Things to Do This Winter in Chicago: Outdoor Activities

Entry-level venues for winter sports, three mountains for great skiing, and a park-and-walk guide to winter fun around the Loop

RELATED: Our calendar of things to do this winter—from December to February »

Cold Play 101

Entry-level venues for nine gnarly winter sports

by Marcia Froelke Coburn

Illustration by Colin Johnson

CROSS-COUNTRY SKIING CAMP SAGAWAU (12545 111th St., Lemont; 630-257-2045) has a great course for beginners—a two-and-a-half-mile loop that’s mostly prairie—plus one-and-a-half miles of more challenging terrain with steep hills. Rent equipment for $12; grab a quick lesson for $10 more.

ICE-SKATING No one wants to be the stumbling dork surrounded by twirling showoffs. You can relax at the Warren Park ice rink (6601 N. Western Ave.; 773-761-8663, chicagoparkdistrict.com). There’s an old-school feel here, thanks to music on the sound system and the tall evergreen trees circling the rink. Admission is free; skate rental is $6.

LUGING Embrace the thrill of hurtling feet-first down a steep, twisting chute. The Muskegon Winter Sports Complex (462 Scenic Dr., North Muskegon, Mich.; 877-879-5843, msports.org) starts beginners near the top of its 850-foot track, designed by Olympic lugers. A two-and-a-half-hour lesson for $40 will have you shooting down the luge several times. Bring proof of health insurance; wearing an old coat and elbow pads is recommended.

A ski jumper

SKI JUMPING Founded by a group of Norwegian jumpers, the Norge Ski Club (100 Ski Hill Rd., Fox River Grove; 847-639-9718, norgeskiclub.com) is the oldest operating ski club in the United States and the destination for serious jumpers. Beginners can get instruction on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 to 8 p.m. and on the occasional Saturday. Call for a free trial; a full season’s worth of lessons costs $150.

A STONE’S THROW Two-and-a-half-hour curling lessons for beginners at the Chicago Curling Club (555 Dundee Rd., Northbrook; 847-564-9877, curlingchicago.org) cost just $35. Wear loose-fitting clothes, not jeans, and bring a pair of flat-bottomed shoes with clean soles to wear on the ice.

SLALOM RACING Learn how to clear the gates like the pros do at Four Lakes Alpine Snowsports (5790 Forest View Rd., Lisle; 630-963-3422, skifourlakes.com). Slalom and giant slalom classes start on Monday nights in January for $30 a lesson.

SLEDDING Pick up a cheap slide at any hardware store and head for the man-made hills. Landscaping around Soldier Field (1410 S. Museum Campus Dr., soldierfield.net) has created a 33-foot sledding hill southeast of the stadium. The lighted spot is open daily until 11 p.m. for sledding, starting in December.

SNOW TUBING No sleds allowed, but a bit of courage required. At Mount Hoy in the Blackwell Forest Preserve (Butterfield Rd., one mile east of Rte. 59, Warrenville; 630-871-6422, dupageforest.org), you rent a park district inner tube ($4 a day) for one of the longest rides around: The hill boasts 800 feet of downslope run.

A snowboarder

SNOWBOARDING Dedicated exclusively to snowboarding, Raging Buffalo Snowboard Park (19-265 Western Ave., Algonquin; 847-836-7243, ragingbuffalo.com) is the place where boarders hit the half pipes. There is a beginner course; lessons— group and private—are available for $20 to $40. Day passes cost $32 to $45.

SNOWSHOEING On free snowshoes borrowed from the park district, you can stomp around Northerly Island (1400 S. Lynn White Dr.; 312-745-2910, chicagoparkdistrict.com) now through February, as long as the snow is at least three inches deep.

SURFACE TENSION Bass Pro Shops (6112 W. Grand Ave., Gurnee; 847-856-1229, basspro.com) sells the necessary gear for ice fishing: auger, skimmer, lures, jigging rods, tip ups, and bait. Reel Action Sport Fishing Charters (920-360-2136, reelactioncharters.com) in northern Wisconsin can provide a shanty for $50 a person or the full monty—guides, underwater cameras, and fish-cleaning—for $100 a person.

 

Photography: technotr/istockphoto; piskunov/istockphoto

 

RELATED: Our calendar of things to do this winter—from December to February »

Climb Every Mountain

The less experienced a skier you are, the closer to the city your downhill thrills.

1 HOUR AWAY
For beginners, the bunny hill at VILLA OLIVIA is the best. It’s a 180-foot vertical drop and a quarter-mile run. Lessons are available. A day pass plus boot and ski rental is $65. 1401 W. Lake St., Bartlett; 630-289-1000, villaolivia.com

3 HOURS AWAY
CASCADE MOUNTAIN offers 36 ski trails; more than a third of them are suitable for beginners. The vertical drop here is 460 feet. A day pass is $45. Snowboarding lessons are available too. W10441 Cascade Mountain Rd., Portage, Wis.; 800-992-2754, cascademountain.com

5 HOURS AWAY
Refresh your skills with lessons at CRYSTAL MOUNTAIN RESORT & SPA and then hit some of the 45 slopes, three terrain parks, or the cross-country course. When you’re all worn out, retreat to the lodge or the spa. The lift ticket is $45 to $50 a day; rentals and lodging are extra. 12500 Crystal Mountain Dr., Thompsonville, Mich.; 800-968-7686, crystalmountain.com
 

 

RELATED: Our calendar of things to do this winter—from December to February »

A Park-and-Walk Guide to Winter Jollies Around the Loop

Small map
Click to view the full map.

FOG THE GLASS
The holiday displays at Macy’s (1) (111 N. State St.) make a great place to start your day. If you park near the Art Institute (2) (111 S. Michigan Ave.), visit the museum’s Thorne Rooms; nine of the miniature dioramas have been decked in seasonal swag.

STALK SANTA
The Macy’s Claus mans his fifth-floor station daily during store hours from November 25 through December 24. You can also spy on Santa toiling away in his workshop, on the southwest corner of Christkindlmarket (3) in Daley Plaza (50 W. Washington St.); the hard-working fellow is there every day until at least 8 p.m. from November 23 through December 24.

GLIDE AROUND
We’re pretty sure there will be a line at the ice-skating rink on the 94th floor of the John Hancock building. So trek over to the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink (4) (Michigan Ave. at Washington St.; $10) or visit the equally affordable oval at Daley Bicentennial Plaza (5) (337 E. Randolph St.; $7) in Grant Park.

SING A FESTIVE TUNE
Chicago choral groups belt out holiday songs with Cloud Gate (6) looming behind them. Caribou Coffee (7) (20 N. Michigan Ave.) gives out warm drinks during the 50-minute sing-along that happens in Millennium Park every Friday at 6 p.m. from November 25 through December 16.

WARM YOUR HANDS
Ward off the chill with a piping-hot mug of coffee or cocoa at Intelligentsia (8) (53 E. Randolph St.), Starbucks (9) (202 N. Michigan Ave.), Argo Tea (10) (16 W. Randolph St.), Lavazza Espression (11) (27 W. Washington St.), or Café Descartes (12) (327 N. Michigan Ave.). Hot cider is served at Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand (13) (66 E. Randolph St.).

CATCH A BUZZ
Fight fatigue with sugar! Cupcakes abound at Magnolia Bakery (14) (108 N. State St.), Crumbs Bake Shop (15) (134 N. LaSalle St.), Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique (16) (115 N. Wabash Ave.), and Sarah’s Pastries & Candies (inside Macy’s, 111 N. State St.).

FIND RELIEF
The obvious public pit stops are the first- and second-floor bathrooms at the Chicago Cultural Center (17) (78 E. Washington St.) and the Jay Pritzker Pavilion (18) (201 E. Randolph St.). But seek out nicer amenities in the lobbies of the many Loop hotels, in particular theWit (19) (201 N. State St.), the Palmer House Hilton (20) (17 E. Monroe St.), and the Hard Rock Hotel (21) (230 N. Michigan Ave.).

CRANE YOUR NECK
Look north up Michigan Avenue to catch a glimpse of the lights along the Mag Mile. Where the el runs overhead—along Wabash Avenue and Lake, Van Buren, and Wells Streets—you might spot the wrapped-and-ribboned Christmas train jingling by.

 

Illustrations: John Kenzie

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