Sledding on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina; going on a photo safari in Sedona, Ariz.; winter surfing in Ventura, Calif.: There are many ways for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy the winter, while maintaining plenty of social distancing. Here are some suggestions.
Winter bird-watching near New York
Some 50 miles north of New York City, in Clarence Fahnestock Memorial State Park, red-tailed hawks ride the wind above stands of oak and hemlock. Streams meander past wood ferns and mountain laurel. Here and there, boulders left by the receding glacier during the last ice age stand watch over a landscape as peaceful as it is pristine.
While it may not be the biggest or most popular of the state parks in southern New York, Fahnestock makes an ideal day trip for those looking to reconnect with nature without having to travel too far. It also has an interesting link to the 1918 Spanish flu, the last pandemic to sweep the globe. The park marks its beginning in 1929 when 2,400 acres were donated in memory of Clarence Fahnestock, a physician who died of the flu while treating afflicted patients.
Straddling the border of Putnam and Dutchess Counties, the 14,000-acre park offers 50 miles of hiking trails. If snow is in the forecast, there are also 12 miles of groomed trails for cross-country skiing. One of the prettiest and most accessible spots for a winter hike is along Three Lakes Trail, off Route 301, in Carmel. It is also a fine place to view birds, whether ducks hunkered down on Hidden Lake or songbirds settling in for winter.
Park your car at the small lot next to Canopus Lake. Then cross the road and ascend the wooden stairs into the forest. A small box offers free trail maps. The first leg takes you through a dense woodland carpeted with leaves the color of nutmeg. You now hear (more than see) Canopus Creek, flowing from the lake at the start of the hike, and you soon happen upon a marsh dominated by phragmites. Black-capped chickadees, year-round residents, flit among nearby pine trees, making their trademark “chickadee-dee-dee” call.
The trail then crosses the creek, whose pleasing water music grows in volume as you approach. Well-aligned rocks make for a safe crossing. On the other side of the stream, the trail climbs rather sharply to a good vantage point, overlooking the marsh you hiked along earlier. (Up ahead, the trail intersects the Appalachian Trail.)
As you continue, listen for the nasal call of the white-breasted nuthatch, a handsome blue-gray songbird known for crawling upside down on tree trunks. As the trail passes Hidden Lake, you might catch sight of a raft of hooded mergansers — diving ducks whose collapsible black-and-white crest, or “hood,” evokes a goth mohawk.
You can turn around now or continue to John Allen Pond, where a gaggle of Canada geese breaks the stillness with an occasional honk. If the light is fading, head back the way you came, this time taking the Appalachian Trail to the parking area. In places, the trail runs atop an old elevated railroad bed, part of an iron mine that flourished here in the 1800s. Leaves, not tracks, now cover the narrow path on a steep, stone-covered embankment, so watch your step.
But keep one eye on the tall ridge in the distance. You might see a moon rising behind the leafless trees, illuminating what the inimitable nature writer Annie Dillard once called a “twiggy haze.” LISA W. FODERARO
Biking in the snow near Seattle
Most of us who live in wintry zones let our mountain bikes go into hibernation when the first flakes fall. For some, though, the desire to turn a pedal crank doesn’t fade with the flip of a calendar page. They reach for a winter fat bike as a fun way to move through snowy woods. And this year it’s an excellent way to get some exercise while minimizing contact with others.
Imagine a mountain bike with cartoonishly large tires that buoy the bike in the snow — though the bikes ride best on trails that have a firm base. Winter fat biking is more dynamic than a snowshoe walk, less costly than a lift ticket at a ski resort. “I definitely love to Alpine ski and Nordic ski,” says James Munly, the general manager of the Leavenworth Winter Sports Club in Washington state. But sometimes the conditions aren’t great for those sports, Mr. Munly said. Those days, he loves to straddle his fat bike and churn uphill, then swoop down. “It adds a whole ’nother feel to the same trails that I ride all the time.”
Perhaps the closest place to try the sport from the Seattle area is to head to Leavenworth, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive east. The Alpine ski hill run by the sports club, one mile outside of town, welcomes fat bikers with about nine miles of single-track winter bike trails, in addition to offering Nordic skiing, tubing and snowshoeing.
Mr. Munly himself grooms the bike trails using a funky contraption called a Snowdog (picture the love child of a riding lawn mower and a snowmobile). The “Magic Carpet” trail winds through a forest of maple and pine. “4 the Boys Memorial Trail” gains a ridge with a view back to the faux-Bavarian tourist town of Leavenworth, wrapped in garland for the holidays.
Feeling sporty? Rosy Boa is fast and flowy, with berms to swoop around. At nightfall, five miles of groomed Nordic trails are lit and open to riders until 10 p.m. nightly. Newbies to the sport might head first about three miles up Icicle River Road, south of town, to practice their snow steering on a mellow, nearly two-mile bike loop. A pass to ride the trails costs $12. Bike rentals are available at Arlberg Sports.
Looking for other options from Seattle? When conditions permit, fat biking is also available on snowshoe trails, and also the side of the Nordic trails, at White Pass ski area, about a three-hours’ drive southeast of the metro area. Some rentals are available, too. Reservations highly recommended.
As of mid-December, both locations were waiting for a little more snow to officially open for biking. These days, day-trips only, and close to home, are encouraged. Outdoor gatherings are limited to groups of five people. Keep your physical distance from others, and wear a face covering outside anytime you cannot. CHRISTOPHER SOLOMON
Winter surfing near Los Angeles
In winter the California surf scene becomes less “Gidget” and more “Moby Dick” as beach balls and bikinis move indoors, the swells become grander and more consistent, and migrating sea creatures from far away, including white-sided dolphins and gray whales, appear.
Surf heaven is an hour’s drive north of Los Angeles on Highway 1, California’s epic coastal road arching beyond Malibu’s billionaire beach colonies to the military and agricultural towns of Oxnard and Ventura that bookmark a 12-mile-long buffet of breakers along Pierpont Bay. A hard left anywhere along the railroad tracks will nose you directly into the winter waves crashing into some of California’s most pristine beaches.
On a recent weekend morning, my wife and I packed our five Covid-stranded kids into the minivan along with a quiver of surf and paddle boards, and drove up to C Street beach on the north tip of the bay along the empty Ventura County Fairgrounds. We parked for free on the street, padded across the $4 parking lot to the sandy beach, and jumped in.
I’m the beginner in the family, not good in four-footers like this. (According to my kids, this is an “OK day.” “Good days” mean seven-foot waves, though 15-footers are not unknown here). Instead I nudged the paddleboard to glassier waters beyond the break, no mean feat as the ocean was a skin-prickly 59 degrees and I was the only one not wearing a wet suit (I’m also the only one born in Minnesota). If you don’t have your own gear, then you can rent locally at Revolution Surf and Skate — but call first as the pandemic makes for constantly shifting rental policies.
I clambered onto the paddleboard to reheat in the sun’s glare while watching the kids expertly carve the surf. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California has just issued strict lockdown orders, but luckily those don’t include beaches. We’re also on safe waters regarding the new ban on gathering with members outside of one’s household.
On previous visits we’d spotted lines of gray whales spouting water like sea locomotives making their winter migration to warmer Mexican breeding grounds. I have also danced with dolphins in the bay, two of whom once made so many ballet leaps out of the water directly in front of my board that I finally fell off. But today my sole companion was a brown pelican who floated alongside, examining me with a bemused look.
After two hours, we drove 11 miles down to Silver Strand Beach where free parking is also ample. Backed by a seemingly solid glass wall of tightly packed beach houses, the Strand is wider, and has some of Southern California’s most consistently epic breaks.
The beach’s mile-long curve offers surfing for every level, so I switched to a surf board and squeezed into a wet suit. My daughter and I headed for the intermediate peak of the break called the Jetty, my goofy-footed son headed to the left-hand break of La Janelle, while the rest pulled into the expert sandbar barrels of the Bowl. Nourishment was a two-minute walk inland to Pepe’s (200 Rossmore Drive), a legendary orange hexangular food stand that has been feeding three generations of hungry surfers with fresh Mexican takeout. Pepe’s offers well-spaced picnic tables, but we sprawled out on the armchair-size boulders on the beach’s jetty and let the ambient heat dry us off while feasting. No extra salt needed. FINN OLAF-JONES
Cross-country skiing (or snowshoeing) near Chicago
December through March, we have a winter rule in our household: Two is enough. As in, two inches of snow being sufficient to break out the cross-country skis and hit the nearby golf course for a weekday tour.
Because a highway overpass qualifies as elevation in these parts, Chicagoland skiers seeking the joy of rolling cross-county terrain have to travel — nearby, during the pandemic — to satisfy their topographic envy, a condition satisfied in under an hour with a day trip to neighboring Indiana and its Lake Michigan-hugging Indiana Dunes National Park (free in winter).
There, some 15,000 fragmented acres of rolling lakeside dunes, wetlands and forest are interspersed with steel mills and power plants near the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor. All would have been nearly lost in the rush to industrialize the coast if it hadn’t been for early conservationists, including the University of Chicago botanist Henry Chandler Cowles, whose 19th-century studies on plant succession in the dunes helped popularize the field of ecology.
The vast, if subtle, biodiversity in the national park — which got a status upgrade from a national lakeshore in 2019 — is largely shorn by the wind or transformed under ice and snow in the winter, the season for lovers of solitude. At the southernmost base of Lake Michigan, the wind-scoured shore, often piled with ice, offers a credible impression of the Arctic during cold snaps.
Because of warming winters, snow is not consistent throughout the winter. But skiers, snowshoers and winter lovers keep an eye on the northern Indiana forecast.
“Because we tend to get more lake-effect snow than in Chicago based on the wind direction, we get a lot of calls when Chicago’s getting snow,” said Bruce Rowe, the supervisory park ranger and public information officer at the park. “They might get a half-inch and sometimes we’ll get a foot.”
So, the first order of winter business is to check the weather. The second is to be flexible as trail conditions may better suit snowshoeing or even hiking (trails are not groomed). The third is to stay on established trails; though inviting, many of the dunes are off limits as fragile ecosystems (there’s one sledding area in the park, at West Beach Trails).
The best ski area, which undulates pleasantly enough for beginner to intermediate skiers, is tucked in the woods at the Glenwood Dunes Trails. The system of interconnected loops ranges from less than a mile to nearly 15 miles. More experienced skiers will appreciate the 2.9-mile Tolleston Dunes Trail that follows the contours of 4,700-year-old sand dunes.
You’ll need your own skis this pandemic winter. But rangers will still loan out snowshoes (free) at the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education, the gateway to walks in the oak savanna known as Miller Woods. ELAINE GLUSAC
Searching for manatees near Tampa, Fla.
Manatees are beloved in Florida, where they are the official state marine mammal. There are Save the Manatee license plates, a county, a river and hundreds of other things named after these loveable creatures, which can weigh up to 3,000 pounds.
I’d been living in Florida for more than a year and, until a few weeks ago, had yet to see a manatee. Given the coronavirus pandemic, much of our time here has been more about contemplation rather than exploration. But searching for manatees seemed like an acceptable pursuit, so on a perfect morning in late November, I headed out to visit a couple of manatee “hot spots” outside my home in the Tampa Bay area, along with my wife, Jen, and my sons, Leo, 13, and James, 11.
Manatees gravitate to warm waters, so when the temperature in the Gulf of Mexico dips below 70 degrees in winter, they congregate in lagoons and springs with slightly warmer water at places like Three Sisters Springs and Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, both about an hour north of Tampa.
The gulf is still fairly warm in late November, so there was no guarantee we’d see any wild manatees, but I’ve never been averse to early bird specials, so off we went.
Masks aren’t required outdoors at Homosassa Springs, our first stop, but it wasn’t crowded and everyone we encountered was sensible enough to maintain social distancing. Seconds after paying the admission fee ($13 adults; $5 kids, 6 to 12), we heard a loud snorting sound and Jen shushed us. “Was that a manatee?” she asked.
We walked past a “splatter zone” sign to discover that the sound we heard was no manatee, but Lu, a 60-year-old hippopotamus, who several decades ago, was trained here (along with other animals) by Ivan Tors, a Hungarian filmmaker. (Lu was named an honorary resident of the state and is now the only non-native resident in the reserve.)
We had come to see manatees, but we couldn’t resist the mile-long boardwalk that winds through a majestic canopy of grand oak, cypress and palm trees: Old Florida at its finest. There are rescued animals galore: a black bear, Florida panthers, alligators, wolves, bobcats, deer, lynx, otters, dozens of bird species and, perhaps most important for us, Ariel, Betsy and Heinz, rescued female manatees who are fed three times a day at what is known here as a “salad bar,” a big box of lettuce.
We later saw a wild manatee swimming in the lagoon, plus one in the harbor at King’s Bay Park in nearby Crystal River, and six more at lovely Three Sisters Springs, which is a great spot to swim near the manatees in crystal clear waters, particularly in January when hundreds of them congregate there.
But after such a turbulent year, there was something particularly calming and mesmerizing about watching Ariel, Betsy and Heinz feast on lettuce. Our mission was accomplished, but one good trip inevitably must lead to another, so I can’t wait to go back in January when they’ll have hundreds of friends trying to crash their salad bar. DAVE SEMINARA
A winter hike near Boston
If you’re looking for an uplifting alternative to slushy city sidewalks, a bucolic landscape where you can take a winter stroll — or, if weather permits, snowshoe or cross-country ski — then World’s End on Boston’s South Shore checks all the boxes. This sublime Trustees reservation, a 20-mile drive from downtown, is a 251-acre peninsula in Hingham Harbor, featuring rolling hills and meadows, woodlands, rocky shores and exhilarating views.
Winter here is starkly beautiful. Walking in the cold, fragrant air, through frosty fields edged with bare trees silhouetted against the sky, can be invigorating. So bundle up, grab the pup (leashed dogs are welcome) and head south.
The name World’s End is itself evocative of distance, history. The peninsula is two land masses: drumlins (low hills formed by glacial retreat) that are joined by a narrow causeway called The Bar. Long inhabited by Native Americans, World’s End was farmed by colonists and wealthy landowners until 1890, when Frederick Law Olmsted was hired to landscape the property for a subdivision that (happily) never materialized.
Crossing the entrance bridge over the tidal marsh feels like entering another time and place. This wetland is an important habitat for waterfowl and the mud minnows they feed on. You may spot a heron, hawk or kingfisher perched in the dead trees surrounding the marsh. (If not, a right turn on Barnes Road leads to a boardwalk and bird blind for a closer look.)
From here continue toward Rocky Neck, or go back and take the wide carriage path lined with majestic old trees. Ascending the hill feels like climbing into the sky — you’re eager to see what lies on the other side. Olmsted believed in designing landscapes that enhanced “the genius of a place” to create a respite from urban strife. His vision is everywhere apparent here, propelling you around the next bend to another perspective.
Follow the path along Planter’s Hill down to the causeway that joins the two hilly halves of World’s End and offers wide views in every direction. Cross over to examine the stone remains of the sheep fold, then continue clockwise around and back to the causeway, taking in the scenic harbor and lichen-covered glacial erratics.
Whether you stick to the 4.5 miles of undulating trails, linger near the marsh, or explore the cedar woods and ice pond at Rocky Neck, don’t miss the remarkable panoramic view from atop Planter’s Hill. This feels like a prize: Look northwest, past the Boston harbor and islands to the city’s signature skyline, or east, beyond the Weir River and chockablock beach houses of Nantasket to the ocean. No doubt you will leave World’s End feeling renewed, as Frederick Law Olmsted intended.
If you are driving, purchase a ticket online ($10 on weekdays, $15 on weekends, including parking; if you’re walking in, the cost is $6 on weekdays, $8 on weekends, cash only). Masks are required, as is staying six feet away from others. SUZANNE CARMICK
Sledding, skiing and snowshoeing on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Raleigh, N.C.
Picture this: mile upon mile of gently curving roadway that winds through dense forest, broken occasionally by expansive views over an ancient mountain landscape. Look in the distance, and you’ll see layers of peaks that fade into a tranquil azure haze. Now picture the same scene, but buried under a blanket of new-fallen snow.
The image in your mind probably looks a lot like winter on the Blue Ridge Parkway, a scenic roadway that stretches 469 miles across the Appalachians of North Carolina and Virginia. Known for its excellent leaf-peeping opportunities in the fall, it also makes for a welcome escape in wintry weather, although you’ll have to get out of your car to enjoy it.
Managed by the National Park Service, the parkway isn’t cleared of snow or ice in the winter. Weather-affected sections are instead closed to car traffic but left open to outdoor enthusiasts, says Tubby Kubik, the executive director of the Blue Ridge Parkway Association. After a snowstorm hits, people are welcome to go sledding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or winter hiking — on the handsome road itself as well as on the many trails that diverge from it. It’s a good bet for an outing during a pandemic, given the vast area you have to explore.
On the North Carolina side, you can head up to milepost 264.4 — about a two-hour drive from Charlotte, or three hours from Raleigh — for a short and rewarding walk up to sweeping views from the top of The Lump. Or head a bit farther south to milepost 292.7, where Moses H. Cone Memorial Park offers 25 miles of carriage roads that are ideal for sledding, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing.
If you’re trying to access a closed-off section of the parkway, your best bet is to park at an overlook, Mr. Kubik says, then hike in past the gate that marks the beginning of the closed area. He advises potential visitors to download the parkway’s travel planner app, which provides information on trails, overlooks and services, as well as safety tips and a link to real-time road closures. PAIGE McCLANAHAN
Exploring deserted shores near Washington D.C.
While the mid-Atlantic region is relatively lacking in the heavy snowfalls and higher altitudes that most traditional winter activities demand, the coldest months of the year are a uniquely intimate season for experiencing some of the most alluring natural assets of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the wedge of land nestled in part between the Atlantic and Chesapeake Bay.
On a day trip from Washington, one can experience the region’s novelties: hiking along brisk ocean shores, watching migratory swans from the Arctic and even visiting the former turf of the abolitionist and activist Harriet Tubman.
Embarking early from Washington and heading east across the Chesapeake Bay and the tidal wetlands that surround it delivers one to the eerily serene, deserted shores of the Atlantic.
The gateway to the ocean lies on the shores of Assateague Island, the secluded 37-mile barrier island that runs down the Maryland coastline. In the winter, its grassy beaches are undisturbed by summer vacationers. There is also the possibility of spotting some of the island’s famed wild ponies, which sport thicker, fuzzier coats ahead of the chillier months, and graze nearby within the denser thickets of grass away from the ocean winds.
(For those wanting to extend their stay, the northern end of Assateague holds a special advantage in the winter months: On a first-come, first-served basis, adaptable visitors can claim a camping plot for their car or recreational vehicle and sleep inside, creating a safe and warm beach-side refuge even in the depths of the winter.)
An hour west back toward Washington leads to a very different scene within the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, a sprawling 30,000 acre waterfowl sanctuary that encompasses at least one third of Maryland’s tidal wetlands and accommodates the greatest density of breeding bald eagles on the east coast, north of Florida, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
The winter season can offer a particularly spectacular display at the refuge, as hordes of migratory birds, including tundra swans and snow geese, which spend much of the summer in the Canadian Arctic, settle in for the winter in the relatively temperate wetlands that blanket the area.
More than a vantage for viewing wildlife, the refuge encompasses stretches of what were once agricultural lands where Harriet Tubman was born and raised. And many of those sites, and the roads leading to and away from the refuge, lie along the Tubman Byway, a 125-mile long driving tour that covers much of the area around Blackwater and runs through Maryland’s Eastern Shore all the way through Philadelphia.
The drive itself can be undertaken in any season, but the sections in the Eastern Shore hold a special significance in the colder periods of the year, when Tubman and other conductors of the Underground Railroad were said to have returned to the area to do most of their work.
Even at the height of the winter, the unique ecology of the Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake Bay shine. And without the usual summer crowds, a drive through the area in the coldest months offers an unparalleled opportunity to take it all in. ZACH MONTAGUE
A winter photo safari and hike near Phoenix
Snow in Sedona, about 115 miles north of Phoenix, is more miracle than burden. It dusts the buttes and clots the junipers in temporary defiance of the desert, but tends to melt quickly once a storm passes and the cloudless skies resume their sunny reign over red rock country.
“It snows less frequently than we’d actually like,” said Kelli Klymenko, a Sedona-based photographer and the marketing director at the Sedona Arts Center, noting recent drought conditions. “But it’s absolutely gorgeous when it happens,” he added. “The roads become dark and the contrast is amazing, and the red rocks themselves are beautiful with moisture.”
Social media has made hiking and photography a joint pursuit in scenic Sedona, where elevations of 4,500 feet — and higher on some trails — offer plenty of natural variety.
Stretching your legs in a wonderland of red rock mesas, canyons and vortices that are thought to be alive with the Earth’s healing energy is a seasonless attraction. In winter, you’ll need to take some precautions, which now include pandemic-related ones — like wearing masks in public and maintaining social distance on trails.
“If there’s been snow, it’s going to make some trails trickier,” said Dave Logan, the owner of Four Season Guides, which offers guided hiking and backpacking trips throughout Arizona and beyond.
Serious winter hikers may want to get a set of microspikes, which are like tire chains for your feet, slipping over your boots and providing traction underfoot with small metal teeth.
For isolation, an uphill challenge and rewarding views, Mr. Logan recommends Bear Mountain, where the south-facing trail tends to be warm and clear while gaining nearly 2,000 feet in just shy of two and half miles. (The photogenic views are rewarding even if you go halfway.)
Some of the most popular trails, including Courthouse Butte Loop Trail leading to the iconic massif and Cathedral Rock Trail, which can be slippery when wet, are noticeably quieter in winter. (The new Sedona Trail Finder website matches hikers to trails based on difficulty, elevation, time, views and your tolerance of crowds.) In these areas, you may have the chance, like Mr. Klymenko has had, to photograph fleeting icicles and snow-blanketed ledges without having to compete with crowds for the right angle. ELAINE GLUSAC
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