6 Great Places for Cool Winter Fun

Park City Mountain New Years Eve Fireworks Copyfireworks over town in mountains
Courtesy Park City Mountain

No annual ski pass? No problem. Here's how to have fun this season, on and off the slopes.

From skiing and snowboarding to snowshoeing, tubing, and fat-tire biking, America's winter athletes are spoiled for choice, while those who prefer a less intense approach are often left out in the cold. Well, no more. We’ve found some great ways to enjoy the season without breaking too much of a sweat—and all of our picks have the usual options too, so we've got you covered, whether you’re looking to take a break from the slopes or build a trip around something a bit more unconventional. Either way, you’ll earn that hot chocolate.

1. Colorado

Colorado-snow-castle.JPG?mtime=20181213215554#asset:104064(Courtesy Ice Castles LLC)

Areas like Aspen and Vail get lots of love from the ski-bum contingent, but there’s more to Colorado than its primo powder. The adventurous can learn a new sport here, like ice climbing at the Ouray Ice Park (ourayicepark.com), while cautious travelers can enjoy activities like a snowcat adventure at Breckenridge Nordic Center (breckenridgenordic.com), an evening excursion that lets you take in the scenery from the vehicle's heated glass cabin, with a stop for s’mores and hot chocolate along the way. If you don't mind the cold, the town of Dillon’s Ice Castles (icecastles.com) are not to be missed. A frozen phenomenon hand-made by a team of professional ice artists, the castles feature everything from LED-lit sculptures to ice-carved tunnels, slides, fountains, and frozen thrones. Open seasonally, each castle takes about two months to make and utilizes anywhere from 5,0000 to 12,000 icicles; the finished structure covers an entire acre, weighing in at more than 25 million pounds.

2. Utah

Sundance-Mountain-Resort-Winter-Zip-Tour.jpg?mtime=20181212204430#asset:104049(Courtesy Sundance Mountain Resort)

With its glorious national parks and a stunning array of premiere skiing destinations, it’s no wonder the Beehive State has one of the best sports-participation rates in the country. Like-minded visitors will find no shortage of opportunities to jump into the fray, and there’s low-key fun to be had as well. At Sundance Mountain Resort (sundanceresort.com), take in nearly 4,000 feet of scenery from the zip line, do some fly-fishing on the Provo River, or, for something unique, sign up for a Night Owling session. Under the guidance of a wildlife expert, you’ll meet live owls and learn about the local flora and fauna, then take a snowshoe tour around Mount Timpanogos to call and track down those wise creatures in the wild.

At the Park City resort (parkcitymountain.com), guests can check out the state’s largest alpine coaster, a thrill-a-minute ride that winds through snow banks at speeds of up to 30 mph, or stick with the simple pleasures and cozy up under a blanket for a horse-drawn sleigh ride. Visit on the weekend to enjoy an après ski concert and, on the first Friday of the month, a gorgeous alpine fireworks display.

In Ogden, tour the New World Distillery (newworlddistillery.com) and sample the small-batch gin, vodka, and agave spirits (the tart-cherry liquor is especially tempting), and get out some aggression with an axe-throwing outing (socialaxethrowing.com)—though please, not in that order. Explore the nearby dark-sky park, one of 12 in the state, via bike, snowshoes, or cross-country skis, or opt for an even closer look. As of January, stargazers can take in the cosmos at the Compass Rose Lodge (compassroselodge.com), a 15-room boutique property that doubles as an observatory, thanks to a 16-inch aperture Ritchey-Chretien-style telescope that allows guests to sneak a peek at Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s moons, not to mention galaxies, nebulae, and globular clusters.

3. Alaska

aurora-borealis-denali-national-park.jpg?mtime=20190116211228#asset:104513(Joe Sohm/Dreamstime)

When it comes to traditional winter fun, the 49th state is hard to beat. Action-oriented specialty tours abound—think: fat-bike excursions in Willow, from operators like Snowhook Adventure Guides and Alaska Trail Guides; guided snowmobile tours in the Glacier View area, from Alaska Backcountry Adventure Tours and Sheep Mountain Lodge; and biologist-led nature hikes and snowshoe tours on the outskirts of Fairbanks, from Leaf Out Nature Guides—but for our money, the northern lights are where it’s at. Explore Denali by day and book in at Tonglen Lake Lodge (tonglenlake.com) for evenings of unfiltered aurora borealis views from the communal deck, or head to the interior for a more private scene, courtesy of Borealis Basecamp (borealisbasecamp.net), where the igloo-style accommodations come with clear ceilings so you can watch the show from the comfort of your bed. Before you head out into the wilderness, learn to capture the night sky for posterity with a photography workshop from Aurora Bear (aurora-bear.com), near Fairbanks, then head south to toast to your newfound talents at Arctic Harvest (akgrownspirits.com), a farm-to-bottle distillery outside of North Pole that offers tours, tastings, cocktails, and more on its family-run farm.

4. Big Sky, Montana

Montana-dog-ski-patrol.jpg?mtime=20181212204941#asset:104051(Courtesy Big Sky Resort)

Given its location in the mountains of Montana, just an hour northwest of Yellowstone National Park, Big Sky's (bigskyresort.com) great skiing isn’t a surprise, but the resort’s lesser-known pursuits are a happy discovery. For a bird’s-eye view, strap on the snowshoes and trek up to the nature zipline, where you’ll traverse a bucolic, snow-covered gully from heights of 30 to 50 feet. Other ways to achieve lift-off include a second zipline, which is faster and longer, as well as a bungee trampoline and a giant swing. For more grounded options, look off-property, where you can enjoy an old-fashioned sleigh ride, strap in behind a team of huskies for a dog-sledding excursion, or arrange for a snowmobile tour of Yellowstone’s highlights, including Old Faithful, through a third-party operator. Closer to home, you can spend a Saturday evening around the campfire as the slopes close, scarfing down s’mores and watching the ski-patrol rescue dogs show off their skills. (Pro-tip: If you are planning on getting in a few runs while you're here, be sure to get your lift passes in advance—you'll get the best rates if you buy early.)

5. Redding, California

Redding-Crystal-Ice-Cave.jpg?mtime=20181212205120#asset:104052(Courtesy National Park Service)

If you enjoy the great outdoors, summertime in the Shasta Cascades is pretty much paradise, with hiking, fishing, and water sports galore. But it’s just as magical in December, when its snow-covered peaks offer access to skiing, snowtubing, and snowmobiling. Intrepid explorers should visit Lassen Volcanic National Park (nps.gov/lavo), where they can go backcountry skiing (proper avalanche gear required) or take a ranger-led snowshoe tour on the park’s active volcano. Still on the strenuous side but slightly lower impact, the ice-cave tour at Lava Beds National Monument (nps.gov/labe) is a weekly, three-hour outing that shows off the Cristal Ice Cave’s most dazzling formations (above). You’ll have to haul yourself up a sheer, sloped, icy floor by a rope, pull yourself through a tight hole, and navigate shaky, rocky floors with patches of ice, but if you can make it through, the payoff is well worth it.

6. White Mountains, New Hampshire

New-Hampshire-Winter-Dog-Sledding-2.jpg?mtime=20181212205527#asset:104053(Courtesy Sarah Miller/Muddy Paw Sled Dog Kennel)

Skiers and snowboarders know to hit New Hampshire’s White Mountains for fresh powder and challenging runs, but there’s plenty here to keep everyone else occupied too.The Mt. Washington Auto Road (mtwashingtonautoroad.com) reaches breathtaking heights at any time of year; hitch a ride to the treeline for a glimpse of the wintery wonderland at 4,200 feet. Try Great Glen Trails (greatglentrails.com) for snow tubing and miles of snowshoeing, check in at Loon Mountain Adventure Center (loonmtn.com) for ziplining and ice skating, or take a guided snowmobile tour with an operator like SledVentures, Northeast Snowmobile, or Northern Extremes Snowmobiling. But the real showstopper here has four legs: Muddy Paw Dog Sled Kennel (dogslednh.com) offers dog sledding, with proceeds going toward the care and upkeep of the organization’s 80-plus canines. Take a guided tour and interact with the pups, getting them ready for the trail, hooking them up to the sleds, and giving them some love afterwards—belly rubs most definitely welcome.

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