A landscape of ancient sand dunes in central Wisconsin has entertained golfers since Sand Valley Golf Resort opened its first course in 2017. Now the resort is welcoming a different sort of visitor: anyone interested in embracing winter in its wide open spaces. This year the resort stayed open when temperatures dropped and snow began to fall, turning over its rolling hills and three lakes to cross-country skiing, ice skating, sledding, snowshoeing and fat-tire biking. Guests staying in cottages with kitchens can get meal kits for easy dinner preparation.
The golf destination in Nekoosa is among the resorts around the region that are finding new ways to bring in visitors — and working to keep them safe in this unprecedented winter. Sand Valley is also hosting occasional wellness weekends, such as one slated for the end of March centered on the trendy Wim Hof breathing method and cold exposure.
Another Wisconsin destination, Grand Geneva Resort and Spa in Lake Geneva, has added rentable igloos to its winter roster, including sledding, ice skating and downhill skiing. The clear igloos, open for dining and drinks, are heated and stocked with blankets and hold up to five people.
In Minnesota, at Nisswa's Grand View Lodge, sleigh rides behind a pair of Clydesdales and lighted ice rinks are among the fresh-air opportunities.
Near Ely, Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge dog sled trips involve more outdoor time, with communal gatherings around a campfire encircled with insulated chairs. Half-day and overnight trips are ongoing, with pandemic protocols in place.
Along the Gunflint Trail in Grand Marais, a string of resorts that remain open in winter have adjusted to the pandemic by expanding perks.
Gunflint Lodge has brought Wi-Fi to every cabin so guests no longer need to hit the lodge for a connection. It has also installed personal fire pits at six of the cabins and set up a tent, heated with a wood-fired stove, perched on the lake. That's where guests can pick up ice skates for the rink or rent electric fat-tire bikes. The resort, popular in winter for cross-country skiing, introduced fat-tire biking in 2017. Meals made at the restaurant can be delivered to cabins.
Wi-Fi was added to all the lodging options at Bearskin Lodge, too, along with medical-grade air filters. The spot on the Central Gunflint Trail Ski System boosted its outdoor offerings with fat-tire biking this winter. It has also introduced a virtual Nordic ski competition, in which skiers clock their time on a Bearskin course each month. Prizes go to the fastest male and female each month and to grand prize winners at the season's end.
At nearby Golden Eagle Lodge, another backwoods gem known for top-notch trail grooming, outdoor enthusiasts can warm themselves at a new firepit near the wax room on weekends and particularly cold weekdays. Tea, coffee and hot chocolate served outside can boost the warmth.
Poplar Haus offers cabins, the Gunflint Trail's only liquor store, occasional snowmobile drag races on the frozen lake (the last of the season is Feb. 27), and a popular restaurant, currently open Thursdays through Sundays. This winter, dining is available on the expansive deck with sunset views of Poplar Lake, weather permitting. Firepits keep diners warm — or warmish. The huge dining room is open with ample space between tables.
All of these North Woods spots feel secluded and are tethered to outdoor activities that bring encounters with trees and birds more than other humans. But for the ultimate in social distancing, there's the Shack, Loon Lake Lodge's only cabin open during winter. The old log structure with a massive stone fireplace is shrouded by trees and is so remote that four-wheel drive is recommended.
Kerri Westenberg • 612-673-4282