At sunset, some ice festivals melt away as climbers retreat to a warm indoor abode. But the Sandstone Ice Festival stays right where the ice is: in the 90-foot-deep confines of Robinson Quarry in Sandstone, on the Kettle River between Minneapolis and Duluth (December 11–13; $10; sandstoneicefest.com). Most climbers camp on the quarry floor, where they share coffee in the morning, set up jugs of cocoa and cider, ladle out fire during the big chili feed, and watch fireworks Saturday night. As for climbing, “We have clinics for everyone from newbies to advanced climbers,” says organizer Tony Vavricka, on routes 60 to 90 feet high, plus all manner of demo gear and a featured guest—climber Dawn Glanc, erstwhile cover girl of Alpinist magazine.
It just might be the perfect escape plan: Hop on Amtrak’s “Perch Express” late at night in Chicago, Milwaukee, or Minneapolis, snooze through scenery you’d rather skip anyway, and then rub your eyes awake at precisely 6:13 a.m. at huge Devils Lake in the northeast corner of North Dakota. “That way you don’t miss out on any fishing time,” says Woodland Resort’s head guide, Zippy Dahl. Dahl and the Perch Patrol meet you at the station, get you breakfast and a shower, then trundle you out to mobile, heated digs on the frozen lake. Chuck any notion of beer-swilling boredom—thanks to savvy guides and their savvier Vexilar fish finders, you’re going to be fighting perch all day, unless an Alberta Clipper roars in to squelch the perch, in which case you simply shift to hunting down pike. A three-day, three-night package is $699 per person (woodlandresort.com/perchexpress.htm). Round-trip rail from Minneapolis is $102 (amtrak.com).
The Ice Age Trail zigzags across Wisconsin for 1,100 miles and showcases the power of glacial ice that retreated about 12,000 years ago, leaving behind 15,000 lakes (take that, Minnesota) and some oddly named geology. But eskers and drumlins aside, the trail’s best feature is its doability. Consider the weekend-length section that skirts scores of kettle lakes (formed by glacial depressions) in one six-mile stretch. Use the Chippewa Moraine Interpretive Center as a starting point for skiing in either direction or to connect with longer stretches of the Ice Age (for maps and geology lessons, visit iceagetrail.org). Marvel at the glacial erratics (boulders) as you schuss the knob-and-swale landscape. Chippewa Moraine State Recreation Area has three first-come, first-served primitive sites ($10; dnr.wi.gov).
For hardy possessors of 6.5-mil neoprene, storm-tossed December surf is as good as it gets in the upper Midwest (one-day board rental, $35; sbsurfandkayak.com). Grab waves in the six-to-eight-foot range in Frankfort by walking out on the pier just north of the lighthouse. “The hardest part is when the cold water hits your face and trickles down your back,” says visiting Hawaii surfer Mark Petritz. “But everyone is stoked and has big smiles, even if they can’t feel their lips.”