COVID won’t cancel your winter fun: 9 ways to spend time outside when it gets cold

Oct 17, 2020

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With fall foliage already well past peak and temperatures quickly dropping in many parts of the country, it’s clear that winter is coming.

Experts agree that one of the best ways to keep safe and healthy during a global health crisis is to stay outside as much as possible, which is why travelers have been escaping their homes and traveling to national and state parks, planning road trips and embarking on lake and beach vacations all summer and autumn long.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic will likely continue even as the mercury continues to fall, leaving many travelers in the north to wonder what a vacation could look like when restaurant patios are shuttered and the beaches are closed.

But don’t worry: You won’t need to stay inside your home for the duration of the season. There are great ways to get out and actually enjoy the cold weather (yes, even the snow and ice part) much closer to home than you might expect. Don’t claim to hate winter until you’ve given all these activities a try.

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Ski or snowboard down a mountain

A frosty day at Smuggler's Notch in Vermont. (Photo via Shutterstock)
A frosty day at Smuggler’s Notch in Vermont. (Photo via Shutterstock)

This is the quintessential winter activity and, thanks to a wide range of ski hills with varying terrain in the region, learning to ski has never been easier.

East Coasters may be familiar with the more popular ski hills — Stowe, Killington and Sunday River — but there are plenty of other destinations to explore. Smugglers’ Notch Resort has plenty of beginner-friendly terrain, while Jay Peak gets some of the best snow in the region.

Even at the beginning of the pandemic, ski resorts — which had initially been forced to close — found ways to at least partially reopen. But for travelers who don’t mind getting their heart rate up, remember, you can still get up the mountain even when the lifts aren’t turning. You’ll just need to strap your skis or snowboard to your backpack and head up on foot.

Try cross-country skiing

Even if you’re not a speed-craving adrenaline junky, skiing is still one of the best activities for winter. The Jackson Cross-Country Ski Touring Center, located in Jackson, New Hampshire, boasts almost 100 miles of trails for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Out in Michigan, there are a number of cross-country ski touring centers. And a favorite for New Yorkers is Whiteface Mountain, near Lake Placid.

Just be sure to stick to groomed and tracked trails if this is your first winter cross-country skiing. Many downhill ski resorts also offer cross-country ski trails, too, so be sure to check if you want to try both on your next winter outing.

Related: Planning your ski trip with points and miles

Lace up your skates

You probably don’t even have to leave town to go ice skating, making it one of the best options for people who want to enjoy the winter scenery without trekking into the wilderness. In cities all across the country, ice skating rinks pop up during winter — you might even find a rink at your home airport. Best of all, many of these rinks offer inexpensive rentals and introductory ice skating lessons.

Go snowshoeing

Sequoia National Park in California. (Photo via Shutterstock)
Sequoia National Park in California. (Photo via Shutterstock)

We get it: Bundling up and flying downhill on one or two planks of wood at full speed is not everyone’s cup of hot cocoa. Luckily, there are other more relaxing activities you can try this winter. After the snow falls, strap on a pair of snowshoes and “float” across the snowy landscape.

If a destination has snow, you can most likely find a company that will rent you snowshoes. Great Glen Trails in New Hampshire offers snowshoe rentals, groomed and ungroomed trails and free guided snowshoe tours. And in Acadia National Park, there are 45 miles of carriage roads perfect for snowshoers. Just be sure to check your destination well in advance to find out if roads and trails are still being groomed this season.

Take a hike

If you’re not that into gear but still want to get outside and be active even in the thick of winter, search for well-trafficked trails, such as the Lake Skenonto Loop in Harriman State Park in New York. Here, travelers will find packed-in conditions that won’t require snowshoes. But because heavily-tracked trails can get icy, traction devices such as microspikes are highly recommended.

Mohonk Preserve, 90 miles north of New York City, and Bear Mountain State Park also have a network of well-trod trails that shouldn’t require snowshoes. We recommend the namesake Bear Mountain Loop trail that’s just over 4 miles long and affords great views of the Hudson River.

Climb a frozen waterfall

Yes, this is a thing. If you’ve never been, ice climbing is a popular winter activity that involves scaling frozen waterfalls with crampons and ice axes. You can do this with or without snow, though the surrounding terrain will be far more stunning after everything is dusted in white.

There are many centers that offer guided climbs and gear rentals throughout the season in popular ice climbing destinations such as New Hampshire, Colorado, Vermont, Michigan, Minnesota and Utah.

Go dog sledding

(Photo courtesy of Visit Maine)
(Photo courtesy of Visit Maine)

You don’t have to travel to Norway or Finland to try dog sledding. Instead, take advantage of snowfall closer to home and book a single- or multiday guided dog-sledding excursion in Maine. You could even learn how to drive your own sled. Out in Montana, Yellowstone Dog Sled Adventures also offers a variety of tours to help you experience this cold-weather tradition.

Or regular sledding

A perfect winter activity the entire family will enjoy, sledding is an inexpensive and fun way to enjoy freshly fallen snow. All you need is a simple plastic toboggan or snow tube.

For serious sledding enthusiasts, consider a trip to Tahoe City (home to the Granlibakken ski and sledding area — the oldest ski resort in the area — which offers onsite rentals). Or, for a taste of Europe without leaving the country, try Vail. In addition to over 5,000 acres of skiable (and ridable) terrain, this family-friendly mountain town is great for sledding.

Get cozy

Want to learn to love winter without investing in expensive gear or breaking a sweat? Find a cozy cabin rental near you, pack your favorite books, fill your suitcase with hot cocoa packets and escape for an unplugged winter retreat.

There might even be a hotel or inn with attractive wintertime amenities, such as the new Urban Cowboy Lodge in New York’s Catskills. Guests can book suites with potbelly stoved and heated outdoor cedar soaking tubs, both of which are perfect for enjoying socially distant winter nights.

Additional reporting by Melanie Lieberman. 

Featured image of ice climbing on Mount Washington via Jose Azel / Getty Images.

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