Travel

The Best Winter Festivals Across the U.S.

When the weather cools down, festival season heats up.

Visit Aspen
Visit Aspen
Visit Aspen

Just because warm weather is months away doesn’t mean festival-lovers have to wait until Coachella rears its bedazzled head once again to party. From coast to coast, winter festivals celebrate the frozen beauty of the lesser-loved months between New Year’s Day and springtime, bringing with them everything from polar plunges to parades dedicated to mythical Nordic god-kings. Grab your beanies, puffy coats, and Bernie mittens: these festive winter wonderlands are coming at you in early 2022.

Visit Anchorage
Visit Anchorage
Visit Anchorage

Anchorage Fur Rendezvous

Anchorage, Alaska
February 25 – March 6
Known locally as “Fur Rondy,” the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous was first held in 1935, predating the famous Iditarod Race by nearly four decades. This festival dates back to the city’s fur trading days (hence the name) and pays homage to the tradition with authentic fur auctions interspersed between signature events.

Partygoers can expect about 20 cultural and sporting activities-including the World Champion Sled Dog Race, a three-day dash through Anchorage’s city streets and wooded trails-as well as dozens of other “Rondy Round Town” events held each year by local business and community orgs. There are championships for everything from cornhole to Texas Hold’em, a snow sculpture competition, fireworks, a fun run, a beard and mustache competition, outhouse races, ice bowling, a carnival, a parade…the list goes on. If you make your way up to the Last Frontier, we can almost guarantee you’ll find something that tickles your fancy.

Ice Castles
Ice Castles
Ice Castles

Ice Castles

Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Utah, and Wisconsin
January – late February/early March (depending on weather)
Ice Castles is a series of frozen attractions with locations in five different US cities where temperatures stay reliably cold enough to sustain them. Perhaps best understood as immersive, ephemeral art installations, these large-scale creations are made by professional ice artists who use hundreds of thousands of hand-placed icicles (as well as some colorful LED lights) to create fantastical worlds of crystalline castles, caves, tunnels, and thrones. Every location is different, and each installation changes from one year to the next. If you want to feel like you’re stepping into a frozen fairytale (or straight-up Frozen), seek one out when they open in January, weather permitting.

Saranac Lake Winter Carnival
Saranac Lake Winter Carnival
Saranac Lake Winter Carnival

Saranac Lake Winter Carnival

Adirondacks, New York
February 4 – 13
This upstate New York winter festival has been held for over a century, and this year, the party is taking guests back in time with a “Totally ‘80s” theme. The Saranac Lake Winter Carnival has everything: a Royal Court complete with coronation celebrations and courtly robes, arctic golf, an arctic BBQ, downhill ski races, snowshoe races, curling exhibitions, woodsman exhibitions, a ladies fry pan toss (why not!), “totally tubular”-themed parades, fireworks, and more. But the real highlight of the event is the Ice Palace-created by the very same people who brought you the aforementioned Ice Castles-made entirely out of thousands of ice blocks cut from the lake.

Explore Whitefish
Explore Whitefish
Explore Whitefish

Whitefish Winter Carnival

Whitefish, Montana
February 4 – 6

Apparently, people are feeling nostalgic for the 80s, because like Saranac Lake, Whitefish has chosen “80’s Rewind: Totally Rad” as the theme of their 63rd annual winter carnival. If the theme doesn’t spark your interest, also consider that this particular party pays homage to Ullr, a Nordic god-king. Legend says that after being forgotten by his worshippers for a time, Ullr got bored and ended up in Northwest Montana (as one does), where he stayed until humans eventually also settled and resumed worshipping him. Now, the town of Whitefish gets together each year to celebrate him with a Penguin Plunge fundraiser, a grand parade, a snow sculpture contest, an art expo, and more. Whitefish is becoming quite the trendy tourism destination with its proximity to Glacier National Park, but this fest is a great way to experience the friendly small town from a local’s POV.

Tahoe Snowfest
Tahoe Snowfest
Tahoe Snowfest

SnowFest

Tahoe City, California
February 25 – March 6
Tahoe City’s SnowFest was originally conceived to promote the North Lake Tahoe area’s incredible weather and plentiful powder in early March, which is typically the off-season for ski tourism. Now, it’s a ten-day mountain Mardi Gras celebration with nearly 100 events spread throughout North Lake Tahoe, including a Mardi Gras party, a luau, a dog pull, a dog costume contest, fireworks, several parades, snow sculpture and ice carving competitions, milk jug curling, a cornhole tournament, concerts, ski races, a polar bear swim, and more.

The Great Northern Festival
The Great Northern Festival
The Great Northern Festival

The Great Northern

The Twin Cities, Minnesota
January 27 – February 6
The Great Northern Festival, held annually in MinneapolisSaint Paul, exists to counter the narrative of long, dark, depressing Midwestern winters with ten days of artistically rich and intellectually stimulating fun. The brainy bunch will find music and performance events, film screenings, gallery shows, public art installations, and live interviews with social activists, scientists, artists, and thought leaders; party animals can enjoy a family-friendly winter carnival and dance parties; and sports junkies can check out hockey tournaments, winter hiking, and so much more.

Topics addressing climate change and the environment are a through-line throughout the many different events, and there is an emphasis on racial and cultural diversity as well as local Native American heritage. It’s kind of like a small-scale, sub-zero version of South by Southwest …North by Midwest, if you will.

Visit Aspen
Visit Aspen
Visit Aspen

Wintersköl

Aspen, Colorado
January 13 – 16
It’s not exactly an earth-shattering revelation that Aspen is a great place to visit in the winter. But if you’re going to visit Aspen during ski season, plan your trip during Wintersköl, a community-wide winter celebration during which the whole resort town puts on a host of fun activities and events driven by residents and local businesses. There’s a royal court that honors residents known for being positive forces in the Aspen Valley, concerts, a canine fashion show, snow sculptures, mountain activities (obviously), après-ski parties (also obviously), and a traditional torchlight descent down Aspen Mountain followed by a bonfire and fireworks.

Idaho Tourism
Idaho Tourism
Idaho Tourism

Fire and Ice Winter Fest

Lava Hot Springs, Idaho
February 4 – 6
At the Fire and Ice Winter Fest in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, you can escape the cold in the best way we know how: with a relaxing soak in all-natural mineral hot springs. But if you want to maximize your visit, you should do so only after you take part in about a dozen wild winter activities. Don the weirdest costume you can concoct and go careening down the Portneuf River during the annual Polar Float Parade. Watch local daredevils ski down the mountain with lit torches in hand. Participate in rubber penguin races, chili tastings, wine tastings, a costume parade, a relay race, and more. And then, once all is said and done, warm up in one of the town’s famous geothermal pools. We swear that a full day of frigid outdoor fun will make the evening soak twice as good.

WinterWonderGrass Festival
WinterWonderGrass Festival
WinterWonderGrass Festival

WinterWonderGrass

Colorado, California, and Vermont
Dates in February and April
The WinterWonderGrass Festival is a combination music and beer festival held in the wintery climes of various mountain towns across the country (including Steamboat, Colorado; Tahoe, California; and Stratton, Vermont), promising “the best in bluegrass, Americana, and roots music with community-minded independent brewers.”

WWG features more than 20 bluegrass bands over three days (including select “on-mountain” shows), as well as three massive, heated beer hall tents with their own stages. And since the festivals are held during peak ski season, attendees can also get deals on ski lift packages during the event. The 2022 dates are February 25-27 in Colorado and April 1-3 in Tahoe, while Vermont’s festival is expected to return in 2023.

Oregon Winterfest
Oregon Winterfest
Oregon Winterfest

Oregon Winterfest

Redmond, Oregon
February 18 – 20
Oregon’s popular Winterfest, one of the state’s largest winter festivals, is moving to a new location in Central Oregon this year after being held in Bend’s Old Mill District since its inception in 1999. The new venue, the Deschutes County Expo Center, will be able to accommodate the festival’s recent spike in popularity, with tens of thousands of attendees expected in 2022. Along with artisans and vendors from the Pacific Northwest and beyond, keep an eye out for live music, freestyling snowboarders and skiers at the Rail Jam, the popular K9 Kings “flying dog show,” food carts, minibars, a “royal court” of roaming wizards, and sculptures made of fire, ice, and light.

Robert Ferdinandt/Visit Saint Paul
Robert Ferdinandt/Visit Saint Paul
Robert Ferdinandt/Visit Saint Paul

Saint Paul Winter Carnival

St. Paul, Minnesota
January 28 – February 6
The Saint Paul Winter Carnival is the oldest and largest winter festival in the US, established in 1886 and drawing in more than 350,000 visitors annually. (For those of you keeping score, yes, this is the second winter festival in St. Paul highlighted here. But as it is one of the coldest cities in the country, it’s only fitting that it should host so many hits.) There is a LOT to explore here, but you’ll definitely want to seek out the Ice Palace (which is honestly so large, you can’t miss it), as well as events like the Grande Day and Vulcan Victory Torchlight Parades, which, while not associated with Mardi Gras, certainly take a lot of cues from New Orleans’s famed party (including having their own krewes and royalty). There’s also an ice fishing tournament, a 5k & 10k run, a snow maze, a snow sculpting competition, and more.

GoBreck
GoBreck
GoBreck

International Snow Sculpture Championship

Breckenridge, Colorado
January 24 – February 2
The International Snow Sculpture Championship is a world-renowned competition during which 12 teams from around the world compete to transform 20-ton blocks of snow into sculptural works of art, transforming historic downtown Breckenridge into a temporary outdoor public art gallery in the process. (Walking in a winter wonderland, indeed!) By the way, it’s all done by hand-no power tools allowed. While you’re in town, don’t forget to take a scenic snowcat tour or sleigh ride, or even try fat biking; after all, cycle-loving Coloradans don’t stop just because of some pesky snow.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer covering food, travel, arts, culture, and what-have-you. She winters in Las Vegas and summers in Detroit, as does anybody who’s anybody. Her favorite activities include drinking beer and quoting Fight Club.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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