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America’s Coolest Winter Festivals

Couloir Images, Rory B. Clow Photography

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. We've rounded up the best of the fests—from Vermont to Alaska—for you to consider while vacationing in your favorite winter wonderland.

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St. Paul Winter Carnival

WHERE: St. Paul, Minnesota

The St. Paul winter carnival in Minnesota is the oldest and largest winter festival in the u.s. in 1885, a new york times reporter suggested that St. Paul was 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.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s St. Paul Guide

Steve Ruark
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Plunge Fest

WHERE: Annapolis, Maryland

There are polar bear plunges—where people dive into frigid water in the middle of winter—all over the country, butMaryland's Plungefest 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.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Annapolis Guide

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Fur Rendezvous

WHERE: Anchorage, Alaska

Winter can run long in Anchorage, 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 even 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, and a“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.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Anchorage Guide

Mammoth Resorts
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Mammoth Pond Skim

WHERE: Mammoth, California

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).

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Mammoth Guide

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Ouray Ice Climbing Festival

WHERE: Ouray, Colorado

The biggest ice climbing festival in North America takes place every January in southwestern Colorado, in the small town of Ouray. 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’s Ouray Ice Climbing Festival events include climbing competitions, demonstrations, clinics, presentations, films, and a gear expo.

Insider Tip: Brand-new beginners can try ice climbing on the 30-foot practice wall, known by locals as the Kids' Wall.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Ouray Guide

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Saranac Lake Winter Carnival

WHERE: Saranac Lake, New York

What began as an attempt to break up the monotony of winter in the Adirondack wilderness 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.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Saranac Lake Guide

Couloir Images, Rory B. Clow Photography
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Winter Carnival

WHERE: Steamboat Springs, Colorado

The Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival 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.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Steamboat Springs Guide

David Shankbone
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International Snow Sculpture Championship

WHERE:Breckenridge, Colorado

For decades, snow-sculpting teams from all over the globe have descended on the ski resort town of Breckenridge to vie for top honors. Teams spend five days turning giant blocks of snow into art, creating an otherworldly outdoor gallery in the parking lot of the Riverwalk Center, just off the downtown main drag. Visitors are welcome to attend the International Snow Sculpture Championships at any point in the process; judging happens January 25.

Insider Tip: The final evening of competition (January 24) makes for the most memorable viewing as artists pull all-nighters perfecting their nearly completed masterpieces.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Breckenridge Guide

Dmarx |
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Whitefish Winter Carnival

WHERE:Whitefish, Montana

Legend has it that Ullr, the Nordic god of snow, settled in northwest Montana, making his home on Big Mountain. But alas, there was no peace for Ullr and his queen, as they encountered a group of unruly yetis set upon kidnapping the queen. Luckily Ullr prevailed, and to pay homage to their winter king, the people of Whitefish created the Whitefish Winter Carnival, where they celebrate all things winter by parading down Main Street on skis, crafting ice sculptures, and even skijoring (where skiers are towed behind horses through a race course). But beware—a band of rogue yetis remains, perpetrating pranks throughout the town, still intent on kidnapping the snow queen.

Insider Tip: It’s free to spectate the ski joring, or better yet, enter the novice class and give it a try.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Whitefish Guide

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Frozen Dead Guy Day

WHERE: Nederland, Colorado

Grandpa Bredo Morstoel may have died of a heart condition in 1989, but that doesn't stop him from living on (cryogenically, at least) in the artsy Rocky Mountain town of Nederland. Packed in 1,600 pounds of dry ice and kept cool at a steady 60 degrees, Grandpa Bredo is the inspiration behind the aptly-named—if slightly morbid—Frozen Dead Guy Days event. Each winter, the Colorado town celebrates good ole gramps with coffin races, a parade of hearses, a frozen t-shirt contest, snow “beach” volleyball, and other offbeat cold-weather activities.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Colorado Guide

Garyhartz |
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WHERE:Lake Tahoe, Nevada

Every spring for more than 30 years, the resorts on the north (and now west) side of Lake Tahoe come together to throw a 10-day winter sports extravaganza. Far from childhood summer vacation memories on the lake, the North Lake Tahoe Snowfest features an icy plunge into the largest alpine lake in North America. Locals love the Tahoe Donner Ididarun, in which dogs pull covered sleds across a snow-covered course.

Insider Tip: Don’t miss Rahlves Banzai Tour, a rip-roaring ski/boarder-cross event created by former Olympian Daron Rahlves.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Lake Tahoe Guide

Jim Kravitz
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WHERE:Aspen, Colorado

The popular Winterskol celebration is one of the best times to visit Aspen. The Fat Bike Race pits competitors riding bikes with extra-wide tires known as fatbikes against each other on a slippery, snow-covered course. As always, the Soupskol contest encourages Aspen’s world-class restaurants to duke it out over who can make the best soup.

Insider Tip: Winterskol is the only time Aspen offers night skiing, thanks to torches and fireworks lighting up the evening sky.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Aspen Guide

Rabbitholephoto |
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Sun Valley

WHERE: Sun Valley, Idaho

Although Sun Valley is known for having the world’s first chairlift, there’s no lifts needed at this festival. Events like “town sprints” (cross country skiing relays through town) and the famous Boulder Mountain Tour (a 34 km Nordic race) take place on over 200 km of groomed Nordic trails throughout the beautiful valley.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Sun Valley Guide

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Stowe Winter Carnival

WHERE: Stowe, Vermont

The Stowe Winter Carnival charmingly combines traditional snow sport competitions with one-of-a-kind events. All the typical favorites are there, like downhill ski races, ice hokey games, and a national ice carving competition, along with some unexpected surprises, like a snow volleyball tournament and snow golf. Children in Stowe appreciate the Kid’s Karnival, and adults cut loose to live music and dance parties in the evenings.

Insider Tip: Stowe is known as the “ski capital of the east” thanks to its annual snowfall average of 22 feet and location at the base of Mount Mansfield, the highest mountain in Vermont, at 4,395 feet.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Stowe Guide