10 Coolest Winter Places in America

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Baby, it’s cold outside—but that doesn’t mean you have to stay indoors. From bobsledding like an Olympian to viewing the Northern Lights, here are 10 destinations to hit before the snow melts.

Snowstorms used to mean long days spent making snow angels and having snowball fights followed by big mugs of hot cocoa topped with marshmallows. Alas, we’re not kids anymore. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still get outside and play. There are lots of grownup winter activities, like, say, leading a pack of sled dogs across the Maine wilderness or snowshoeing over pathways carved back in the Ice Age (when it was considerably chillier). One thing that hasn’t changed? That cup of hot cocoa still hits the spot.

The northern lights
The northern lights – Courtesy of chenahotsprings.com

Thanks to its proximity to the North Pole, and the lack of urban light pollution, this isolated area is one of the best places to take in the Aurora Borealis. The green ribbons of light are caused by charged particles from the sun interacting with the earth’s atmosphere, and the crystalline skies here, about 360 miles north of Anchorage, come alive (the local university offers forecasts for viewing). If you’re looking for some guidance, book an Aurora Viewing Tour. The trips depart from Chena Hot Springs Resort, about 60 miles from downtown Fairbanks, where guests take a military-style SUSV to the top of Charlie Dome. 907/451-8104, chenahotsprings.com/winter-activities, $75 per person.

Hockey in Lake Placid
Ice hockey in Lake Placid – Courtesy of roostadk.com

Ever watch bobsledders zooming down the track during the Olympics and think, “I could do that?” Well, in Lake Placid, you can. The town has hosted the Winter Games twice (in 1932 and 1980), and now caters to visitors seeking glory. Any reasonably fit person can take a bobsled run (with both a professional driver and a brakeman keeping things safe) at the Olympic Sports Complex. At the nearby Olympic Center, you can pretend you are Apolo Anton Ohno and speed skate around the oval. The center has activities for people of all ages, including a torch run, snowboarding race, and hockey slap shot contests. 518/946-2223, whiteface.com, prices for activities vary.

There aren’t many places in the U.S. with the appropriate conditions to make ice wine (most of it is produced in Germany and Canada). This town, a four-hour dive from Detroit, is graced with panoramic views of Lake Michigan, and the cold air coming off the lakes is perfect for chilling grapes. The wine makers at Chateau Grand Traverse use Riesling grapes that have been left on the vine after the harvest to freeze in the chilly northern Michigan air. The winery offers free tours and tastings of its other wines, and you can also sample wine made from cherries, the area’s other bounty. 12239 Center Rd., 800/283-0247, cgtwines.com.

Skiiing on untracked powder in Park City, Utah
Skiiing on untracked powder in Park City, Utah – Courtesy of pccats.com

Park City has three resorts and some of the country’s best skiing, but the best way to get off the runs and really experience the countryside is on a snowcat. Small groups of skiers pile into trucks with tracked wheels that can handle the area’s diverse terrain and travel to parts of the mountain with “virgin” runs untouched by other skiers. Park City Powder Cats will take you to Thousand Peaks Ranch in the Uinta Mountains for up to 12 runs through quiet bowls and glades. 435/649-6596, pccats.com, from $449 for a day trip.

Sleigh rides in National Elk Refuge
Sleigh ride in National Elk Refuge – Courtesy of nersleighrides.com

Jackson Hole may be a premier ski destination, but a much less publicized highlight of a visit to the town is a sleigh ride at the nearby 25,000-acre National Elk Refuge. From mid-December to early April, visitors can enjoy a horse-drawn ride through the park to see thousands of elk. Guides with Bar T5 will also point out the park’s other wildlife, such as eagles and trumpeter swans. Free shuttle buses depart from the Jackson Hole and Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center, 800/772-5386, bart5.com, $18 for adults, $14 for children 5-12.

Roads at the West Entrance to Yellowstone National Park are not plowed in winter. If you want access to this part of the park, populated by bison, pronghorn antelope, and bighorn sheep, you’ll need to rent a snowmobile or book a snow coach tour. Some vehicles come equipped with handlebar warmers and you can even rent cozy layers if you didn’t pack enough for the frigid air. The park’s abundant animal population doesn’t seem to mind the chill. destinationyellowstone.com/play/snow-coach, from $105 for trips not including park fees.

Don’t be intimidated: Snowshoeing on Wisconsin’s nearly flat Ice Age National Scenic Trail is totally doable. The state’s National Scenic Trail encompasses about 620 miles of marked pathways that feature landscapes left behind when glacial ice carved the earth more than 12,000 years ago. In winter, a section of this trail is open to snowshoers at Chippewa Moraine State Recreation Area. Rent your snowshoes from the visitors’ center (free, but donations are encouraged) and loop the 6.5-mile trail, studded with frozen mini-lakes and countless five-foot-tall boulders. 13394 County Hwy M, 888/936-7463, dnr.wisconsin.gov.

Dog sledding in Mahoosuc
Dog sledding in Mahoosuc – Courtesy of mahoosuc.com

Located in Newry, Maine, and with over three decades of full-time, year round guiding, Mahoosuc is one of the most respected and experienced recreational guide services in New England and Canada. Day trips on Umbagog Lake or gentle trails in the Mahoosuc Mountains are available Tuesday through Thursday and some weekends, mid-December through mid-March, and depending on snow conditions. A hearty warm homemade lunch cooked over a campfire is included on day trips, as well as the use of their insulated winter parkas, warm boots and other cold-weather gear. Mush! 207/731-8888, mahoosuc.com, starting from $450 per person for day trips.

Forget cars. In winter, residents of Silverton prefer to get around on kicksleds (essentially chairs placed on six-foot-long steel runners). The townsfolk are so committed to winter fun that they refrain from plowing after the first bountiful snowfall so that the fresh powder will pack into a perma-crust for smoother sledding. Guests and non-guests can rent sleds (as well as skis, snowshoes, and other equipment) from the Wyman Hotel, and take advantage of the area’s average annual snowfall of 150 inches. 1371 Greene St., 970/387-5372, thewyman.com.

Crystal Ice Cave
Crystal Ice Cave – Courtesy of nps.gov

Winter temps in this part of northern California average in the 40s during the day and the 20s at night. Not chilly enough? Go underground into some of the local caves, where the air hovers at the freezing point year-round. To safely journey into the caves at Lava Beds National Monument, rent a helmet and headlamp from the visitors’ center. Then go 100 feet beneath the earth’s crust into the Crystal Ice Cave, where freaky ice formations include a 20-foot-high crystal curtain. 530/667-8113, nps.gov/labe, $25 per vehicle for a seven-day entrance.

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