Snow-covered mountains and frozen lakes remain part of the landscape well past New Year’s in northern regions across the continent, and residents who live in chilly locales opt to venture out to enjoy the weather rather than hole up indoors. Festivals and carnivals featuring ice sculptures, sled dog races, sleigh rides and more give travelers a chance to join locals in fun annual traditions.
St. Paul Winter Carnival
TheSt. Paul Winter CarnivalinMinnesotais the oldest and largest winter festival in the U.S. In 1885, a New York Times reporter suggested thatSt. Paulwas too cold for human habitation, and to prove him wrong the city held its first festival the following year. The carnival is best known for the immense ice castle that’s historically been its centerpiece; today events also includes snow and ice sculptures, juried art shows, outdoor concerts, sled dog races and autonomous snowplow competitions, where inventors attempt to clear a snowy path with their robotic snowplows.
Insider Tip: There’s a legend connected to the carnival’s history. While traveling in his kingdom, boreas, king of the winds, discovers St. Paul. He deems the city a winter paradise, and after making it his home and the center of his domain, he throws a carnival to celebrate. But his jealous brother, vulcanus rex, the god of fire, burns the king’s castle, forcing him to leave st. Paul and return to mount olympus.
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There are polar bear plunges — where people dive into frigid water in the middle of winter — all over the country, butPlungefest in Annapolis, Maryland, is the biggest of all. Attracting more than 25,000 plungers and spectators, this is the coolest way to raise money for charity. With proceeds benefitting Special Olympics Maryland, you’ve got a great excuse to take a dip in the Chesapeake Bay. If you’re not into frostbite, there’s also a carnival, giant sand sculptures and live music to keep you entertained.
Winter can run long inAnchorage, with extra months of snow and freezing temperatures. That’s exactly why the first Fur Rendezvous was initiated back in 1935, to break up those long, cold winter months with sports, games and a torchlight parade. Today, “rondy” has grown into a 10-day celebration of Alaskan life, featuring men’s snowshoe softball, a grand prix auto race, a “running of the reindeer” event, an native arts market anda“blanket toss”— a native Alaskan tradition in which a person is tossed from a blanket high into the air to scan the ocean for whales. The cornerstone of the festival is the world championship sled dog race, which attracts teams of sled dogs and mushers from all over the world.
Insider Tip:The fur auction is a throwback from the festival’s early days: in the beginning of the 1900s, when trappers emerged from the wilderness to sell their wares, it was a time to socialize and compete for honors like having the longest fox pelt.
Mammoth Pond Skim
If you have a penchant for dressing up in costume and getting very, very cold, you’ll love Mammoth Mountain’s annual pond skim. At this beloved Californian event, skiers and snowboarders dress up in outlandish costumes — previous years have seen sumo wrestlers and superheroes — and straight line it across a 110-foot unfrozen pond. Some succeed, others fail, and a good time is had by all (or, at least most).
Ouray Ice Climbing Festival
The biggest ice climbing festival in North America takes place every January in southwestern Colorado, in the small town ofOuray. Even if you have no interest in climbing, the park is a must-see with jaw-dropping walls of blue ice lining the rugged Uncompahgre Gorge. This year’sOuray Ice Climbing Festivalevents include climbing competitions, demonstrations, clinics, presentations, films, and a gear expo. Beginners can try ice climbing on the 30-foot practice wall, known by locals as the Kids’ Wall.
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Saranac Lake Winter Carnival
What began as an attempt to break up the monotony of winter in New York’sAdirondackwilderness has evolved into the longest-running event of its kind in the eastern U.S. The Saranac Lake Winter Carnival boasts run-of-the-mill winter sports like nordic skiing and ice-skating, but also hosts off-the-wall competitions like ultimate arctic frisbee and a women’s frying pan toss.Saranac Lake‘s annual themed parade (this year’s is “celtic carnival”) is also not to be missed, but perhaps the biggest draw is the famed ice palace—a mammoth structure made with anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 ice blocks, weighing up to 800 pounds each.
Insider Tip:Look for the “ipw 101” carved somewhere on the walls of the ice palace. It stands for “international palace workers 101″—an inside joke among the people who build the palace each year.
TheSteamboat Springs Winter Carnivalin Colorado has a true Western flavor, with horses as the stars of the carnival’s happenings along the town’s main street. There are shovel races — participants sit on shovels pulled by horses — and an event in which skiers hang onto a lasso held by a cowboy on horseback. On the mountains outside town, there’s everything from ski jumping competitions to slalom races. There’s also a biathlon that involves athletes dressed in vintage fur trapper’s clothing who ski and simultaneously shoot black powder muzzleloaders.
Insider Tip:Don’t miss the opening ceremony with the “lighted man” — a skier who slaloms down a dark mountain with roman candles and rockets shooting from his costume.
For the rest of America’s coolest winter festivals, including a Frozen Dead Guy Day in a small Colorado town, visitFodor’s.