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Winter in Illinois: 12 unforgettable things to do in Illinois in winter

Wonder what there is to do during winter in Illinois? You came to the right place. 

An Illinois winter is an idyllic wonderland of white-covered branches, serene landscapes, and an abundance of Illinois winter activities.

If you’re looking for fun things to do in Illinois during winter, grab your hat and snow boots because this list is filled with cold-weather adventures.

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Things to do in winter in Illinois

Here we share a list of amazing winter activities in Illinois.

The Ice Skate Rink at the Millennium Park in Chicago
The Ice Skate Rink at the Millennium Park in Chicago (photo credits: Prayitno Hadinata – Flickr)

Go Ice skating

Ice skating is hands down one of the best winter activities in Illinois.

Throughout the state, you’ll find lively outdoor rinks filled with holiday lights and skaters of all experience levels lacing up and hitting the ice.

Commercial rinks often have drinks and snacks, music, performances, or a skating Santa for the holidays.

You’ll find rinks like these in Chicago, Grafton, Madison, and Peoria to name a few.

While you’ll surely enjoy any of these rinks, there is no better skating experience than stepping onto a frozen lake or pond to test your balance or show off your moves.

This coveted Midwestern tradition is usually free and rarely crowded.

If you’ve never skated on a lake or pond, there are usually shoveled, designated areas for skating near the shoreline.

Stay in these areas to avoid shallow ice and stay safe. Lakes and ponds need a few days in a row of freezing temperatures before they are skateable so keep that in mind if it is early or late in the winter season.

Having fun snow tubing
Having fun snow tubing

Go snow tubing

Fly down the hills of ski resorts and winter parks on snow tubes for an ultimate day of excitement.

Snow tubing in Illinois is an action-packed activity to be enjoyed by all ages.

The best part? Most of these resorts and winter parks eliminate the dreaded trudge back up the hill because their convenient conveyor lifts take you back up for another round.

If this sounds like your kind of fun, some of the best places to go include Snowstar Winter Sports Park in Andalusia, Villa Olivia in Bartlett, and Blackwell Forest Preserve in Warrenville.

Dress in layers and move out of the way at the bottom of the hill. Snow tubes can reach 40 mph, a speed you won’t want to make contact with on your way back up the slope.

Go snowshoeing

One of the best ways to immerse yourself in the beauty that is Illinois in winter is to snowshoe the countryside, national forests, and national parks.

Compared to skating, snow tubing, or skiing, this is one of the most inclusive sporting activities you’ll find because all ages and fitness levels can partake.

Most of the parks have snowshoe rentals onsite, which means the only thing you need to do is dress warmly.

While anyone can participate, be mindful that this can be a rigorous activity in some terrains and a long trail may not be suitable for all snowshoers.

You’ll have to climb snowbanks, shimmy between trees, and access untouched landscapes of the Illinois countryside which is both beautiful and tiring.

If you’re looking to kick things up a notch, many companies offer unique snowshoeing for an even more memorable experience.

Consider Hike the Vines in Galena which will take you snowshoeing by wineries and vineyards for tastes along your trek.

Couples may like Snowshoe Under the Stars: Sweetheart Style that is hosted at Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve.

For more information on snowshoeing, check out our experience at Starved Rock.

A snow-covered staircase in Starved Rock State Park
An atmospheric image of Starved rock in winter

Go winter hiking

Another top thing to do in Illinois in winter is to go for a winter hike.

There are numerous trails that are easily accessible in winter months.

As long as you’re prepared with the right winter gear to stay warm and dry, you’ll have an incredibly memorable experience.

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Check out this post in which we share a list of the best fleece lined hiking pants. If ypu prefer leggings, take a look at this post in which we share an overview of the best winter leggings.

 

If you’ve never spent much time exploring in the snow, you’ll be enchanted by the beauty of the fairytale-like white forest and the calmness of a hibernating environment.

One of the most popular hikes is the Garden of the Gods in Shawnee National Forest.

The trails offered in this wilderness take you past 100-foot canyons with scenic views overlooking the park.

For frozen waterfalls and bald eagle spotting, hike the numerous trails of Starved Rock State Park.

Since some trails can get quite slippery during winter we advise you to bring ice cleats.

Here you can find more information on the best ice cleats for walking. If you are looking for the best ice cleats for boots, click here. 

Lastly, Morton Arboretum is a museum of towering trees that is home to 1,700 acres filled with more than 4,000 plant species—all kissed by snow and icicles.

Bald Eagle

Go eagle spotting

Speaking of eagle spotting, Illinois is home to more bald eagles in wintertime than any other state apart from Alaska.

Over 3,000 of them make a temporary home in the trees and cliffs overlooking the open waters of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

If you plan to try and spot them on your own, hike near these rivers in the city of Gladstone, Starved Rock, Matthiessen Park, or Rock Island.

There are also bird watching events all over the state that offer unique experiences to celebrate this majestic bird and here are a few:

  • Bald Eagle Days Environmental Fair and Wildlife Art Show on Rock Island
  • Alton-Audubon Eagle Ice Festival in Alton
  • Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge Eagle Watch in Marion
  • Pere Marquette State Park Bald Eagle Days in Grafton
  • Bald Eagle Watch Weekend in Oglesby
  • Fulton-Mason Eagle Day
  • Lake Shelbyville Eagle Day

One of the most informative and interesting events is the Great River Eagle Days in Quincy where visitors are immersed in Native American tradition with traditional dances, a traditional blessing of the Eagle Ceremony, food, and museums.

Ice Climbing in Starved Rock State Park
Ice Climbing in the Tonti Canyon in Starved Rock State Park(Photo credits: Tom Gill)

Go ice climbing

You’ve probably heard of rock climbing but have you ever climbed up a frozen waterfall?

The two best places to go ice climbing are Starved Rock State Park and Nice Ice—Ice Climbing in Monee.

Starved Rock has four climbable canyons in the park including Wildcat Canyon (90 +ft), LaSalle Canyon (20+ feet), Ottawa Canyon (35. ft), and Tonti Canyon (60+ ft).

Be forewarned, Starved Rock ice climbing is for experienced ice climbers only. You must bring your own equipment and stick to the frozen waterfalls in the four canyons previously mentioned.

If you’re a beginner, a better option is to head over to Nice Ice ice climbing to learn the thrilling sport.

There, they have a 35-foot man-made tower that is covered in thick ice during the winter months.

The equipment and ice tools are available to rent, and you can warm up inside with warm drinks and snacks after getting the hang of it.

What’s more, the ice structure appears to glow at night with colorful backlights creating a unique nighttime experience.

Cross-country skiers
Cross-country skiing is a great way to experience the magical snowy landscapes.

Go cross country skiing

The best part about cross country skiing is you can do it just about anywhere.

The crushed limestone paths found in so many of the forest preserves around Illinois make fantastic trails for cross country skiing.

If you’re new to the sport, there are specific areas to go for ski rentals, lessons, and groomed paths.

The best place to go is Camp Sagawau which is close to the Palos Trail System.

If you’re a more experienced skier, there is a longer, more challenging trail for you.

With that being said, you can really cross country ski in any forest preserve in the state as long as you have your own equipment.

Another spot for beginners and seasoned skiers alike is the Arrowhead Golf Course in Wheaton, Illinois.

The openness of the golf course is ideal for beginners, while still adding ups and downs for more of a challenge.

Not to mention, the Herrick Lake Forest Preserve is right next door for those looking for some excellent tree-lined trails.

Go skiing or snowboarding

Illinois may be the second flattest state in the country, but you can still find plenty of hills with snowboarding and ski options in Illinois (or Wisconsin and Michigan if you’re willing to cross state borders!).

The biggest slope is at Chestnut Mountain Resort in Galena.

The 20,000-square-foot ski center has a 475-foot vertical drop and offers 19 runs ranging from novice to black diamond as well as a terrain park for snowboarders.

Make it a weekend and book a room in the resort’s 100-room lodge featuring stunning views of the Mississippi River below.

Check prices and availability:
Booking.com

Choose Villa Olivia for a location that is closer to Chicago but accommodates skiers and snowboarders of all abilities.

Head to the rentals or go straight to the lifts to try out their seven runs. Villa Olivia also has snow tubing if you want some variety in the day!

Frozen Lake Falls in Matthiessen State Park
Frozen Lake Falls in Matthiessen State Park

Visit an illinois State Park

You may be inclined to save a state park visit for the warmer months, but these Illinois State Parks are some of the most beautiful places to visit in Illinois during the winter.

One of the most visited state parks is Starved Rock which is famous for its sandstone canyons and waterfalls.

Its many trails are open for ice climbing or simply hiking.

Stop by the visitor center for tours and a hot chocolate!

Here you can find more info about Starved Rock.

Nearby is another destination, Matthiessen State Park. These parks are quite similar which is unsurprising considering how close they are geographically.

The waterfalls and cliffs are also attractions here, but usually draw fewer crowds because Matthiessen is the smaller of the two parks; this makes it a great option for even more peace on the snow-covered trails.

This park even allows Skiing.

Two hours north of Starved Rock and Matthiessen you’ll find Moraine Hills State Park.

The Park boasts 2,200 acres of prairies, forestry, glacier-formed rock, along with wetlands and lakes.

In fact, over half the grounds are comprised of water.

Lake Defiance is the most popular attraction but is quiet and peaceful in the winter months.

Moraine Park is also very popular for cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and winter hiking. For hiking, there are four trails available varying from hard difficulty to easy difficulty.

Be awestruck by the beautiful light displays

The magic of the holiday season makes Illinois winter travel worth the chilly winds and layers of clothing.

From Chicago to the countryside, locals love to illuminate their landscapes with breathtaking light displays.

In Chicago, Tree Lights at The Morton Arboretum is a dazzling, award-winning display of lights.

Visitors become immersed in a captivating tunnel of lights, music, and color in the woodlands of the Arboretum.

On the other side of the city, closer to downtown, is the Lincoln Park ZooLights.

Here you’ll find an extravaganza with entertainment, activities, and fun for the whole family. Enjoy musical light shows, 3D spectacles, an 18-foot holiday tree at the Pepper Family Wildlife Center, and an enchanted forest.

A bit farther out of town is Larsen’s Light Show in Elburn, Illinois. This Christmas light show production is a spectacular display of thousands of sparkling lights synchronized to music.

Not to mention water features, fire features, and every color light you can imagine—think Vegas-style lights!

Soak up the atmosphere in these cute small towns in Illinois

The Historic Galena Train Depot
The Historic Galena Train Depot

Galena

If you’re looking for small-town winter getaways in Illinois, the charming town of Galena is it.

You’ll find this charming town in the northwest corner of the state, about 3.5 hours from Chicago on the borders of Wisconsin and Iowa.

Its quaint streets are home to more than 800 properties included in the National Register of Historic Places, including the homes of former president Ulysses S. Grant and congressman Elihu B. Washburne. Wine lovers should definitely visit the wineries.

Mount Carroll

Tourists flock to the small town of Mount Carroll each year despite being one of the coldest places in Illinois.

The architecture, art, and culture of the downtown area look straight out of a movie.

The brick-lined streets host numerous winter festivals and an annual flower winter wonderland event featuring holiday gifts, floral decorations, and food. 

The Fabyan Windmill in Geneva
The Fabyan Windmill in Geneva

Geneva

If you’re looking for charming places to go in Illinois winter, the small town of Geneva is perfect for a weekend getaway.

Just an hour west of Chicago, Geneva offers wineries, breweries, sweet shops, and boutiques.

It is also connected to Island Park and Fabyan Forest Preserve, home of the five-story Dutch windmill.

During the holidays, there is an annual Christmas Walk featuring night carolers, Santa Claus, the lighting of the Great Tree, and the illumination of the courthouse.

There is also a Steeple Walk featuring four 20-minute musical performances at downtown Geneva churches.

Enjoy these events and the history of the city after a day of winter activities in the Fabyan Forest Preserve.

Participate in the Illinois snow sculpting competition in Rockford

Each year, the Rockford Park District brings teams from around the state to compete in a snow sculpting competition.

This competition is to qualify for the U.S. Nationals Snow Sculpting Competition as the representative of the state of Illinois.

Participants in teams of three are given three days and a giant block of snow reaching ten feet in height and six feet in depth and width. Keep in mind, this is no amateur competition.

These teams are able to chisel and sculpt stunning, intricate works of art. In the past, some sculptures were contemporary and inventive, such as the 2021 winner titled Hooty and the Blowfish after the nineties band.

The sculpture was an owl cradling a blowfish!

Others pulled at the heartstrings, such as the replica of a former teammate’s wheelchair engulfed in two wings and a cross as a memorial to their friend and teammate.

Each of these talented snow sculptures are featured at the Rockford Park District for the entire season, weather permitting.

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Conclusion

This winter, get outside and embrace the crisp air and low temperatures with exciting, adventure-packed winter sports and activities offered throughout the great state of Illinois.

See the web story that accompanies this post.

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