Wisconsin's Warmest Winter

Late-February temperatures in the high 50s spell trouble for snow tourism in Wisconsin’s Northwoods

By Lydia Larsen

February 29, 2024

Schlecht Lake Ski Trail

Schlecht Lake Ski Trail. | Photo courtesy of Minocqua Visitors Bureau

In the winter of 2022-23, the Minocqua Winter Park was bustling. The cross-country ski park in Wisconsin’s Northwoods had reaped the benefits of record snow, and staff worked seven days a week to groom its 53 miles of trails and clear the ice-skating pond for the 16,000 visitors who arrived during the winter season. 

“It was just a winter wonderland last year,” said Adriane Morabito, the park's executive director. “A lot of people came up to enjoy that.”

In December 2023, Minocqua Winter Park was voted number one in USA Today’s best cross-country ski resort contest. But there was no snow that month: Temperatures soared above average, reaching almost 50°F on Christmas Day. In January, park employees managed to open trails with a meager four inches of snow on the ground. In February, Morabito put out the summer disc golf baskets. 

Minocqua Winter Park offers activities for all four seasons, but like many other businesses in the Northwoods, it mostly relies on snow tourism to get through the winter months, and snow has been seriously lacking this year. Morabito said the park enjoyed some revenue from memberships and passes this winter, but now the nonprofit is shifting to fundraising. Meanwhile, partnerships with local businesses are helping to keep the park afloat. 

This year’s warm winter was courtesy of an El Niño, and residents and business owners knew to expect a milder than usual season. But climate change means that snow-dependent recreational activities face a dubious future as the region experiences new extremes. They’re some of the most susceptible to the near-term impacts of climate change, according to the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Working Group. Models show that during the winter months, more precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow. And as warmer weather begins to last longer, the window for outdoor winter recreation will narrow. 

“Winter is where we are going to see the biggest impacts the soonest,” said Natalie Chin, a climate and tourism outreach specialist for Wisconsin Sea Grant. “The warming weather doesn't mean winter is going to go away right away, and probably never completely. But the way that we are interacting with winter and experiencing winter could look a lot different depending on the year.” 

Business owners, community leaders, and even the governor have called on the snowmobilers, skiers, and ice fishers to make the trip north this winter even in the face of poor snow conditions. But Krystal Westfahl, president and CEO of the Let’s Minocqua Visitors Bureau, said there is only so much they can do. 

“They always say ‘Make hay while the sun shines,’ and our businesses definitely do in the summer,” Westfahl said. “But it's too long of a gap if we don't have a winter.” Westfahl estimates that hotel bookings are 40 to 60 percent lower than last year. 

In late 2023, the region’s snowmobile clubs postponed opening their 1,600 miles of trails until the weather cooled, according to Chad Bierbrauer, owner of Adventure North Snowmobile Tours and Rentals. “We were just like, 'Well let’s get through this little warm-up and then we’ll get snow, and bang, we’ll be off to the races,'” Bierbrauer said. 

But when the cooldown hit, the only substantial snow that hit the state fell farther south. The trails in Bierbrauer’s county never opened, and while he brought his business to a snowier county farther north for a weekend, the next warm-up soon hit. Bier then took the business into what he calls damage control mode, moving reservations often made months in advance to later dates, but later having to cancel them altogether. He laid off his employees until May. The summer reservation system that normally opens on April 1 turned on in early February. 

While Bierbrauer is looking at this year as a learning experience, he isn’t quite sure how he’ll adjust his business plan for exceptionally warm winters going forward. He might offer vouchers to customers for another year, he said. He’s also watching as other businesses start offering UTVs, a larger type of four-wheeler, which don’t require snow to operate, although Westfahl said the sheer amount of water in the Minocqua area limits trail development. 

Westfahl and other Northwoods leaders are looking to find other ways to encourage winter tourism. As a member of the Wisconsin governor’s task force on climate change, Westfahl wants to help leaders examine new possibilities. But for now, the options are scant. While the area’s many lakes and rivers are a boon for outdoor tourism in the summer, the landlocked nature of the area limits developments like convention centers that could draw visitors during a lackluster winter. 

Snowmobiling is the region’s largest draw in the winter, but skiing and ice fishing bring in a fair share of the tourists as well. Lakes iced over late this winter, and while the fishing has been decent, there were some safety concerns: No vehicles are allowed out on the ice, and people are advised to check with local guides and take safety precautions before heading out. 

It’s not just the recreation-based businesses that are affected; the lack of snow trickles down to other industries as well. Last winter, when Kevin Mantz was first running Lakewood Market, a combination grocery store, gas station, and convenience store, revenue was what he expected. He had a pretty steady stream of snowmobilers rumbling through the parking lot, stocking up on gas and snacks. 

“Now, it’s just the opposite,” Mantz said. “It’s just perfectly quiet. We haven’t heard the snowmobilers zip by because the trails never opened, which according to some of my older customers, hasn’t happened in anywhere from 40 to 90 years.”

While locals still shop at the grocery store, business in the market is down by about a quarter, and the sales of gas used in snowmobiles are down by 95 percent. (When he first saw the numbers, Mantz said, he thought they were wrong.) Now he’s ordering the minimum amount of merchandise that his suppliers will allow, and the staff are working fewer hours. 

By the end of January, it became apparent that even a Hail Mary snowfall wouldn’t make up for the season’s lost revenue. A rough estimate by local visitors' bureaus and tourism councils found that area businesses lost about $6.5 million in revenue over the course of the winter. Westfahl and other local tourism bureaus and chambers of commerce requested help from the state. 

Westfahl hopes that state and local leaders can help come up with solutions. “Are there creative solutions that we should be looking at?” she asked. “How can we, as tourism professionals, help out businesses that are now looking at a very daunting next three months?” 

In late February, Governor Tony Evers and Senator Tammy Baldwin announced that small businesses may be eligible for disaster relief coverage through the US Small Business Administration. 

In the meantime, Northwoods businesses help each other out where they can. When Bierbrauer needs to cancel a snowmobile reservation, he encourages his customers to still make the trip up north. He estimates that about half still come. 

Even so, when Mantz drives to work every morning, he passes a local motel that was full of winter tourists last year. So far in 2024, the parking lot has stayed largely empty.