The desire to retreat to warmer climates is all too common among winter travelers, but avoiding the cold may cause you to miss out on some of the most authentic and festive events in the country. Cold-climate cities don't shut down in the winter months, but instead make the most of the season with ice sculpture festivals, dogsled races, and full-blown carnivals. What's more, winter travel tends to be less expensive than travel during any other time of year (unless you're heading to a ski resort).
From Alaska all the way to New England, you can find winter festivities across the entire country that don't avoid the cold, but rather embrace the snow, ice, and frosty landscape.
St. Paul Winter Carnival
Attracting more than 350,000 visitors to the Twin Cities, the St. Paul Winter Carnival is the nation's biggest cold-weather festival. It is also the oldest, having begun in 1886 as a way to stick it to a New York reporter who had called the area "another Siberia, unfit for human habitation in the winter." Even though the festival isn't explicitly related to Mardi Gras, it does include some elements that elicit the New Orleans festival, such as royal families and even a Winter Carnival krewe.
The festival takes place from January 28 to February 7, 2021, although some events have been scaled back. Two carnival highlights—the Ice Carving and Snow Sculpture competitions—have been combined into a drive-through event for attendees to enjoy the creations from their own vehicles. The ice fishing tournament now takes place throughout the entire festival for participants to compete individually, and a city-wide scavenger hunt is perfect for families to get out and explore St. Paul without crowds.
Saranac Lake Winter Carnival
Taking place annually since 1897, the Saranac Lake Winter Festival in Upstate New York bills itself as the oldest festival of its kind in the Eastern United States. The cornerstone of this event in the Adirondacks is the Ice Palace, a giant castle constructed each year out of blocks of ice carved from Pontiac Bay. A parade, winter games, and the crowning of Ice Palace "royalty" are all a part of the activities. The final event of the 10-day festival is the "Storming of the Palace," which concludes with a massive firework display over the lake.
The fitting theme for the 2021 festival is "Mask-erade," and takes place from February 5–14. Most of the usual festivities are canceled, but you can still join for the opening and closing ceremony fireworks and take a tour of the famed Ice Palace.
Dartmouth Winter Carnival
Famously referred to as a "30-ring circus" in a 1955 profile in Sports Illustrated, the Dartmouth Winter Carnival is one of the most famous of its kind in New England. Organized by and for the students of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, the winter festival features ski races, sleigh rides, human dogsled races, polar swims, and ice skating fueled by musical performances and plenty of libations.
The extended festival for 2021 takes place from February 5–21, in order to space out events and allow for more social distancing. While the festival is generally open to the entire Hanover community, all on-campus events for the 2021 festival are limited to Dartmouth students only in order to minimize attendance.
Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival
In 1914, 29 years after settlers founded Steamboat Springs, Colorado, the residents gathered the second week of February to alleviate cabin fever. One of the most popular winter carnivals in Colorado, the Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival takes place downtown and features a parade, food and craft vendors, and the country's only marching band that performs on skis. The "Lighted Man," a local man outfitted in a 70-pound lighted suit, has been a Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival tradition since 1936.
As with many festivals in 2021, the list of events has been scaled back. The Winter Carnival takes place from February 3–7, but all street events, the Night Extraganvanza, and spectator activities are canceled. Some individual events are taking place, including snow sculptures and the soda pop slalom, which is a winding ski race with twists and turns.
Madison Winter Festival
The Madison Winter Festival is a humble and family-friendly event that showcases Wisconsin's capital. It takes place over just two days from February 6–7, 2021, but it's one of the highlights of the year in this charming university town. Madison's small but fun winter event features a snowshoe obstacle course, tubing hills, Dog Jogs, ice sculptures, and more.
The schedule of events for the 2021 festival is on hold as of January 2021, so be sure to confirm the most up-to-date details before making your way to Madison.
Pre-dating the Iditarod, the 975-mile dog-sledding race that starts in Anchorage each year, the Fur Rendezvous, affectionately known as "Fur Rondy," has been a tradition in Anchorage since 1935. Featured events during the festival include an official auction (which harkens back to Anchorage's fur trading days, thus "fur" in the name); a Native American blanket toss; an outdoor hockey tournament; outhouse races; and the World Champion Sled Dog Race, a shorter, local version of the mushing contest.
The 2021 World Champion Dog Sled Race is canceled, but you can still take part in the festival from February 26 to March 7, 2021. The official schedule is still pending as of January 2021, but this annual event is an important fundraiser for the entire community and local non-profits, so support is always needed.
Oregon WinterFest is canceled in 2021.
Started in 1999, the festival formerly known as the Bend Winterfest has become one of Oregon's largest winter festivals. In the shadow of the eastern Cascade Mountains and along the banks of the Deschutes River, Oregon Winterfest in the city of Bend includes the Snow Warriors challenging outdoor obstacle course, kids' activities organized by the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, artisan fire pits, snow sculptures, and a wine walk.
Ullr Fest and International Snow Sculpture Championships
Ullr Fest and the International Snow Sculpture Championships are canceled in 2020–2021. Ullr Fest returns in December 2021 and the International Snow Sculpture Championship returns in January 2022.
Breckenridge Resort in Colorado is known worldwide as a prime skiing destination, but it's also the site of the yearly International Snow Sculpture Championships, which sees expert sculpting teams from as far away as Mongolia and Latvia compete to see who can construct a work of art from a simple block of packed snow. Pair that with Breckenridge's Ullr Fest, a Viking inspired week of fun and winter games, that typically overlaps the timing for the sculpture competition.
Newport Winter Festival
The Newport Winter Festival is canceled in 2021.
One of Rhode Island's classiest cities, the coastal town of Newport has been the site of the Newport Winter Festival, "New England's Largest Winter Extravaganza," since the late 1980s. The 10-day festival is filled with a wide range of over 150 individual events, from a chili cook-off to a children's fair to a "Beatlemania" concert. There are also ice sculpting and sandcastle making competitions during the carnival.