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5 Fun Activities to Do in the Winter

Sometimes, the best winter getaway isn’t taken to escape the cold weather but to embrace it. These outdoor pursuits will create lasting memories — and none require a pair of skis

spinner image people snow shoeing in a snowy forest
Jerry Monkman / EcoPhotography

Winter may be hibernation season for some species, but for humans who enjoy nature and travel, it can be a season for adventure and fun.

You say we’re avoiding the moose in the room: that it will be cold, right? Relax: If you haven’t been to an outdoors store in a while, you might not realize how far we’ve come in winter gear that is toasty, comfy and surprisingly lacking in bulk. Another benefit is that winter travel is rarely crowded or rushed. And here’s the best part: You don’t have to know how to hurtle down a mountain to enjoy the great northern outdoors. 

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Snowshoeing in Vermont

The first step is always the most awkward. But once you get the hang of it — which you will quickly, by the second or third step — snowshoeing opens up a new world of snow-covered landscape yours to explore. “It is peaceful, quiet and beautiful out in the woods,” says Vermonter and avid snowshoer Vicky Vautour, 70. “There is no waiting in lines, crowded trails or freezing cold.” Snowshoeing generates body heat, thanks to the aerobic effort, but the activity can be slow-paced and not so rigorous.

What to pack to stay warm

  • Layer up: Begin with a base layer — long underwear made from synthetic fabrics or wool. For the second layer, choose fleece, down or wool for insulation. Then choose a windproof, water-resistant layer, known as a shell.
  • Head, hands, feet: Insulated gloves and boots, a warm hat, a neck gaiter and wool socks are essential. Look for insulated boots with thick, waterproof soles.
  • Rent, don’t buy: Why purchase a bunch of winter gear that you might use only once? Shoppers can choose from rental companies such as Arrive Outdoors or Kit Lender.

Most ski resorts and Nordic centers, such as Smugglers’ Notch Resort in Vermont, rent snowshoes and offer lessons or guided tours. Using ski poles can bolster balance, and snowshoeing works up an appetite — bring snacks and water. Because snowshoeing can be a quiet and gentle activity, you’re less likely to scare away animals, Vautour says. “When I go with my grandchildren, I love to open their eyes to the wonders of the outside world of nature.”

While you're there: Cold Hollow Cider Mill in nearby Waterbury Center encapsulates Vermont’s rustic charm. Explore the active cider press and snack on a fresh cider doughnut before browsing the wooden shelves for New England goodies.

Where else: Snowshoeing occurs almost anywhere that deep snow falls. For groomed trails, search online for “Nordic ski areas.” They are often adjacent to downhill resorts. Or rent gear at a shop and ask the clerk for scenic snowshoe trail recommendations.

How much: Lessons generally start at $45 per person.

Winter Wonder: Snowshoes are believed to have been invented in 4000 B.C. in Central Asia.

spinner image sleigh ride in the mountains
Steve Dondero/Sun Valley Resort

Sleigh rides in Idaho and Colorado

Towering at 16 or 17 hands tall (that’s about 5½ feet), Percheron, Clydesdale and Belgian draft horses harnessed to an open sleigh enchant riders who pat their velvet-soft muzzles. The sleighs are crafted of wood, with padded seats and warm wool blankets. But the best part of winter sleigh rides comes when the horses’ beauty and power works in sync with the sleigh, and you find yourself moseying along a snow-covered valley at 3 or 4 mph. “It’s pure enchantment,” says Calvin Chatfield, 67, stable manager at Idaho’s Sun Valley Resort. “In the evening on a nice clear night, you look up and there are more stars than you can imagine.”

At Colorado’s Keystone Stables, sleigh rides run alongside Soda Creek to reach a restored homestead that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. Hot cider is served on the scenic rides, and three-course dinners are hosted inside the cozy cabins. Wrangler Sandy Ryan, 64, has been driving sleighs for a decade. “These gentle giants,” she says, “take us away from the pace of our busy lives.”

While you're there: Venture to the town of Sun Valley, which was a favorite destination of Ernest Hemingway. Bibliophiles will love tracing his legacy of preferred watering holes, browsing the Hemingway collection at the Community Library and visiting his memorial.

Where else: In addition to the Mountain West, you can enjoy sleigh rides in New England, the Pacific Northwest and upstate New York.

How much: Rates typically start at about $60 per person.

Winter Wonder: Jingle bells are often used for mood, but when sleighs were regular transportation, the bells served as a pedestrian-alert system.

spinner image couple soaking in a hot tub in winter
Durango Hot Springs Resort & Spa

Soaking in Colorado

Once considered the purview of hippies, hot springs have been reimagined as components of the wellness and self-care industry. The water soothes muscles and ligaments, eases aches and pains and helps manage stress.

See more Health & Wellness offers >

At Colorado’s newly renovated Durango Hot Springs, visitors can choose from 26 soaking pools, eight private Japanese-inspired cedar soaking tubs, a spring-warmed swimming pool, a mineral water rain tower and a cold plunge pool.

“When there’s snow on the ground, the pools are really steamy, especially in the evening,” says Glenwood, Colorado, resident Vicky Nash, 58. “It’s mystical, and when it’s snowing, it’s absolutely beautiful.”

While you're there: Durango has a strong artisanal culture that includes at least six craft breweries, a specialty ice cream shop and about 30 galleries and museums.

Where else: Hot springs exist across most of America. For a list, visit hotspringsof​

How much: Day rates typically start at about $20 per person.

Winter Wonder: Humans aren’t the only ones to enjoy hot springs. Macaques, or snow monkeys, start their winter days soaking in hot springs in the mountains of Japan.

spinner image a man and woman ice fishing holding a caught fish
Courtesy Bro’s Guide Service

Ice fishing in Minnesota

When northern Minnesota’s myriad lakes freeze in early winter, anglers flock to the ice. They head out onto the frozen lakes and use sonar plus their own memories of fish migration patterns to detect schools of fish beneath the surface. After drilling holes in the ice with power augers and jigging their lines with tasty bait — a minnow’s head or wax worms — they sit and wait. And this is when the beauty of ice fishing reveals itself. Deer and wolves might appear in the distance. Summer afflictions such as mosquitoes and wood ticks are absent. Quiet takes on another dimension. “There’s a purity when the lake is covered with snow,” says longtime fishing guide and Minnesota native Brian “Bro” Brosdahl, 56. “Even the sound of wind is different. You don’t have waves or water lapping. In winter, you can hear your heart beating.”

Despite temperatures that can drop to minus 20 or lower, don’t think this experience would leave you out in the cold. Ice fishermen often set up portable shelters with insulation that traps enough heat to cause some folks to sweat.

The ice fishing season begins when the lakes are frozen enough to safely walk on, often late November or early December, and it continues into spring. Brosdahl meets clients at first light, typically around 8 a.m., and they may travel to several lakes during the day.

Ice fishing isn’t just a Minnesota thing. It happens wherever there are fish and temperatures cold enough to build up a massive ice crust on a lake. Best of all, anyone can do it — and it doesn’t have to be fancy, says retired fishing guide Jeff Currier, 57. “I moved to Jackson Hole in the late 1980s but couldn’t afford a season ski pass,” he says. “No big deal. I just went ice fishing all winter and became obsessed with it.”

While you're there: Northern Minnesotans cherish excuses to get out in the cold and thus have a plethora of winter festivals to explore. From the St. Paul Winter Carnival — the nation’s longest-running winter carnival, in its 137th year — to Grand Marais’ Hygge Festival, which emphasizes coziness, frozen turkey bowling and frigid river plunges, there is no shortage of winter celebrations throughout the state.

Where else: Wherever there are lakes that freeze, there is ice fishing. Check with angling shops in New England, upstate New York, the Upper Midwest, the Mountain West, Washington state and Alaska.

How much: An expedition can run $200 per person.

Winter Wonder: The Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extrav­aganza, billed as the world’s largest ice fishing contest, takes place every January on Gull Lake and draws upward of 10,000 participants. The contest awards more than $150,000 in cash and prizes; proceeds go to local charities.

spinner image people on a winter wildlife safari
Courtesy Wildlife Expeditions of Teton Science Schools

Winter wildlife safari in Wyoming

When it comes to wild places in the continental U.S., the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is unrivaled. A massive and remote area that spans about 22 million acres, including Yellowstone National Park, it’s one of the largest nearly intact temperate-zone ecosystems on Earth. 

Home to elk, moose, foxes, coyotes and grizzly bears, this region attracts hordes of summer crowds, who come in part to view wildlife. As the temperatures drop, those crowds thin to a trickle of adventurous and curious folks who immerse themselves in the wildness of the place from the comfort of a snow coach and with a wildlife expert as their guide.

Wildlife Expeditions offers tours in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. These entertaining and educational tours might provide viewings of elk, moose and bison. To see these animals in the winter — when the harsh climate and unforgiving landscape demand in­tense effort — is a lesson in survival and natural processes, says Mike Rowell, lead guide for Wildlife Expeditions of Teton Science Schools. “Hopefully it gives them a deeper understanding and appreciation for nature and the species in this wild place.”

Though Yellowstone may be the prime spot for animal safaris in North America, a couple of other options for winter wildlife tours are Alaska (wolves) and Colorado (elk, birds and small mammals such as pika.

While you're there: Jackson Hole’s cultural offerings include the renowned National Museum of Wildlife Art, Dancers’ Workshop (a 50-year-old organization that hosts acclaimed troupes), the Jackson Hole Playhouse theater and the Center for the Arts.

Where else: The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has something of a monopoly on commercial winter wildlife watching, thanks to its size and native animal inhabitants. However, animal lovers will find elk herds in and around Estes Park, Colorado, in Idaho and in Pennsylvania’s Elk Country.

How much: Wildlife Expeditions’ tours at Yellowstone start at about $2,750 for up to four people.

Winter Wonder: Bison, which can be seen at Yellowstone, are among the world’s best winter-adapted mammals. The shaggy beasts slow their metabolism in the winter to conserve energy.

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