If you’re looking for some winter fun in Michigan and you’re willing to make the trip, the annual winter carnival at Michigan Technological University in Houghton could be just the special event you’re looking for.
There’s no doubt that Houghton can be a hike, especially if you live downstate, but the payoff is well worth it. However, it always offers something fun for all ages and is characterized by dozens of crafted snow statues, sleigh rides, broomball, and comedy skits, to name a few fun activities.
The 2023 Michigan Tech Winter Carnival is February 8–11, 2023.
The History of the Michigan Tech Winter Carnival
The MTU Winter Carnival was started in 1922 by the Blue Key National Honor Society. Since then, it has steadily grown to become one of the nation’s largest annual winter festivals.
It’s an annual winter celebration of the snowfall that Michigan’s Upper Peninsula receives each year. The U.S. average is 27.8 inches, but the Upper Peninsula can receive anywhere from 40-200 inches, depending on where you’re at.
In over 100 years, the carnival has seen its fair share of notable events and additions:
- The first carnival in 1922 was a one-night-only affair and saw students dress up like animals for a circus theme.
- In 1928, the Carnival Queens competition started, and women were judged on skiing, ice skating, and beauty.
- The Blue Key National Honor Society officially began organizing the carnival in 1934.
- The snow statue building, for which the carnival is famous, started in 1936 by Michigan Tech students and school children.
- In 1940, a lack of snow delayed the winter carnival to February, which became a permanent change.
- A traditional dance called the Sno-Ball began in 1959, and a flare pageant known as The Torchlight Parade was added to the festivities on campus in 1962.
In a few instances, the Michigan Tech Winter Carnival hasn’t taken place. It was canceled because of the stock market crash in 1929 and postponed by World War II in 1944.
This annual winter festival in Michigan celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2022.
About the Carnival’s Famous Snow Sculptures
The monumental snow sculptures are one of the biggest annual attractions of the Michigan Tech Winter Carnival. The Blue Key Honor Society chooses a theme each year, and students compete at the university to build the best statue.
Intricate Snow Statue Themes
Each year, the snow statues have a different theme assigned.
One recent theme (2021) was “Our Favorite Cartoons for Snowy Afternoons,” which featured sculptures of SpongeBob SquarePants, Rick and Morty, Scooby Doo, and Snoopy and Schroeder from the Peanuts cartoons.
The theme of 2020 was “Discover What Shines From Prehistoric Times” and featured sculptures of dinosaurs and woolly mammoths.
The 2019 theme, “Years of Innovation STEM From This Snowy Situation,” saw students sculpt castles, planes, and giant LEGOs.
Snow Sculpture Divisions
One of the coolest parts of the snow sculpture competition is that it’s broken into two divisions: the month-long competition and the all-nighter.
The month-long competition usually involves more-detailed, colossal snow statues because students have more time to work on them. It’s not uncommon for MTU’s sororities and fraternities to compete in the month-long competition along with various student organizations and residence halls.
The all-nighter statues are built during the first night of the carnival, a Wednesday. Each participating MTU student must have his/her statue finished by 8 a.m. Thursday, so the sculptors have roughly 16 hours to complete their masterpieces.
The rules for the competition include that the statues around campus must be structurally sound, self-supporting, and pristine white.
Outdoor Games & Events at the Winter Carnival
One of the best things about the Michigan Tech Winter Carnival is that organizers have never been afraid to add to the fun. If you plan on attending the carnival, in addition to the mammoth snow sculptures, you’ll have your pick of events to watch or participate in.
If you consider yourself the sporty type, the carnival will have team competitions in curling, downhill skiing, downhill snowboarding, and cross-country skiing.
If you’re looking to branch out with activities, the carnival has you covered. If you’re a Tech student, you can try IRHC broomball, which is very much like hockey but played with brooms. It’s a popular pastime among the students.
You can also try snow soccer, which is regular soccer played in the snow. If you’re a bowler, head to MacInnes Student Ice Arena for human ice bowling, where team members act as the ball to knock down pins.
The fun doesn’t stop there, though. The carnival will also have human sled dog races, where six people pull a sled that holds four people and a musher in this unique and fun 100-yard snow dash.
Try your hand at Tug of War or snow volleyball, which is played in the snow and uses regular rally scoring. If you love ice skating, the carnival has an ice skating competition that features several events: a four-person relay, one-lap races, and two-lap races.
The Stage Revue
Not to be outdone, the Michigan Tech Winter Carnival features more than sports and sculptures. If you love live-action performances, catch the stage revue. This tradition has been going strong since 1946 as competitors vie for the Winter Carnival trophy.
You’ll revel in laughter as competitors are judged in a number of categories, including acting quality, originality, and theme.
Winter Carnival Queen
One of the oldest traditions is crowning the Winter Carnival Queen, which began in 1928. The competition for queen starts in December and is whittled down to eight finalists by the time of the carnival.
The competitors are judged on excellence in academics, involvement around campus, an interview, and talents, such as singing. The new queen becomes a major part of the carnival — judging snow sculptures, being in the town parade, and making appearances at other carnival events.
Aside from the competitive sporting events going on around campus, you can also stop into MacInnes Student Ice Arena to watch the hometown Michigan Tech Huskies play Bemidji State for a two-game series.
Where to Stay Around Houghton Michigan
Now that you’ve read about all the fun Michigan Tech Winter Carnival activities, you’re probably wondering just where the heck you’re going to sleep. Your best bet is to stay somewhere close to the MTU campus, and thankfully, Houghton has you covered.
You can stay warm at one of several hotel chains that offer all the amenities you’ll need, from a hot breakfast to Wi-Fi to an indoor pool to a comfy bed. Within a stone’s throw of campus, you’ll find Hampton Inn and Suites, Quality Inn and Suites, Super 8 Motel, Country Inn and Suites, and Holiday Inn Express.
Other Fun Activities to Do Around Houghton & the Keweenaw Peninsula
There’s no doubt that the Michigan Tech Winter Carnival offers all sorts of fun, but if you’re looking for other things to do in the area, Houghton is the place to be in the wintertime. In fact, you can discover a wide variety of Upper Peninsula winter things to do.
Since you’re right on the water, take some time to check out Lake Superior in the wintertime. It’s beautiful in the summer but something else entirely during the colder months.
If you have cross-country skis or winter boots, you can trek right down to the waterfront. You might see ice floes floating in the water or ice buildup that looks just like frozen waves. Just use caution while you’re close to the water.
Nara Nature Park
If you consider yourself a kid at heart, no matter your age, you can’t go wrong with finding a good hill for sledding. There are dozens of places to go tobogganing in Michigan, but you don’t have to go far when you’re already in Houghton.
Just head south to Nara Nature Park, where you’ll find a steep sledding hill. If you’re looking for a hill more suitable for young kids, head to Finlandia University in Hancock, where you’ll find a short double-bump hill.
If you love nature, there’s nothing quite like seeing the Northern Lights in Michigan, especially on the Keweenaw Peninsula. Admittedly, this requires a bit of luck to see, but you can also download apps that give you an aurora forecast.
When the time comes, head north to the tip of the hat at Eagle Harbor. The breathtaking view will be more than worth the trip.
If you love snow, you’ll find plenty of it around Houghton, which lends itself perfectly to cross-country skiing. It’s one of the most accessible sports in Houghton, and there’s plenty to explore around the Michigan Tech trails, which you can do for just a $10-day pass.
There are plenty more cross-country ski trails in the Upper Peninsula too.
More Fun at Michigan Winter Festivals
Whether you’ve been a dozen times or never been before, the annual Michigan Tech Winter Carnival in Houghton is definitely worth checking out. You may also be interested in the many other annual winter festivals in Michigan. So layer up, and prepare to have fun!