Top Winter Hiking Hot Spots in the USA (and the gear you need)
Getting outside during the winter has its own rewards, among them crowd-free trails, fewer insects, and scenery you can only see when the weather's right. Whether it’s the novelty of desert mesas dusted with fresh powder, or a waterfall frozen into columns of pale blue ice, or simply the peaceful vista of fields blanketed in untracked snow, the charms of winter are worth the effort.
Not that you'll need crampons and an ice axe to enjoy any of these ten easy day-hikes. Sure, you'll have to prepare for the weather, maybe even add snow chains to your tires for the trip to the trailhead, but these trails and hiking areas were chosen for their high ratio of scenic value to difficulty. Any reasonably fit person can tackle these in a day.
Dressing warmly in multiple layers is only the first part of the equation. When hiking in the winter you’ll get wet from both sweat and snow. Be prepared for getting wet from the inside. Your base layer should be sweat wicking to keep moisture from collecting and sapping heat from your body. Clothes should be loose fitting and you should always avoid cotton. On top of an insulating mid-layer and a puffy coat, a wind- and water-resistant outer shell is a good way to keep from getting soaked from the outside as even sunny days can bring snow falling off trees.
Depending on the trail conditions, you may need extra traction on your boots or even snowshoes. If you are using snowshoes, it’s good to use trekking or ski poles fitted to your height and snow conditions. You don't use the same length pole as when Nordic skiing, after a day of doing it you'll know why! Bring some good quality duct tape and a couple of six-inch pieces of PVC pipe for emergency repairs.
White Clay Creek, Delaware and Pennsylvania
Under an hour's drive from Philly and only half an hour from Wilmington, White Clay Creek State Park is a rustic respite from city. The Penndel Trail, a converted rail trail along the creek that begins on the Pennsylvania side is the prettiest. On your drive back to Philly stop by Vala Vineyards, a little winery that has a great tasting with cheese in a beautiful setting.
Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs
Pike's Peak looms over vertical red rock spires in Garden of the Gods Park, on the western edge of Colorado Springs. With names like ‘Kissing Camels’ and ‘Three Graces’, these natural snow-dusted formations make a peaceful backdrop for 15 miles of trails. One great choice, the Chambers-Bretag-Palmer loop, is a three-mile trail encircling the entire park with rolling, rocky terrain and less than a 250-foot climb.
Appalachian Trail, 'Velvet Rocks' Section, Hanover, New Hampshire
Hiking the Appalachian Trail is typically a summer activity, but this small stretch that begins at the Vermont-New Hampshire border is an easy winter hike through snow-blanketed fields, hardwood forest, and up a rocky granite ridge with views of the town below. Snowshoes may be necessary on this five-mile out-and-back, and trekking poles are a must.
Kincaid Beach Trail, Anchorage
Just over a mile south of Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage is Kincaid Beach, a secluded sandy beach on Cook Inlet with views of Mount McKinley and the Alaska Range. Technically a spring hike, you get there via a mile-long access trail through the hilly old-growth forest of Kincaid Park, where you're likely to encounter moose and the occasional bear.
Robert Frost Trail, Mount Holyoke Range State Park, Massachusetts
The southernmost section of this 47-mile trail, named for the poet, passes through the Mount Holyoke Range, a rare east-west ridge in central Massachusetts with ravines, caves, valleys, deep woods and 360-degree views, all potentially, on the same hike.
Brockway Summit, North Lake Tahoe
Whether you live in the area or are visiting one of Tahoe's several ski resorts, this small section of the Tahoe Rim Trail just off of Highway 267 near Truckee, California, is a great way to take in views of the entire lake. A healthy climb (about 800 feet), this up-and-back sometimes requires snowshoes and takes about an hour for those acclimated to the mountain air, or two hours for ‘flat-landers’.
Kanawha State Forest, Charleston, West Virginia
Only seven miles from West Virginia's capital is a 9,300-acre spread of Appalachian forest crisscrossed with 25 miles of marked hiking trails of varying difficulty. Not only is the varied terrain less crowded in the winter, hikers are less likely to encounter the mountain bikers who flock there in the summer.
Palo Duro Canyon, Amarillo, Texas
Nicknamed the ‘Grand Canyon of Texas’, this huge red-rock canyon outside of Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle has similar scenery to the actual Grand Canyon, if not quite at the same scale (it's sometimes called the second-largest canyon in America). Go when the weather's right for views of the frosted desert as far as the eye can see.
Hocking Hills, Ohio
Ohio isn't normally thought of as hill country, but the sparsely populated Appalachian foothills creep well into the southern and eastern parts of the state. An hour south of Columbus are the Hocking Hills, an especially rugged section marked by cliffs, gorges, caves and waterfalls. This popular outdoor recreation area has fewer visitors in the winter, but the state park system there has over 25 miles of marked trails that are open year-round, and the scenery, from frozen waterfalls to huge sandstone caves make it a rewarding place to hike even in cold weather.
Bighorn Mountains, Wyoming
This scenic spur of the Rockies rises from the Great Plains all the way past 13,000 feet, but inside the one million-plus acres of Bighorn National Forest are 1,500 miles of trails, many of which you don't have to be a mountaineer to enjoy in the winter.