Every four years, an army of would-be hopefuls watch the Winter Games and fantasize about picking up a pair of skates, hopping onto the ice, and gliding to gold-medal glory....or dusting off their warmest gear and getting outside, at least. We've got the five best places to play right here in North America—no 14-hour flight necessary—plus four big-city escapes that offer great winter activities on the side. There’s something for everyone, from armchair analysts to experienced athletes, so dream big, and you could make some memories that’ll last long after the Olympic flame is extinguished.
1. LAKE PLACID, NEW YORK
From its perch in the Adirondacks, the tiny village of Lake Placid has played host to the Olympic Games twice: once in 1932 and once in 1980, when the U.S. men’s hockey team scored a shock semi-final victory over the Soviet Union. The so-called Miracle on Ice looms large in Lake Placid’s legend, and visitors can relive the magic with a screening of the 2004 film Miracle, showing at the Palace Theatre on Main Street on Feb. 22. Hockey fans should also pencil in Winterfest on Feb. 24, when gold-medal goalie Jim Craig will join other Team USA athletes for a free meet-and-greet, and allot time for a pickup game at the Hockey Box, an outdoor space open to the public. For those interested in getting on the ice at an official venue, there’s skating on two of the rinks at the Olympic Oval: the indoor rink, where 16-year-old figure skater Sonja Henie earned the gold in ‘32, and the 400-meter outdoor oval where American speed-skater Eric Heiden took an unprecedented five gold medals in ‘80. Test out the bobsled run, ski the same downhill and cross-country trails as the Olympians at Whiteface Mountain and Mt. Van Hoevenberg, or just hang out and watch the fun—the original 1980 cauldron will be relit in a public ceremony on Feb. 9, and from then until the end of the Games, fans can catch all the action on a jumbotron at Mid’s Park on Main Street.
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Dip a toe in the biathalon experience with an in-depth introduction to the sport, a hybrid of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting that originated as a Scandinavian military training exercise in the late 1700s. Open to anyone ages 13 and up, participants start with an hour-long ski lesson, then take target practice with competition-style .22-caliber rifles on the Olympic Biathalon Range.
2. ANCHORAGE, ALASKA
Hot on the heels of the Olympic trials at Kincaid Park, Anchorage’s winter season is in full swing, and it’s a veritable playground for snow-lovers. With the longest continuous double-black run on the continent, Aleyska Resort’s open bowls and steep hills will please intermediate and advanced downhill skiers, and the safe, well-groomed tracks at Arctic Valley provide a family-friendly backcountry feel for beginners, with a tube park that offers weekend sessions for a fun, low-pressure experience. (There are a limited number of spots available, so be sure to buy tickets in advance.) For individualists, the citywide municipal trail system offers 105 miles of maintained ski trails, more than 120 miles of paved bike paths, and 130 miles of plowed winter walkways, so you can chart your own course and avoid the lines at the lift. Skaters will be thrilled with the full-length speed-skating oval at Cuddy Park, the only one of its kind in the state and one of just six in the country, and parents can help the little ones can find their sea (...ice?) legs with the Saturday-afternoon family skate at Westchester Lagoon. Featuring warming burn barrels, free hot chocolate, music, and games, there’s room for figure skaters, speed skaters, hockey players, and those simply looking for a leisurely lap around the ice.
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It’s not an Olympic event anymore, but skijoring—in which cross-country skiers are tethered to an animal (usually a dog, though sometimes a horse), a snowmobile, or even a motorcycle and pulled for extra speed—featured as a demonstration back in 1928, and there’s a push to get it reinstated for future games. In the meantime, the Anchorage Skijoring Club offers clinics, tours, and other events for beginners as well as 5k and 10k races for more advanced practitioners; for a less formally organized outing, the Anchorage trail system has more than 40 miles of dedicated skijoring trails, plus a plethora of multi-use trails that are suitable for the sport as well. (BYO dog.)
There’s a reason Olympians such as alpine skier Ted Ligety, aerialists Ashley Caldwell and Mac Bohonnon, and ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson have been spotted at Park City’s Utah Olympic Park—the venue that hosted bobsled, skeleton, and ski-jumping during the 2002 Winter Games is now a world-class training facility that’s open to serious athletes and dabblers alike. Thrill-seekers ages 16 and up can book a ride in a bobsled piloted by a professional down the same track used in ‘02, an extreme experience that can generate up to four to five times the force of gravity, then decompress with a guided tour that includes a peek at the highest Nordic ski jumps in the world in addition to tall tales of past Olympic glories. Meanwhile, over at Soldier Hollow in Midway, beginners can go snowtubing or take private cross-country skiing lessons. If downhill skiing and snowboarding are more your thing, the state’s 14 resorts offer ample opportunities to shred, from the luxury of Deer Valley (home to two trails that hosted slalom and mogul events in 2002) to the well-manicured slopes of Snowbasin, where you can ski the same course as the women who competed in the ‘02 downhill event.
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If you’re one of the 5 million or so Americans who tuned in to watch curling at the Sochi Games in 2014, then you’re already aware of the event’s hypnotic appeal. Now take a turn on the ice with an intro course at the Utah Olympic Oval, just outside of Salt Lake City, where you’ll learn the basics of proper delivery, sweeping, and strategy, and follow it up with a night of Cosmic Curling, which, much like its bowling counterpart, takes place in the glow of neon and black light.
Thanks to an average of 300 feet of annual snowfall and more than 30,000 acres of skiing over 1,883 trails at 23 resorts, the Centennial State is a haven for former and aspiring Olympic athletes alike. Those hoping to rub elbows with the greats would do well to check out Steamboat, where free mountain tours with 1964 silver medalist Billy Kidd offer an easy way for intermediate and advanced skiers to acclimate to the terrain, and moguls clinics hosted by ‘92 bronze winner Nelson Carmichael help aspiring freestylists learn the ropes. At Keystone, try a cross-country ski lesson or a guided snowshoe hike led by Jana Hlavaty, a participant in the ‘76 Winter Olympics and now the director of the Keystone Nordic Center, or head southwest for a session with freeskier Wendy Fisher, a veteran of the ‘92 Games who runs clinics for intermediate and advanced skiers at Crested Butte. If competition fuels your fire, February offers plenty of options to test your mettle, from the family-friendly Cooper Olympiad to the Wolf Creek Winter Olympic Fun Race, a modified giant slalom for all ages and abilities. Those who prefer to spectate should make for downtown Colorado Springs, where they can sip hot chocolate, collect autographs from Olympic and Paralympic athletes, and watch the opening-ceremonies broadcast on a 17-foot LCD screen. After the festivities, take a guided tour of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s flagship training center, which includes a video presentation of highlights and a walking tour of the facilities.
Try Something Different
Heli-skiing isn’t the cheapest, but dropping from a chopper onto pristine, untouched powder is an experience like no other. In Colorado, you have two options: A single drop, a day pass, or a custom booking at Silverton Mountain, or a trip with Telluride Helitrax, where you can opt for a single or multi-day package (six runs per day) or a helicopter-assisted backcountry tour of the San Juan Mountains. Not to worry—you'll be briefed on avalanche protocols no matter which you choose.
5. VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA
The site of the 2010 Winter Games, Vancouver’s Olympic legacy lives on year-round. For a low-impact appreciation tour, stop by the Olympic Cauldron, originally lit by hockey legend Wayne Gretsky for the ‘10 opening ceremony; swim laps at Hillcrest Centre, the curling venue turned rec center; and walk along the Stanley Park Seawall and check out the Inukshuk statue, a stone Inuit sculpture that served as Vancouver’s symbol at the games. Those who prefer something a bit more intensive should swing by the Richmond Olympic Oval, which offers drop-in skating hours and occasional speed-skating lessons where contenders once took the ice, or make a trip to Cypress Mountain, 2010's official freestyle skiing and snowboard venue, where the first Canadian to win gold on home soil, Alexandre Bilodeau, took his prize. Try his namesake black mogul run, or kick back and do some tubing; either way, you’ll earn that après-ski beverage.
Try Something Different
Make the 90 minute drive north to the Whistler Sliding Centre, one of the only places in Canada where civilians can experience the skeleton—a head-first, 60 mph ride on the fastest sliding track in the world. It’s not for the faint of heart, but no prior experience is necessary, so gather your bravest friends and family members and hang on tight.
PLUS: 4 Big-City Escapes That Offer Winter Activities
If your vision of the perfect winter vacation is more hot chocolate than cold toes, an active urban excursion may be the ideal compromise, especially if you look to the north. On opposite sides of the country, both the cosmopolitan French-Canadian city of Montreal (home of the Winter Games in ‘76) and the slightly smaller metropolis of Calgary (host of the ‘88 Games) boast skating rinks galore, from next-level accommodations at former Olympic facilities to tourist-friendly ice in the heart of downtown. In New York City, seasonal-sports lovers can find places to skate in parks across the five boroughs, play hockey at Chelsea Piers, and get the feel for curling—minus the ice—at the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club. Up in New England, hygge chasers can drink themed cocktails and watch the Olympic events from Yotel's rooftop lounge in Boston.
And that's just to name a few. Have you caught Olympics fever yet? Drop us a line in the comments and tell us where you'll be watching the Games—or making your own fun—this winter.