10 Winter Festivals in North America

Winter is just beginning, and many of us are hoping for a white Christmas in the northern parts of the continent. Staring down an entire season of the white stuff can become demoralizing and the residents of the frosty parts of the world find ways to break up the short days and long nights as we wait for spring.

If you’re looking for an adventure in the snow this winter and a way to celebrate all things cold, then now’s the time to make your plans, book a flight and find a nice warm hotel to escape the chill. Unless you’re booking into an ice hotel, that is!

We’ve got 10 suggestions for the best and weirdest winter festivals in North America to help you plan ahead for the new year:


fest winterlude

Where: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

When: January 29- February 15, 2016

Winterlude, held in Canada’s capital city, is the place to go if you’d like to hang out in the North America’s largest snow playground, snowflake kingdom, or skate on the world’s largest skating rink, on the Rideau Canal.

“Most of the activities during Winterlude are free and family friendly.”

There are also numerous concerts, across a variety of genres, free ski lessons for kids and an amazing display of ice sculptures. Get to know the Winterlude mascots, the Ice Hog family, and be sure to have a hot beaver tail in the snow. Most of the activities during Winterlude are free and family friendly. Join the 600,000 people who attend and celebrate the very best of a Canadian winter.

World Ski & Snowboard Festival

fest snowboard

Where: Whistler, British Columbia, Canada

When: April 8-17, 2016

This festival might be home to the World Skiing Invitation and the AF World Tour Finals, but if you think this festival is limited to snow sports, you’re sadly mistaken. Oh no, this is a full on nine day party across multiple sports, and venues. There’s a music festival happening, with everything from free concerts to all night parties. There’s an arts fest complete with film screenings, photographic exhibitions, comedy shows and more. In addition to the expected snow sports, you’ll find roller derby, motorcross and a dog fest.

Technically, this festival happens in the spring, but you’ll still find plenty of winter at Whistler in April. The ski hill doesn’t close until around the first of June.

Carnivale du Québec

fest quebec

Where: Québec City, Québec, Canada

When: January 29- February 14, 2016
Since this is the first winter I’ve spent back in Canada in 23 years, I’m celebrating with this festival. I’ve already got nights booked at the iconic Chateau Frontenac and I intend to get back to my Canadian roots in proper style this February.

“This festival is the Mardi Gras of the north.”

This festival is the Mardi Gras of the north. With an ice hotel, International Ice Sculpture qualifying events, multiple parades all lit up in the night, ice canoe races, and a living snowman, you’re going to be hard pressed to do the week before Lent any better than this. As a bonus, it’s pretty family friendly… no one takes off their clothes mid-winter in Quebec for more than a quick polar bear plunge!

Stay in the historic district and everything will be within walking distance.

Canadian Ski Marathon

fest- ski

Where: Gatineau to Montebello, Québec, Canada

When: February 19-21, 2016

If you’re into Nordic skiing (cross-country) then this is the ultimate North American event. There are no winners, and no losers, because it’s not a race, but it is an endurance test worthy of the giants. Do you have what it takes to be a Courer des Bois?

“Do you have what it takes to be a Courer des Bois? “

The 160 kilometer route is run in alternate directions, every other year. It is divided into ten sections, five per day, which average 16 kilometers each. The trail winds through the Laurentian mountains and is made safe and accessible for skiers of all ages and abilities with plenty of support stations and transportation. Ski as much, or as little, of the trail as you’re able to.

St. Paul Winter Carnival

fest saint paul

Where: St. Paul, Minnesota

When: January 28-February 7, 2016

If size matters, then this is the winter festival to attend. It’s the nation’s biggest winter party, and it’s the oldest as well. It was started as a rebuttal to a New York reporter who disparagingly compared the city to Siberia and declared it unfit for habitation. In typical northern style, the Minnesotans set out to prove him wrong.

“If size matters, then this is the winter festival to attend.”

There are ice sculptures, a royal court, a winter tri-athalon, a frozen film festival, a beer dabbler with more than 120 breweries participating, three parades, a treasure hunt, and an ice palace. And what winter carnival would be complete without snow plow competitions?

Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival

fest steamboat

Where: Steamboat Springs, Colorado

When: February 3-7, 2016

This is the oldest winter carnival west of the Mississippi and the residents of Steamboat Springs are proud of it. It’s also one of the craziest! Skiers jump through fiery hoops. People ride shovels down the main street, pulled by horses at a gallop. Then there’s the guy who ends the night skiing extravaganza by skiing down the big hill wrapped in Christmas lights with Roman candles firing out of his backpack. Yes. Really.

“It’s also one of the craziest! “

Of course there are the usual suspects: winter games, food, craft fairs, and fireworks. If, however, you’re a little bored with your mundane mid-winter festival, you might just make a little trip out to Steamboat this winter.

International Snow Sculpture Championships

fest snow sculpture

Where: Breckenridge, Colorado

Sculpture Competition: January 26-30 2016
Sculpture Viewing: Jan.30-Feb 7 2016

Sponsored by Budweiser, the sculpting and judging happens one week, the viewing the following week. Weather permitting, of course. Teams of expert snow carvers converge, from all over the world, to compete in the ultimate winter arts exhibition on the planet. They start with identical blocks of packed snow and what emerges is truly breathtaking.

Last year, Lithuania emerged victorious with a piece that spoke to our perilous times and global climate change. Germany took silver and the USA bronze.

The International Snow Sculpture Championships run concurrently with Ullr Fest, a Viking themed winter festival with lots of crazy fun for folks of all ages. Oh, and since it’s Breckenridge, you could also ski!

Fur Rendezvous (a.k.a. Fur Rondy)

fest alaska

Where: Anchorage Alaska

When: February 26-March 2, 2016

Where better to celebrate winter than in Alaska? For 81 years the Fur Rendezvous (Fur Rondy) has been Anchorage’s answer to a winter that lasts longer than anywhere else in the USA. Originally, it was organized to coincide with the time when trappers brought their pelts into town, hence the name.

Now, the party includes fewer exhibits put on by the Trapper’s Association, a blanket toss, skating, outhouse races, the running of the reindeer (think bulls & Pamplona) softball played in snowshoes, the trappers & miner’s ball, and of course, sled dog races.

This one’s on my bucket list.

Plunge Fest

fest polar plunge

Where: Sandy Point State Park, Annapolis, MD

When: January 30, 2016

What is a polar bear plunge? It’s classic mid-winter fun (madness?) in the northern parts of the world. Leaping into the ocean, or through holes cut in the ice, plungers take a dip when most of us are wrapped up by a fire.

Maryland’s Plunge Fest, in support of the athletes of Special Olympics Maryland, is one of the biggest. In 2013 they reported over 25,000 plungers. That’s a special kind of crazy for a very good cause.

This year they aim to raise 2,000,000. It’s a Maryland tradition!

Eelpout Festival

fest eelpout

Where: Walker, Minnesota

When: Feb 16-21 2016
What is an eelpout, you may ask? A very nasty looking bottom dwelling fish and there are plenty in Leech Lake. Every winter for the past 37 years the tiny town of Walker, MN has welcomed more than ten thousand fisherman to try their luck ice fishing. The motley community of bob houses and pickup trucks that mark the holes through which anglers try their luck is impressive.

“Beer pong, holes in the ice and men in pickup trucks: what could possibly go wrong?”

Like the festival, the rules are quirky. Take number three, for example:

“All fish entered must come from Leech Lake watershed. Contestants agree to submit fish sample for DNA testing. A lie-detector test will also be used and if the eelpout fails, one will be administered to the angler.”

If you’re interested in attending, the organizers encourage you:

“Don’t forget to sign up for The 4th Annual Eelpout Beer Pong Tournament”

Beer pong, holes in the ice and men in pickup trucks: what could possibly go wrong?

Filed under: featured