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The Dillon Ice Castles: A Stunning Artistic Exploration Your Family Will Never Forget

by Kerstin12/16/2019 12:51 PM
Updated: 12/16/2019

At just over 9,000 feet above sea level, you’d think the little hamlet of Dillon, Colorado, might shut down during the winter. But this hardy mountain town thrives when the snow starts to fly. Thanks to its convenient location near Interstate 70, it’s easy to reach, even when roads elsewhere in the state are blanketed in snow. It’s the perfect base camp for ski areas like Breckenridge, Keystone, and Arapahoe Basin, and there’s something alluring about the view of the Dillon Reservoir and the surrounding snow-covered peaks. One of the highlights of the winter season in Dillon, though, is the Dillon Ice Castles, which transform the town into a real-life winter wonderland.

The Ice Castles

The Ice Castles attraction is special in that no two seasons or locations are exactly alike, due to changes in the ice, temperature, and artists’ whims. The castles’ mission, according to its founder, is simply to make people smile. That’s no problem, considering that each display weighs more than 20 million pounds with 12,000 new icicles grown to add to the castles every day. Six North American cities host Ice Castles events—Dillon will enter its third year of hosting the Ice Castles during the 2019–20 winter season.

The sculptures make visitors feel as if they’ve been transported to a Scandinavian winter palace. Professional ice artists hand-place thousands of icicles around the grounds. The sculptures, including frozen halls of ice, fountains, and icy furniture are then lit up with LED lights for a truly immersive experience, complete with slides and tunnels.

How It Works

Building a castle made entirely of ice is an art form. Ice Castles founder Brent Christensen came up with the idea at his home in Alpine, Utah, when he attempted to build an ice cave for his kids to play in. Soon, his neighbors began to show up to tour his cave, and before long, there were crowds. Now, the Ice Castles are an international sensation.

The process of building a castle is similar to what Christensen once did in his yard—but on a much, much bigger scale. It takes thousands of person-hours to create an ice castle, beginning with growing more than 10,000 icicles per day. Then a team of 20 to 40 artists harvest the icicles and meticulously place them in just the right spot on the existing formation. Once the icicles are in place, they’re drenched in water, which freezes to cement them into the sculpture. During the process, artists freeze LED lights into the ice. Later, they’ll twinkle along with music as visitors tour the castle, adding to the magical atmosphere.

Of course, once the humans have done their job, Mother Nature takes over. Changing temperatures and wind conditions conspire to sculpt each castle a little differently. The process takes about two months, and when it’s all said and done, a typical structure is about an acre in size.

All this construction, of course, takes a ton of water, something that might worry residents in drought-prone Colorado. Not to worry—all Ice Castles are built right next to a natural water source. When temperatures start to warm up, the Ice Castle goes right back to its source, where it can be used again.

Experience the Castles

The Dillon Ice Castles are, of course, weather-dependent. In a typical year, castles are complete and ready for the public to tour in late December or early January, depending on how cold it has been. Most of the time, the castles remain safe and in good shape through early March.

The castle experience is entirely outside, and it’s necessarily very cold—that’s Dillon in the winter, after all. The surface you’ll be walking on is crushed ice and snow, so you’ll want warm winter boots (not dress shoes or other shoes with flat soles, which can be super slippery). Ice cleats are allowed, but most people don’t find that they need them. If you’re planning to play around on the slides, consider wearing snow pants, which will keep your legs warm as you careen through the castle’s many passageways.

One of the most important things you’ll want to bring with you is a camera. Though it’s nearly impossible to capture the majesty of the ice castle, the LED lights make for gorgeous photos.

As you might expect, the ice is impossible to clean, which is why there are a few prohibited items at the Dillon Ice Castle. No outside food or beverages are allowed, and dogs will need to stay at home unless they’re service animals.

Once you’ve experienced the Ice Castles in all their glory, you’ve got plenty of other ways to enjoy your time in Dillon. The town is filled with winter activities to pair with viewing the ice Castle. You can enjoy ice skating, sleigh rides, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing on area trails. Go ice fishing on the reservoir, or enjoy a stroll around downtown Dillon. If you need some time inside, lace up your shoes at the Elevation Bowling Alley or see a show at the Lake Dillon Theater Company.

For a small town, Dillon is loaded with a wide variety of restaurant options as well. For something casual, you can grab a slice at the Lake Dillon Tavern & Pizza Co., grab a flavorful curry from Cafe Profusion  or get an overstuffed burrito at Chimayo Mexican Grill or Tacos Tequila. There’s Asian food and sushi at Nozawa and Southwestern-influenced fare at the Red Mountain Grill or sample contemporary creations ranging from Mexican-American-Italian at the family owned, LiLi's Bistro. Beer lovers will find plenty to enjoy with two local brewers in town. The Dillon Dam Brewery makes about 2,000 barrels of hand-crafted ales and lagers each year. You’re sure to find something you like on tap, and its American-style restaurant offers pub-fare done well for lunch and dinner. Pug Ryan’s Brewing Company has about a dozen beers on tap, and it, too, features a restaurant with an extensive menu ranging from burgers and sandwiches to seafood and steaks. Of course, after spending time at the Ice Castle, house-crafted hot cocoa from Cameez (located in La Riva Mall directly across the street) may be just what you need.

Dillon is just an hour and 15 minutes from Denver, making for an easy trip. But if you’re staying the night, you have several lodging options in Dillon, including hotels and vacation rental properties. You’ll get to wake up in beautiful Summit County—with plenty of ways to spend your day.

The Dillon Ice Castles are located in Dillon Town Park, and parking is available in the lot adjacent to the park, the Town Hall Parking lot, or on Lake Dillon Drive. Hours are expected to be Sunday from noon to 8 p.m.; Monday-Thursday 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday 4 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.; and Saturday noon to 10:30 p.m. Ticket sales will be available via the website once the construction of the ice castle is complete. Since this attraction is weather-dependent, check the website for updates before visiting.

Written by Emma Walker for Matcha in partnership with Town of Dillon.