Winter hiking is all about the mindset. It takes a determined trail hound to get outside in the cold when the fireplace beckons. That mindset also requires a shift in the approach, since summiting a towering peak or completing a serious backpacking trip probably isn’t going to happen this time of year. The folks bagging a Colorado fourteener in January are seasoned mountaineers with skins on their skis and an ice axe strapped to their pack, rather than casual day-hikers from Denver. Yet winter can be the most rewarding time to hike.
That’s because, once the frost hits, the end goal of a good hike becomes experiencing the tranquility of nature in its most solemn state. It’s about finding silence as a destination rather than a byproduct. That is to say, hiking in cold weather is your chance to get back to the root of the activity: the actual hike, not the endpoint, summit, or the selfie taken along the way. These hikes will help you do just that.
Considerations for hiking in the cold
Of course, you’re going to want an insulated jacket, an underlayer, a hat, gloves, and long underwear. Do what you need to do to ensure you’ll keep warm. Beyond clothing, though, there are a few factors that hikers are up against in the cold. To be protected for unforeseen frost and ice, carry a pair of basic trail crampons which can quickly slide over your hiking boots to provide traction for slippery trails. This is particularly important if you will be gaining and losing altitude on the hike, when it’s easier to lose your footing and slide onto your bum.
Also, you don’t want your water to freeze. Among the gajillion reasons to not buy and carry a disposable plastic water bottle is the fact that your hydration is likely to be frozen — or at least uncomfortably cold — by the time you take your first rest break. If you’re carrying a CamelBak or other pack-based water bladder, be sure you have a winter-specific valve to prevent the same issue. Your best bet is to get yourself a Hydroflask or similar vacuum-sealed thermos that is designed to keep liquids from quickly heating or cooling.
And hey, should all that walking cause you to become unseasonably warm, you can always shed a layer.
1. North Shore State Trail — Duluth, Minnesota
Minnesota was practically made for cold-weather hiking. For starters, the state gets cold — Duluth’s average high in January is a balmy 20 degrees — and much of it is wide open and flat. Lake Superior in the wintertime is an icy gem of epic proportion, allowing you to gaze out across the abyss as you think to yourself how well the colors of white, pale blue, and dark gray go together. You’ll experience all of this along the North Shore State Trail, which runs for 146 miles along Lake Superior through protected forest and along the waterfront. We’re not saying you need to do all of it, though. It’s broken up into short sections that are accessible from Duluth and surrounding towns.
2. Upper Geyser Basin — Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Here are two pieces of information that the vast majority of Yellowstone National Park’s over 4 million annual visitors fail to act upon. One, geysers still blow hot steam in the winter. Two, it’s far easier to get a photo with no one in it when there isn’t anyone else around. Park at the Old Faithful Inn parking lot and follow signs to the trail. The 2.2-mile Upper Geyser Basin walk isn’t long, or particularly strenuous, but it sure is beautiful, right down to the wildlife trotting along Firehole River. Here lives Old Faithful and many of the park’s most popular spurters of liquid hot mineral water, and you’ll be home free for the best photos of them you’ll ever have the chance to capture. The steam just seems to dance a bit more in the colder weather.
3. Silver Mine Lake Trail — Harriman State Park, New York
There’s something about New York’s skyline in the winter that is as magnetic as a schmear at Absolute Bagels, and the 4.5-mile Silver Mine Lake Trail offers a unique take. It’s 30 miles away, for one, so the perspective is quite vast, and the trail leading up Black Mountain winds through some of the state’s most beautiful scenery without needing to drive all the way up Interstate 87. Harriman State Park is far more protected from the brutality of the Northeast’s cold than the trails on Long Island, and there’s trail and open terrain all around if you fancy a ski back down.
4. Dream Lake Trail — Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
This hike through Colorado’s most famous park starts at the Bear Lake Trailhead, close to entrance on the Estes Park side as opposed to the Grand Lake side, an important detail because Trail Ridge Road — the mountain pass highway that goes through the park from gate to gate — is closed in winter due to snow. There are ample trails to wander off on in the park’s extensive trail system; try the Odessa Lake one if you’re up for more of a challenge — but to get to Dream Lake is 2.2 miles of winding underneath the park’s towering peaks as they shield you from the wind that often tends to pound northern Colorado. The views of the lake aren’t so bad, either.
5. Witch Hole Pond Loop — Acadia National Park, Maine
The bulk of Acadia National Park’s 3.5 million annual visitors come in the summer months. This is great for you and unfortunate for them because rare is a sight more beautiful than frost covering the tips of an eastern hemlock. The Witch Hole Pond Loop, a few steps from the Hulls Cove Visitor Center, takes you past many such frigid perennials, the hemlock included, on a 3.3-mile loop past Witch Hole Pond. It’s bound to be snowed in, but the trail sees enough traffic even in winter that a good pair of hiking boots will move you along quite nicely. Stop for a picnic near the pond, a thermos full of hot soup, and see if you can convince yourself that this isn’t what Richard B. Smith was talking about when he wrote “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.”
6. Ney Springs Canyon and Box Canyon trails — Mount Shasta, California
Mount Shasta ranks high on the list of the most underrated mountain towns in the United States, and in winter the town is so peaceful that even labeling it as “rated” might be an overstatement. Northern California is populated by hikes through redwood forests and deep green hillsides, but in winter bail on both of those and head for the canyon country outside of this town of 3,000. The trailheads for both the Ney Springs Canyon and Box Canyon trails are separated by only a few minutes of driving. The former takes you past an abandoned tourist resort to the 40-foot Faery Falls. The latter walks you to a desolate junkyard where trees and brush poke out of rusting automobiles; a truly weird site but the mile or so hike is stunning. As a forewarning, both trails can be quite cold even once your blood starts pumping, so come prepared with an extra layer.