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Forget the tropics: Tri-state hotspots offer affordable mini-vacations

The North Shore of Lake Superior is home to the Lutsen Mountains were adventurers can ski, hike and enjoy beautiful views. Courtesy of Explore Minnesota / Special to The Forum1 / 9
Ice fishing on Lake Phalen2 / 9
North Dakota’s snow-covered terrain makes activities like cross-country skiing and snowshoeing a great winter activity. Courtesy of North Dakota Tourism / Special to The Forum3 / 9
Each year, Nemo, S.D., hosts outhouse races where participants build outhouses and race them as part of a fundraiser. Courtesy of South Dakota Department of Tourism / Special to The Forum4 / 9
In Renner, S.D., couples can take a helicopter flight over Sioux Falls to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Courtesy of South Dakota Department of Tourism / Special to The Forum5 / 9
Commerce Use Only - Do Not Share, Credit Greater Grand Forks Convention & Visitors Bureau6 / 9
People looking to travel have more options than just a tropical vacation; there’s fun to be had closer to home. Courtesy of South Dakota Department of Tourism / Special to The Forum7 / 9
Paisley Park8 / 9
Loft view of the yurt at Fort Ransom State Park9 / 9

When winter sets in, residents of the Midwest fly out. As soon as the snow falls, families, friends and couples begin drafting itineraries in hopes of adding one more pin to their adventure map. And more often than not, residents opt for a tropical vacation thousands miles away.

But that's not the only type of vacation the winter season offers in the tri-state area.

"Too often we think of our trips too extravagantly," says Katlyn Richter, the global media and public relations director at the South Dakota Department of Tourism. "No matter where you live, there is value in exploring the world around you."

In setting the bar too high, some residents end up forgoing their winter vacations due to the lack of funds or the time it takes to plan an extravagant trip across the country. What makes local, mini-vacations so appealing is perhaps their simplicity.

"(Local vacations) are the ones that create some of the best memories because they are often spontaneous, and they don't involve a lot of stress in the planning aspect," says Kim Schmidt, the public and media relations manager at North Dakota Tourism.

Explore Minnesota spokesperson Alyssa Hayes encourages residents to welcome winter rather than run from it.

"We encourage travelers to embrace the season. Rather than hibernating or escaping to a tropical locale, discover the beauty of this time of year in a new way," she says.

For those looking for a last-minute weekend trip this winter, these places and events offer fun for all ages in the tri-state area:


• Catch some fish. Minnesota boasts big ice fishing tournaments throughout the winter season. Walker is known for it's International Eelpout Festival (held Feb. 23-26), while Leech, Gull, Mille Lacs, Lake of the Woods and several other lakes are noted for their winter fishing.

"Ice houses, bars, streets and special lighting can turn the state's frozen lakes into a pop-up town," Hayes says. "Visitors can rent a simple or luxurious icehouse complete with carpeting, TVs, stoves, couches and beds." For first-time fishermen, guides are also available.

• Visit the North Shore. Travelers can experience breath-taking views while hiking in Duluth and the North Shore of Lake Superior. The area offers many activities for kids and adults alike such as downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, dog sledding, snowmobiling and other outdoor activities. Visitors warm up inside with art galleries, museums, restaurants and breweries.

• Venture to the Twin Cities. The area is home to dozens of parks and trails but also offers upscale lodging, dining, award-winning theaters, museums, a vibrant craft beverage scene, sports entertainment and more.

"Whether an outdoor enthusiast, a theater-goer or someone who loves to tax-free shop, the Twin Cities has activities to fit many interests and budgets," Hayes says.

Thanks to the all-new Paisley Park tours, visitors can now celebrate the life of Minneapolis-born Prince by touring his estate and production complex.

To complete the unofficial tour, fans can add pit stops at First Avenue and Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant where he often performed, locations filmed in "Purple Rain" and more.

For travelers looking to go the extra mile, Stillwater — located near the eastern Minnesota border — hosts infamous ice castles, complete with archways, towers, ice-carved tunnels, fountains and slides through March 4.

Though some adventurers might automatically jump to tropical vacations when they're looking to travel, Schmidt, Richter and Hayes ensure them there is fun to be had close to home.

"The world is massive and immense," Richter says, "but don't forget about the lovely spots you live nearby as well."

North Dakota

• Stay in a yurt. It's a weird name, but a yurt is basically a round, dome-like insulated tent made of canvas and wood.

"They're almost like a glorified cabin, but more on the glamping side of things," Schmidt says."The great thing about yurts is they are located in the state park, and it's right next to cross country ski trails."

Cross Ranch State Park, Fort Ransom and Lake Metigoshe State Park all offer yurts for an innovative lodging in the outdoors. Fort Ransom and Cross Ranch State Park both have newly built yurts, some of which are fully furnished and offer amenities such as running water and showers.

• Take a hike. To further encourage activity in the outdoors, state parks offer hikes, including full moon candlelight hikes where participants of all ages can cross-country ski, snowshoe or hike amidst candle luminaries.

Fort Lincoln State Park near Mandan also offers hikes as a part of its "12 months, 12 hikes challenge." Travelers can partake in the Sweetheart Hike on Sunday or the Leprechaun Leap on March 12.

• Visit indoor water parks. For those looking to avoid the cold, perhaps water parks will offer consolation to a tropical oasis. Vacation-goers can can take advantage of Fargo's two indoor water parks (Coconut Cove Waterpark and Shipwreck Bay Water Playland) or travel further away to Splashers of the Seven Seas in Grand Forks, the Ramkota Hotel in Bismarck or Splashdown Waterpark in Minot — to name a few. There are also several water parks in Minnesota and South Dakota that may be of interest as well.

South Dakota

• Seek a new perspective. For some, a new perspective may mean visiting some of the state's landmarks — Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Crazy Horse Memorial and Badlands National Park — under snow. For others, it means it's competing in an unusual event like the outhouse races in Nemo, S.D., where teams get together to build outhouses and race for charity on Feb. 25.

Love birds can also enjoy a twilight helicopter flight out of Renner, S.D., to celebrate Valentine's Day Sunday and Monday. Thanks to Strawbale Winery, couples can enjoy hors d'oeuvres and wine tasting before soaring over Sioux Falls with their sweetheart.

• Celebrate Mardi Gras. The tiny, historic mountain town of Deadwood, S.D., is known for its festivals and events, especially its Mardi Gras celebration on Feb. 24-25.

"It's also the only town in South Dakota that offers legalized gambling, making it a small mini-Vegas of sorts. The city hosts parades, costume contests, parties, and live music," Richter says.