Ice Castles

Heber Valley’s Magical Winter Wonderland

In the early 2000s, Brent Christensen, a Pleasant Grove, Utah resident, was looking for fun things to do with his kids in the winter.

He thought building Igloos would be a cool thing to do. What began as a fun backyard adventure quickly developed into the foundation for today’s Ice Castle masterpieces. As Christensen graduated from his backyard ice rink and ice forts to his current icy creations; his simple drive for exploration, innovation, and seeking joy in the cold winter months has also brought joy and wonder to others.

Neighbors soon discovered Brent’s beautifully frozen sculptures, and word spread. It didn’t take long for neighbors and local news crews to start driving by his home. Motivated by the positive reactions, Christensen began thinking about expanding the Ice Castles and making them a public attraction. After approaching nearly every resort in the area, Midway’s Zermatt Resort was the only one to show interest. Luckily, the small-town charm of Midway turned out to be the perfect choice for the Utah Ice Castles.

Christensen’s hobby rapidly grew into a successful business, and after several seasons the company set its sights on expanding — but where? Midway has unique features that are key to the success of the Ice Castles. Cold weather is critical! But the castles also require easy access to a water source, drainage, parking, and proximity to a central metropolitan area. Eventually, the Ice Castles would find a home in four additional ‘perfectly unique’ locations: New Brighton, Minnesota; North Woodstock, New Hampshire; Lake George, New York; and Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Brent is involved in the planning and design of each location, while a local management crew oversees the daily operations.

Aside from thousands of guests who tour the Ice Castles each year, Christensen’s creations have also been featured in TV shows, music videos, marriage proposals, and a mass Valentine’s Day wedding in Minnesota. The Utah, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and New York locations also offer “VIP Arctic Alcoves” that are available to rent for private functions.

As you might imagine, building an outdoor attraction made of ice can be daunting, especially in the face of climate change and warmer winter temperatures. Regardless of the forecast, the Ice Castles crew aims to be ready with design plans and water lines by the end of October, with a goal to start building by the end of November. It takes four weeks of intensive labor to sculpt the castles, towers, thrones, tunnels, and slides. The process starts with setting up water and electric lines. From there, thousands of “icicles” are created each day, then harvested and sculpted into magical ice castles.

The Utah Ice Castles are run by a core group of five to ten people from the Heber Valley; the remainder of the workforce is supplemented by seasonal workers and those living a nomadic lifestyle. As housing in the Heber Valley becomes more difficult to secure, it’s become a vital part of the compensation package for workers. Subsidized rental housing is provided to a number of seasonal employees who come from out of state for the winter season.

An ideal season runs from early January through March, but the dates are completely up to Mother Nature. A December snowstorm can bring warm weather and set the crew back by a couple of weeks. Last year saw one of the shortest seasons for the Ice Castles, at only three weeks long, while the prior season lasted nearly eight weeks. I asked the founder if it was disappointing to see his work melt away after just a few weeks. His response? “It’s just part of what we do.” Truth be told, that’s what makes tickets so hard to come by, and part of what makes the Utah Ice Castles so special!

PRO TIPS:

  • Getting Tickets: Weekend and holiday tickets sell out quickly. Sign up for the mailing list and you’ll be the first to know when tickets go on sale.
  • Dress for Cold Weather.
  • Warm Boots
  • Hat
  • Mittens or Gloves
  • Hand or Foot Warmers

Photographed by Melissa Smuzynski