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Warm-Weather Winter Wonderlands

Five surprising southern destinations that feature snowy activities

spinner image aerial view of guests snow tubing at Snowcat Ridge Alpine Snow Park in Florida
Snowcat Ridge Alpine Snow Park in central Florida has a 400-foot long, 60-foot tall snow-tubing hill.
Snowcat Ridge Alpine Snow Park

As the winter chill hits the air, many snowbird travelers flock south to seek warmer climes. But what if you still want a little taste of winter on your southern travels? Fortunately for those looking for a break from the heat and a breath of cool air — or even ice and snow — some toasty destinations feature frigid excursions where you can enjoy a brisk taste of winter, and still be able to quickly return to your sunny beach or poolside cocktail.

From Hawai‘i to Arizona, Florida and California, and even the southern Caribbean, the five destinations highlighted below show how you can enjoy a surprising winter wonderland on travels to warm vacation spots.

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spinner image snow covered Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley
Ski season can be brief in southern Arizona. Mount Lemmon’s ski runs open at best from about early January to mid-March.
Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley

Arizona: Skiing above the desert

Southern Arizona is famous for its rough desert landscape punctuated with saguaro cactus, the Sonoran cuisine of Tucson and … skiing?! Just over 100 miles from the border with Mexico, Mount Lemmon Ski Valley sits more than 9,100 feet above sea level, high enough to support nearly two dozen snow-covered ski runs a few months each winter. 

Visitors to Tucson looking for a change of desert scenery can take a phenomenally scenic 45-mile winding drive up to reach the southernmost ski area in the continental United States. Even if you don’t ski, it’s fun to take the drive to watch the landscape transition between multiple ecosystems as the elevation rises. The spiky cactus is gradually replaced by leafy oak trees and finally evergreens. Multiple rest stops allow you to pull off the road for scenic photos.

Ski season in southern Arizona can be brief, with Mount Lemmon’s ski runs open at best only from about early January to mid-March. The hill has one main chairlift, with an additional smaller lift and surface tow, and 22 official ski runs. Rental skis and snowboards are available at the mountain, but you’ll need your own cold-weather gear. Nonskiers can enjoy some snow play in the wooded areas surrounding the hill, and everyone can finish with the reward of some giant sugary treats nearby at the Mt. Lemmon Cookie Cabin & Pizzeria.

spinner image Palm Springs tram
You can access Mountain Station, which sits 8,516 feet above sea level, via the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.
MARC GLASSMAN / pstramway.com

California: Palm Springs snow play

California’s Palm Springs and Palm Desert have long been popular warm-winter getaways with golf courses, desert hikes and poolside parties. But high above the desert floor, the towering San Jacinto Mountains offer up a taste of winter for anyone seeking to cool off with even cooler views of the vast desert landscape seen from a snowy perch.

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway provides a great way for visitors to access a wintry wonderland, whisking them up more than mile in elevation from the valley on a 2.5-mile-long, 10-minute ride to reach Mountain Station at 8,516 feet above sea level. The wooded wilderness in the area surrounding the tramway sometimes gets buried in snow, requiring snowshoes or cross-country skis to navigate the miles of nearby trails. When conditions allow, the Winter Adventure Center by the ranger station atop the tramway opens to provide equipment rentals for active adventures into the surrounding area. The mountain gift shop at Mountain Station also sells plastic sleds and warm clothing for anyone interested in some nearby snow play on lighter snow days.

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Visitors can enjoy expansive (if chilly) views from outdoor platforms at Mountain Station as well as from two indoor restaurants — the cafeteria-style Pines Café and the fine dining Peaks. Temperatures atop the tramline are typically 30-40 degrees cooler than in the Palm Springs valley, so dress warmly! You can even peek at current conditions atop the tramway by viewing the Long Valley live camera feed set up outside Mountain Station.

spinner image people standing inside the Arctic Igloo which has over 100 tons of artificially made snow.
The Arctic Igloo is filled with more than 100 tons of artificially made snow.
Snowcat Ridge Alpine Snow Park

Florida: Sledding in the tropics

Florida’s Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve does not sound like a good place for snow sledding. Less than 20 miles away from the hot, humid wetlands, Snowcat Ridge Alpine Snow Park has created a winter wonderland of snow tubing, skating and snow play. This subtropical snowy playground in central Florida has brought industrial-level snowmaking to the state to line a 400-foot-long, 60-foot-tall snow-tubing hill, a large ice skating attraction and the domed Arctic Igloo refrigerated play area. The geodesic igloo is filled with more than 100 tons of artificially made snow in which to build snowmen, do some snowball-throwing target practice, make snow angels and tube down a mini snow hill. 

The park, about 35 miles from downtown Tampa, is a full-fledged entertainment complex, including a food court with nine food and beverage outlets, a gift shop, a winter market and s’mores cooking areas. Guests can even rent their own igloo, a 25-person domed picnic area for private parties and s’mores cooking sessions.

Snowcat Ridge is scheduled to remain open Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays through Feb. 25, with nighttime music and light shows keeping the fun going until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. For a bit calmer taste of family fun with young kids, come for the 9 a.m. openings.  

spinner image telescope at summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii
Some of the world’s highest powered scientific research observatories sit atop Mauna Kea.
OsakaWayne Studios

Hawai‘i: The frigid volcano of Mauna Kea

While the oft-erupting cauldrons of Volcanoes National Park see the with lava and smoke, its quiet neighbor on Hawai‘i Island — the dormant volcano Mauna Kea — stands silent and icy, beckoning intrepid visitors into an incongruous winter landscape. Towering 13,803 feet above the palm trees, warm breezes and soft sandy beaches at the island’s sea level, Mauna Kea’s snow-swept summit has recorded temperatures as low as 8 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you’d like a taste of Hawaiian winter atop Mauna Kea, several accredited tour operators organize visits to the summit, complete with four-wheel drive vehicles and loaner coats and mittens. The tours include sunset viewing opportunities and stargazing sessions. Given that some of the world’s highest-powered scientific research observatories are perched atop Mauna Kea, expect to see dazzling starscapes unlike any other view on Earth. The Maunakea Visitor Information Station, located at a 9,200-foot elevation, provides visitors a nice overview of the volcano’s scientific and native cultural significance.

Visitors should be sure to consider the effects of elevation when visiting Mauna Kea. Quickly ascending to even the visitor center at 9,200 feet can be a dizzying experience, and continuing to the nearly 14,000-foot summit can be potentially dangerous to those in poor health. Even the fittest visitors should modify their activity level in consideration of the thin air. Sunscreen is a must for the high elevation with the sun reflecting off the snow.

Snow atop Mauna Kea is common, even in summer. Major storms can bring blizzards creating snowdrifts and closing roads to the summit. If you’re planning to drive on your own, be sure to check weather conditions, and four-wheel drive is required to pass the visitor center to the summit. Skiing on Mauna Kea is legal and possible but not recommended, due to spotty snow and a lack of guides, lifts and facilities, not to mention the razor-sharp lava rocks strewn about the surface. But packing a snowball atop the volcano and bringing it down to chill your mai tai on the beach for happy hour would certainly be a unique activity!

Trinidad and Tobago: Caribbean ice palace

For a real snowy novelty, visit this facility opened in April 2023, on the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago in the southern reaches of the Caribbean. You’ll be able to take a break from the tropical beaches for a wintry day trip to ICED — the Ice Caribbean Entertainment District. This three-story complex in the La Romaine district of San Fernando on Trinidad houses two ice rinks — for skating and bumper cars — and two glassed-in snow play areas. The sandbox-style play areas come complete with snowy ice plowed into piles stocked with shovels and toys more commonly found on the sandy beaches of the island. Admission is via a membership program (currently free) with paid per-hour or per-activity access to the rinks and snow playrooms.

Guests can participate in snowman-making contests, engage in bouncy bumper car competitions on the rinks and, as you would expect in a Caribbean country, get some first-timer lessons for ice skating. You’ll be able to share in the marvel of many residents who have never before seen snow or ice. The rinks and snow play areas in the building are small and won’t be mistaken for a Winter Olympics training center, but the fun of jumping from a true topical setting into this surprising ice palace can make it a worthwhile visit.  

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