The Great Northern festival to showcase Twin Cities as winter wonderland

The seasonal celebration will bring together the area’s existing winter traditions.

“This is one more really giant step forward to let people know what a fabulous place this is in the wintertime," said Gov. Mark Dayton at a Dec. 1 press conference. Photo by Eric Best

What happens when you let the City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival, the St. Paul Winter Carnival and the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships snowball into one winter celebration? The Great Northern, according to organizer Eric Dayton.

The new festival, led by the Askov Finlayson and Bachelor Farmer founder, will bring together the three foundational organizations, along with Northern Spark and celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern and his Food Works Inc., next month to further brand the state as a national winter destination and the season as a “defining asset” for attracting tourism.

“We are Minnesotans and this is the North. Winter is not a season we should hide from or apologize for,” Dayton said in a statement. “The Great Northern is a festival co-created by the leaders of our premier winter events and brought to life by Target, one of our most beloved hometown companies. Together we aim to bring a new, annual tradition to Minnesota that promotes year-round outdoor activity and provides fun and inclusive programming for locals and visitors of all ages. Winter is a defining element of our state, and it’s time we reposition it from a liability to one of our greatest assets.”

The Great Northern, named as a nod to the Great Northern Railway that connected Minneapolis and St. Paul, will run Jan. 27 through Feb. 5 with events and programming around the Twin Cities. Dayton compared the festival to the similarly collaborative South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

“The historic Great Northern Railway transported visitors from around the country to our state, so it is only appropriate that we share in its name as we work to attract visitors nationwide to the festival in years to come,” he said.

The Winter Carnival, which will run Jan. 26 to Feb. 5, will bookend the 10-day celebration. Thousands of hockey players will take to Lake Nokomis Jan. 26-29 for the Pond Hockey Championships during the Great Northern. And the Loppet is expected to draw more than 10,000 skiers, fat bikers and other participants, in addition to tens of thousands of spectators, to Minneapolis Feb. 3-5. Organizers have yet to formally announce additional events or food programming.

The festival, which is sponsored by Target, is anticipated to draw more than 350,000 attendees in its inaugural year, though that includes the guests of the existing foundational events.

R.T. Rybak, the CEO and the president of the Minneapolis Foundation, announced at a Dec. 1 press conference that the organization will support a temporary art display on the south end of Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis.


In addition to Dayton and Zimmern, the Great Northern’s leadership team includes Rosanne Bump, president and CEO of the Winter Carnival; Steve Dietz, founder and president of Northern Spark; Carson Kipfer, co-commissioner of the Pond Hockey Championships and John Munger, executive director of The Loppet Foundation.

Organizers say a wide range of programming could be added in future years. In 2018, the festival dates will align with the Super Bowl coming to U.S. Bank Stadium.

“This is one more really giant step forward to let people know what a fabulous place this is in the wintertime. And, of course, when it leads [into 2018] with the Super Bowl… it’s going to be a phenomenal boost to the amenities we’re providing and a reason for all those people to come back to Minnesota after the game is over,” said Gov. Mark Dayton.

Mayor Betsy Hodges said the festival is an opportunity to showcase a “great urban winter experience.”

“In Minneapolis, we don’t apologize for winter — we embrace it,” she said. “The Great Northern is a bold step forward in showcasing the great events and endless possibilities that both Minneapolis and Saint Paul have to offer our residents and visitors in winter, and a great way to define ourselves to the world as vibrant, year-round cities where we let nothing hold us back.”

For more information on the festival, visit