people to get outside as much as possible, we also recognize that winter can be a challenging time to do so and thus the feeling of cabin fever can set in. 

Doing something creative can help fight the restlessness of being "stuck inside.” Art is fun for the whole family as well as an enjoyable lifelong hobby.

Where to try it:

Check out one of the many art-based programs throughout the Park District or take time to create your own winter-inspired art at home!

Paint with watercolor ice, cut out paper snowflakes, build snow people in your yard, take photos of snowy landscapes or pick up a new creative hobby.

Embrace the North Festival

dog sledding team mushing through snow

Whether you’re new to Minnesota or have been living here since birth, winter offers an incredible array of ways to get outside and enjoy the season. Hopefully this has given you a few new ideas on how to enjoy the winter!

If you’re interested in trying some of these activities all in one day, come over to Mississippi Gateway Regional Park on Saturday, February 15 for the Embrace the North Festival.

There will be dog sled rides, snowshoeing, fort building, fat biking, campfires and more. Best of all, it’s free! So grab your family and friends and hang out with us for the day embracing the north!

About the Authors

ashley wearing a scarf at platform nine and three quarters

Ashley Smith grew up swimming, climbing trees, and fighting dragons at Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Eagan. With a clear love of teaching and the outdoors, she majored in biology at Concordia College and continued on to Melbourne, Australia where she earned her Master's degree in environmental education. She has since spent the last 10 years working as an interpretive naturalist at various nature centers around the Twin Cities and in greater Minnesota before landing at Mississippi Gateway Regional Park. When not playing (working) outside with people of all ages, she enjoys spending time with friends and family, getting out on/in the water, learning about geology, and being a Tolkien-loving-Doctor Who-obsessed-D&D-playing nerd.

Anders Hanson

Anders Hanson is an Interpretive Naturalist at Mississippi Gateway Regional Park and helps the Outdoor Recreation School with mountain bike camps and races. Anders graduated from Luther College with a degree in biology and environmental studies and a minor in secondary education. He has worked for Three Rivers Park District for over six years, including in Wildlife/Natural Resources Management and at Richardson Nature Center, Baker Near-Wilderness Settlement, and Silverwood Park. He grew up close to and spent much of his childhood exploring Hyland Lake Park Reserve. When not at work, he likes to mountain bike, camp, see live music, and travel.

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