Avoid Cabin Fever with these Cool Winter Festivals
From the X Games in Aspen to a world-renowned birding fest in Oregon to a big polar plunge in Lake Tahoe, these events provide plenty of reasons to get outside—even in sub-zero temps
Summer and fall get all the buzz as the big festival seasons, but many people just might not be privy to the wonders of cold-weather reveling. Winter festivals bank on the season’s biggest assets with snow sculpting competitions, ice climbing, birding—even indoor movie watching (thanks, Sundance!). With major events like this one and the X Games Aspen taking place in our backyard and unique jubilees that emphasize Western culture and winter wildlife, there’s no shortage of events in our region that celebrate everything that’s great about the season. You’ll learn to scale ice in Colorado, spot elusive winged creatures in Oregon, and appreciate the art of cowboy poetry in Nevada. No risk of seasonal blues here.
Klamath Falls’ Winter Wings Festival, Oregon
Even if you’re not a die-hard birder, you’ll be wowed by the plethora of feathered creatures that fill this Oregon area in winter. It’s the best time of year to see the 1 million or so that live in or migrate through this international bird capital. That’s why hundreds of fans show up to partake in Winter Wings’ guided walks and workshops, as well as lectures from master falconers, professors, and renowned wildlife photographers, artists, and biologists. Shutterbugs can’t resist the opportunity to capture elusive birds, like white-headed woodpeckers and gray owls, and the grand bald eagle, which is abundant through March but peaks around the time of this winter festival. Feb. 13-16.
National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Elko, NV
Cowboy culture reigns supreme at this Elko gathering. Thousands of wranglers take the annual pilgrimage to Nevada to exchange tales from the ranch through prose, music, and oral storytelling. Congress named the festival—produced by the Western Folklife Center—a national event in 2000; and although the festivities bank on tradition, the focus is on celebrating the American West of today and ensuring the region’s heritage remains solidly in place. Workshops range from rawhide braiding to Dutch oven cooking classes. Jan. 27 to Feb. 1.
Fur Rendezvous Winter Festival, Anchorage, AK
You’ve heard about Iditarod, “The Last Great Race on Earth.” Well, we dare say the sled dog race doesn’t have anything on this 85-year-old Anchorage tradition. Fur Rondy started as a way to entertain the city’s 3,000 locals looking to avoid the seasonal blues. Coinciding with when trappers came to town, it involved athletic competitions like sled races, hockey, and others to get people outside. Today, the event comes with 10 days of only-in-Alaska activities, like a Native American blanket toss, snow sculpture competitions, a reindeer run, snowshoe softball, and outhouse races with locals dashing through the snow on skis and pulling DIY porta-potties. Plus, you might just get lucky and catch the northern lights at night. Feb. 22-March 8.
Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival, Colorado
The ski town hauls in about 400 tons of snow to cover quaint Lincoln Avenue for this event which celebrates the town’s Western roots and all things winter sports—especially the quirky ones like skijoring (horse-or dog-assisted skiing) and ski jumping through fiery hoops. After 107 years, the carnival is among the most famous winter festivals in the nation. Nightly family-friendly events include free tubing on Howelsen Hill Ski Area and s’mores parties. Feb. 5-9.
Banff’s SnowDays, Canada
Winter in the Canadian Rockies is frigid, for sure. But all that icy weather brings a heck of a lot of powder to coat the rugged landscape, creating a true winter wonderland. Banff recognizes snow’s captivating beauty and puts it on full display during SnowDays. The highlight of the 10-day festival is Ice Magic, a live-art event with carvers from around the world creating icy masterworks. Lake Louise is famous for the giant ice castle that goes up in the ice skating rink in front of the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Beyond that, ice wizards carve out incredibly detailed, human-size wildlife sculptures; scenes from folkloric stories; and just about anything that comes to mind (last year’s “Plumber’s Nightmare,” with little guys working on a pipe system, was a show-stealer). Jan 15-26.
Ouray Ice Festival, Colorado
Many say Ouray looks like a little Switzerland with its location at the head of a river valley surrounded by staggering mountains on three sides. The town’s stunning, no doubt, and those sharp peaks also make it one of the best places to ice climb anywhere. Newbies can get their start at the beginner clinics offered during the fest. But this event is really for climbers—and those who like to watch people swing, kick, and pick their way up slick canyons. In its 25th year, Ouray Ice Festival draws champs of the sport who come to duke it out in friendly climbing competitions, geek out during gear demos, participate in workshops to master footwork and navigate steep ice, and exchange war and glory stories. Plan to defrost at the recently revamped Ouray Hot Springs or one of the other nearby thermal pools. Jan. 23-26.
West Yellowstone’s Kids ’N’ Snow, Montana
From December to March, Yellowstone invites powder hounds-in-training to get acquainted with winter adventuring. During Kids ‘N’ Snow weekends, rangers and other outdoor pros lead excursions like snowshoeing, ice fishing lessons, snowmobiling, and s’mores roasting to take the fear and mystery out of first-time snow experiences. As they play, kiddos learn to care for the environment and build up foundational skills for winter sports. Though most activities are free, some have limited space and they fill up fast. Book ahead. Various Saturdays and Sundays, December-March.
Tahoe SnowFest!, California
Festival organizers refer to this colorful winter festival as a “mountain Mardi Gras.” The carnival spirit comes alive in the many bars, restaurants, and communities throughout North Lake Tahoe that go all out to celebrate the last days of the season. Watch the Snow Queen get her crown at Gar Woods, join dozens of brave souls in the 25-yard Polar Bear Swim in Lake Tahoe, gawk at the quirky floats during the Kings Beach parade, and catch the fireworks show in Tahoe City. In between, there will be luaus, clam bakes, and barbecues as folks get closer to the dream of transitioning into spring and summer mode. Feb. 28-March 10.
Winter X Games Aspen, Colorado
There’s a reason this huge sporting event takes place on Snowmass’ Buttermilk Mountain—it’s a damn good ski mountain. For the past two decades, the biggest names in skiing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling have descended on the town to compete for X Games medals. Spectators get the chance to rub elbows with legends, take advantage of Aspen’s killer January ski conditions, and dance it out with sets by major DJs and hip-hop artists. This mother of winter festivals also doubles as a music fest. Take your turn on Buttermilk Mountain—some of the slopes remain open throughout the event. Jan. 23-26.
Sundance Film Festival, Park City, UT
The thought-provoking, innovative world of indie filmmaking thrives at Sundance Film Fest. For proof, just look at the New Frontier lineup, which focuses on makers pushing boundaries with mediums like smartphones, AI, mixed-reality, and other tools that explore and intend to help shape how humans evolve with tech. Supporting an inclusive, engaged citizenry, Sundance touts its roster of films and shorts directed by women, LGBTQ filmmakers, and artists of color. After screenings, hobnob with creatives and like-minded attendees in the dozens of charming restaurants and saloons along Main Street or on the slopes, which are directly accessed from downtown. Every night brings parties that range from low-key to glitzy. Jan. 23-Feb. 2.