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Looking for a winter sauna getaway? Here are five Upper Midwest US resorts that offer a “bold north” authentic sauna escape

light steam graphic

As winter chill settles in upon us and with Christmas and New Year holidays just around the corner, many are considering alternative gift giving with more thought than just one click on Amazon and with less misery than navigating down the packed hallways at the Mall of America shopping center.

Many us, millennials and otherwise, are attracted to the gift of an experience, more than things.  A gift of being able to create a warm memory, of checking out from our busy lives, while recharging, resetting, rejuvenating, surrounded by Nature.

What better way of sharing our warm love, then by giving the gift of a couple nights stay at a soulful resort with an authentic sauna, ever present everywhere?

Before we commit to next year’s Christmas gift of owning our own backyard sauna, maybe this year we can get away to immerse ourselves in the heat and steam and cold plunge of a Sauna Escape at one of these Bold North sauna retreats:

1. Maplelag Resort, Callaway, MN:

“My first sauna was on a canoe trip to  the Boundary Waters in 1956 and have enjoyed them ever since” says Jim Richards, founder and proprietor of this family run year round resort just over an hour East of Fargo, ND and 3.5 hrs Northwest of Minneapolis/St. Paul.  Maplelag shines bright as a winter escape because it is a Nordic ski resort with a traditional wood fired sauna perched right next to the lake (and in winter, with hole in the ice).  Additionally and conveniently, there is also a modern electric sauna in the lodge close to the locker rooms.
Maplelag and Nordic architecture go way back.  In the mid 1960s, Jim Richards moved three traditional log buildings to Maplelag.   They are now used as rental cabins.  One of the smaller log buildings was a traditional savu sauna and the other just a traditional log sauna.  Either way, staying in these cabins have you feeling warm by default: you are in a sauna vibe.
Founder Jim Richards also moved two Norwegian log buildings here, not saunas but just log structures.

The lakeside sauna has a wood fired stove and is fed from the changing room, and there you can gaze out the window connected to the wood shed and it works great.

When Maplelag has camp in the summer, Chinese Language Camp, they do not use the sauna.    Shoulder seasons, maybe some, but the key time is the Winter.  Resort staff is diligent about keeping the hole in the ice open.

Maplelag is a quintessential Bold North experience.  It’s hard to put into words how wonderful it feels to take Winter head on in such a beautiful setting.  You have Nordic cross country skiing through the heavily tranquil wooded trails, then returning to a leisurely, I-don’t-care-where-my-phone-is sauna session, capped off by Avanto lake plunges between rounds.  You will be transformed by the therapeutic simplicity of Nature as well as the therapeutic complexity of neurogenesis and other benefits of extreme temperatures you can read about when you get home.

Maplelag staff always light the stove on ski weekends and Jay and staff keep adding wood, cut and split by Jim’s grandson’s during the summer months, one who would religiously take a sauna every night before high school hockey games, roasting in the steamy wood fired heat and then soaking or icing his legs in the lake for 3-4 minutes.

Whatever the hot room temp., you will be encouraged to add wood as needed.  At 30 below Fahrenheit it does take a while to heat up.  But it is super insulated and the heat is great.

Apres ski Avanto at Maplelag

Standing outside the sauna building, as steam billows off your body you will most likely become a total convert to this authentic sauna experience.  At this time, you may run into a smiling Jim Richards who will tell you that sauna has always been a key component of their operation, and the most popular.  Sauna in Nature is bigger than all of us, and you will feel it at Maplelag Resort.

Maplelag sauna interior
Website: Phone: (218) 275-4466.

2. Palmquist Farm, Brantwood WI:

Located in the heart of Northern Wisconsin, about an hour North of Wausau, and a good 3 hours from Minneapolis/St. Paul, Palmquist Farms is a small family resort with a focus on family, and an antithesis to the corporate.  As you approach the resort, you may feel like you’re escaping in a witness relocation type way.  Getting away from your day job, if you don’t know it by now, you’ll know it when you arrive and turn off the car engine.  No cover sheets or TPS reports here.  Work and all that is far gone in the rear view mirror.

Palmquist Farm has two saunas: a big one for all the guests and a private one that you can rent. This is an all-inclusive resort where your stay includes lodging, home-cooked meals, cross country skiing, snow showing, skating, sledding, and horse drawn sleigh rides.

Palmquist Farms is your chance to deprogram yourself from work and immerse yourself in the tranquility and beauty of Winter nature.  Let’s unpack, settle in, and get a good ski in.  Wow.  Then, it’s a stop on over to the sauna building.  You can’t miss it.  It sits amongst billowing Pines, warmly welcoming you inside.  You can stand up your skis or snow shoes next to the entrance

Palmquist private sauna building awaits winter guests

As you step inside, you immediately understand the sauna interior,  It is thoroughly old school, tastefully designed, and best of all very traditional.  Any Finlander would feel at home inside the Palmquist sauna.  As we shed our clothes in the changing room, we can hear the ticking away of the sauna stove, and may be encouraged to toss a log in, to keep these home fires burning.

Palmquist private sauna interior as viewed from changing room

The hot room has generous space and is designed in true classic Finnish style: plenty of seating for relaxing and the comings and goings of multiple sauna sessions with multiple sauna guests.  Sitting on the bench, stretching out after a ski or snowshoe, we have truly transported ourselves from where we have come.  Sauna.  It’s simplicity of elements we may notice.  Fire, water, air, and earthly hard granite sauna rocks that hiss back at us as we toss some water on.  Ahhhhhh.  Appreciating sauna is not a complex experience.  Maybe you will enjoy the silence.  Maybe you will enjoy quiet the company and conversation with your partner.  Maybe you will be getting caught up with your friends you’ve met up with at the resort.  Whatever the scenario, this hot room feels right.  Time for dunking cold water over our head?  Time for a roll in the snow?  Whatever time it is.  It’s your time.

Palmquist private sauna hot room

Website:  Phone: (715) 564-2558

3.  Larsmont Cottages, Two Harbors, Minnesota

Anyone looking for an authentic sauna in a true “Up North” setting should consider visiting Larsmont Cottages. You can drive the four lane 2 hour 45 minute road trip from Minneapolis/St. Paul, or for those sauna enthusiasts coming from more far afield, why not book a passage on a painless up and down flight from Chicago O’hare to Duluth?  There are three flights a day via United Airlines.  Once you get on the plane in O’hare, I promise you it will all get better very fast.

Once you take off, all the Chicago BS is behind you.  Even the O’hare/Duluth flight attendants are fun and interesting.  “Extra peanuts?  Sure.  Yea, you’ll love it up there.  My brother runs a canoe outfitter up the coast from where you’re going.  It’s beautiful!.”  Thank you, Lord!  There is humanity in this World!  Duluth airport, by the way, is a breeze to get in and out of.  You can’t miss your gate because there are only, I think, four of them.  “Great chatting with you.  We’ll be arriving at Gate 3.”

Stepping out from the airport, you look left, and you look right, and you may see three cars idling.  Oh, there’s our ride!  And don’t be shocked, the driver may very well call you out by first name.  We are up North now.  Trees outnumber people.  You are special and easily recognized.  You want quiet in the vehicle?  Fine.  If you want a little small talk and some tunes?  Great.  I recommend asking your driver to cue up any of these three locally inspired, locally curated albums as a soundtrack for your shoreline drive down Ole’ Scenic Highway 61, right along the North Shore of Lake Superior:

  1. Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited (1965).  Especially if it is your first visit on Highway 61.
  2. Low, The Great Destroyer (2005).  218 area code and the music feels like it.
  3. Dead Man Winter, Furnace (2017).  Dave Simonett loves sauna and loves the North Shore.  The album cover painting is surely a North Shore scene.  Later, on the sauna bench, you may find yourself humming the track “This House is on Fire.”

The shuttle journey will take you right past Bob Dylan’s birth city, on “ole Highway 61” which runs alongside the stunningly rugged Lake Superior North Shoreline. The thirty minute drive will feel like no time, less than the time it will take to stream your album of choice.  You’ll crack open the windows, looking at the beautiful lake and breathing in the fresh air.  Here is arguably the most intense up North setting you can find: rocky shores of Lake Superior, the second largest fresh water lake in the world, beat up and fighting back 20′ waves from Nord’Easter storms, when the “Gales of November come crashin.'”

Congratulations are already in order: you have escaped and now find yourself in the heart of rugged Bold North nature. Can you hear the sauna stove crackling yet?

As you look out over Lake Superior, you can sense how the lake offers the sauna enthusiast a completely different intensity of cold plunge.  Turning into Larsmont campus, checked in and fully exhaled, it may be time for a walk around the property.  Paths lead guests along the Superior shoreline.  Wait, what’s this building? It’s the sauna!  Yes!  A great thing about the Larsmont Cottages wood burning sauna is that, like a small Scandinavian village, the sauna sits just off a walkway alongside the main courtyard.  Here at Larsmont, it’s best to leave your clothes, cell phone, and boots back at your cottage.  At your cottage, you can change into your Troxers, slip on a bathrobe, or just wrap yourself in a towel.  Bring a jug of water and head on down to the sauna building.

Larsmont cottages sauna, along Lake Superior.  The bar/restaurant is just behind the photographer a couple dozen yards or so.

Once entering the sauna building, you can hang up your towel and take a big swig of ice cold water.  The recently remodeled sauna at Larsmont Cottages features a wood burning sauna that is fed from the changing room, casting a glow off the cedar paneled walls.  Feel even better yet?  You may not want to leave this space for a bit.  Though the hot room awaits, the vibe in the changing cool down room is mighty pleasant:

Larsmont Cottages recently remodeled sauna changing room

From here, it’s a quick step into the hot room, where we may be greeted by fellow Larsmont Cottages guests or, more likely, you will step into a tranquil, up North solo sauna oasis.  As you settle onto the upper bench, if there’s a wind off the big lake, you will hear Lake Superior’s waves hitting against the hard granite bedrock just behind you.  Feel even “more” better yet?  I hear another big exhale.  Well done.  Close your eyes.  It’s ok, you’ve made it!

After a few minutes, it’s time to toss some water on the rocks and let the sweat begin to flow.  The sound of the waves may start talking to you. Did i just hear “I dare you to jump into this 38 degrees F. fresh water inland ocean,  I dare you?”  Quiet now! It’s time for another toss of Lake Superior fresh cold water onto these sauna rocks.  Fssssssssssssss.  Ahhhhhhhh.

Larsmont Cottages sauna hot room

Chances are, after ten minutes or so in the hot room, you will exit the sauna and be drawn over to the shoreline and at least dip your toes into the beautiful crystal clear water just behind the sauna building.  And with each sauna round, you may dip yourself in deeper.  This is authentic sauna at its best.  As Wim Hof says, “hard nature.”

Larsmont Cottages offers the amenities to you extra soft and the nature to you extra hard.

If you venture into the lake, you will be met with a core reaching cold that bites back against your heated body.  After a sauna round, and a plunge into Lake Superior, you will resurface completely restored and reset.  Don’t be surprised if you ask yourself or anyone in earshot: “What did I just do?” because what you just did makes total sense.  You are NOT crazy.

Ready for a libation?  Sure! how about a local Castle Danger or Bent Paddle craft beer from the bar/restaurant just a few dozen yards from the sauna building.  Does this beer taste this good because all my taste buds (like everything else) is wide awake?  Or does this beer taste this good because it is made from super fresh clean water from the North Shore?  Doesn’t matter!  You take another sip, and thank yourself for choosing a sauna retreat vacation.

Time for another round?  For sure.

It’s hard to believe that you can be so intensely immersed in the “Bold North” within such a short time after leaving the busy world behind you.

Website:  Phone: (866) 687-5634

4.  Fortune Bay Resort and Casino, Tower, Minnesota

It’s about a 3.5 hour drive from Minneapolis/St. Paul, to this full amenity resort and casino.   Even though it’s four lane highway for the first three hours of the trip, we want to get North of the metro before or after rush hour.  Two hours to Cloquet, MN, then one more through Virginia, MN where a couple miles past we spot the small road indicator: “Hwy. 169 Tower/Ely.”  At this point, there may as well be a second sign: “exhale now” because this is what most folks will do, instinctively. after we make the turn.  We have now very much reached Bold North country.

We are now on Hwy. 169, a two lane road cut tightly into poplar, birch and pines.  We are feeling the woodsy remoteness, yet farther along, we will most certainly notice the large “Fortune Bay Resort” sign.  Should we disobey the instruction to turn left, but continue straight, we could head into Tower and visit the generations old Lamppa Manufacturing building.  We have two different Kuuma stoves ticking away, awaiting our arrival to Fortune Bay Resort and Casino.

Fortune Bay lobby: Electric sauna down the hall to the right. Wood fired sauna, outdoors and follow the path to the lake.

Yes, there’s the electric Kuuma adjacent to the indoor pool, but what makes Fortune Bay an authentic sauna destination is a step inside their new mobile wood burning sauna.

The new mobile sauna is ready to be deployed for your visit.  We’d encourage rounding up a group visit so that you can reserve the mobile sauna for your entire party.

Fortune Bay Mobile Sauna

In Winter, Fortune Bay has a lot for you to do outdoors.  Want to ice fish?  You can rent one of their ice fishing houses strategically parked for you in a good spot out on the Lake Vermilion ice.  Want to cross country ski?  Ask at the front desk for a trail map, or just head down the the lake and start cruising out onto the ice on Everett Bay.

The mobile sauna interior is spacious and light.  Transom windows bring in the Lake Vermilion nature.

Fortune Bay mobile sauna interior

Tower, MN set the Minnesota record for coldest temperature on February 2, 1996, when the temperature dropped to -60 °F (-51 °C). This was the lowest temperature ever recorded in the United States east of the Great Plains.  On this day, I put money on it that Daryl Lamppa, 3rd generation sauna builder, was at his shop testing out the performance of his legendary sauna stove 5 miles away from where the Fortune Bay mobile sauna sits idling for your arrival.  Listen to my interview with Daryl Lamppa here.

Mobile sauna with lots of thermal mass: 400 pounds of stove and rocks, plus a solid stone backsplash

For the sauna enthusiast who is looking for creature comforts like hotel style lodging, a warm pool, a supplemental indoor sauna, three restaurants from which to choose, oh, and of course all the “ding ding” of casino life, Fortune Bay is your place.

Website:  Phone (800) 992-PLAY

5. Camp Du Nord, Ely, MN

Northeast Minnesota is sauna country.  Finlanders emigrated to this part of the country en masse, bringing with them their log building handiwork and signature block and saddle notch cornering.  As you park and unpack at Camp Du Nord, you will see this handiwork.  The Camp du Nord sauna was built as a bunkhouse in 1933 by Finnish carpenters, who later converted it into a sauna.  This was the first building constructed at du Nord.  The sauna building is easy to find on the grounds as it is set along the crystal clear shores of Burnside Lake.

After unpacking, you can head down to the sauna and check on the sauna stove.  Then maybe there’s enough time to go for a walk out onto the lake.  If it’s not too windy, you will be treated to incredible solitude.  This is Nature.  We have escaped our busy lives.  The silence is deafening.  Squish squish of our boots against the snow is loud, becoming our transcendental meditation mantra while we breathe in the fresh clean air with each step. While doing this, I dare you to try to think about anything but the moment because you will be mesmerized by the beauty and simplicity of this moment.

Wherever you go, there you are.”  And in this moment you are walking on the middle of a gorgeous lake in Northeast Minnesota, feeling like a kid in anticipation of an intensely wonderful sauna session.  The Du Nord sauna building is your beacon, sitting boldly along the shoreline, always in range of your lakeside hike.  Should we head back now?

Camp Du Nord sauna building

You can shed your hiking clothes in your cabin or in the sauna building.  Once inside the hot room, as the heat radiates into your body, you will also feel the energy and history of this log sauna, having been enjoyed by so many people for so many years.  Log saunas take longer to heat up, but the Large Kuuma stove wins out, providing a dense rich heat throughout this big hot room.  The sauna is fired up for campers to use all throughout the winter.

Camp Du Nord sauna interior with well softened benches and well seasoned large Kuuma stove.

When it comes to enjoying cold plunges or Avanto, maybe it’s best not to start comparing different lakes.  After all, cold clear water is all we need and most lakes have plenty of this.  Some say Lake Superior is the #1 sauna lake in the US, but if we are looking at lake clarity and chilly briskness as criteria, Burnside Lake is right up there with Superior.  And Burnside has the quintessential shoreline.  Tall white birch and pine, granite rocky outcroppings.

Back on the sauna bench, you are reminded that you are only steps away from the shoreline, and a few steps out to the hole in the ice.  You won’t get this fact out of your head.  It’s like being at an amusement park knowing that you are always in the shadows of the big rollercoaster.  You can try avoiding it, but you’ll always be thinking about it and talking about it.  Eventually you’re going to take this ride, and I am pretty sure, like with the rollercoaster, once you’ve done it you will be completely exhilarated.

Camp Du Nord Avanto

You take dip in the lake through the hole in the ice, you get the honor of being able to purchase an Avantouinti (ice hole swimming) t-shirt or sticker from the camp store.

Website: Reservations: 651-645-6605.

As we look at all the different winter travel experiences from which to choose, the conventional direction is to go South.  Yet we sauna enthusiasts have discovered a secret.  By embracing the “Bold North” we have rewired the conditional response of dark, cold, ice, and snow as being something “ewww” and turned it around into something “ahhhhhh.”  Thanks to the brick of sauna and the mortar of snowshoeing, skating, skiing, or a simple winter walk in the woods, we have built a foundation of “inner fire.”

Thanks to these five winter retreats,

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