Stretch Your Legs This Winter
Summer and fall may be high seasons for hiking, but some trails are at their best — and can even offer more secluded and tranquil experiences — in the colder months. From treks through Alaskan icefields to pristine beaches in Hawaii and Florida, there’s a path for you. Break out of your cold-weather hibernation with 20 incredible hikes across the country this winter.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Dream Lake Trail
Estes Park, Colorado
The overwhelming crowds of summer and fall at Rocky Mountain National Park dissipate in the winter, and even the most popular trails like Dream Lake Trail are much emptier and calmer. In the “off season," you can fully appreciate the quiet beauty of the classic frozen alpine lake hike. There are jaw-dropping views throughout this easy 2.2-mile out-and-back trek, and it’s a great winter hike for beginners and families. Depending on the amount of snowfall, snowshoes may be necessary, but a good pair of boots and traction will often suffice.
Begin at Bear Lake Trailhead, then skirt along the shores of Bear Lake and Nymph Lake before steadily climbing through aspen groves and ponderosa pines to the gorgeous Dream Lake with Hallett and Flattop Peaks rising in the distance. Turn back or continue on to Emerald Lake or Lake Haiyaha for even more spectacular views.
Grand Canyon National Park, Bright Angel Trail
Grand Canyon, Arizona
Visiting the esteemed Grand Canyon National Park during the winter means less tourists, which translates to better hiking experiences. The Bright Angel Trail, the park’s most popular hiking trail descending into the canyon’s depths, offers wide views of the inner canyon framed by massive cliffs and plenty of plant and animal life. Expect to see (and make way) for passing mules. Hikers can opt for shorter jaunts to the 1.5- or 3-mile rest houses or continue 4.5 miles to Indian Garden or 6 miles Plateau Point before turning back. While the trail is steep, the dirt path is well-maintained and fairly easy to walk downhill. However, traction devices are highly recommended in the winter, and the returning ascent can be challenging and take longer regardless of the season.
Buffalo National River, Lost Valley Trail
Ponca Township, Arkansas
The 2.4-mile out-and-back Lost Valley Trail is located near Buffalo National River, America’s first national river, which cuts east through the Arkansas Ozarks’ massive limestone bluffs and flows into the White River. An easy day hike through a creek-sculpted box canyon, highlights include waterfalls, caves, a natural bridge, a Native American bluff shelter, huge limestone boulders that have fallen from the bluffs above, and American beech tree groves. The payoff for a bit of steep terrain is an outstanding view of Eden Falls cascading 53 feet over towering cliffs (and icicles in the winter), ending with Eden Falls Cave, which you can crawl through if you’re not too claustrophobic and have a flashlight.
Yosemite National Park, Mirror Lake Trail
Yosemite Village, California
While hiking and driving options at Yosemite National Park are more limited in the winter, the crowds are greatly diminished, lodging is easier to find, and there are still plenty of activities like hikes with awe-inspiring snowy vistas and frozen lakes to enjoy. Most Yosemite Valley trails are hikable year-round, including Mirror Lake Trail, an easy and rewarding trek that’ll take you right up to the base of Half Dome, rising above the lake and pine trees, as well other sights like Tenaya Canyon, Mount Watkins, and Washington Column. You can hike the full 5-mile loop around the lake in 2-3 hours or quickly make the 2-mile round trip to the lake in an hour, leaving time to see nearby Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Fall.
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Nāpali Coast State Wilderness Park, Kalalau Trail
Arguably the most iconic hike in Hawaii, Kauai’s 11-mile Kalalau Trail is renowned for its stunning views of the Nāpali Coast, traversing lush valleys and towering sea cliffs before ending at the secluded Kalalau Beach. The narrow trail drops to sea level at the beaches of Hanakāpīʻai and Kalalau, and is also the only way to access this part of the island’s rugged coast by land. For experienced backpackers, the trek will take a full day and a camping permit is required for those interested in overnight stays. Permits are required to hike past Hanakapi’ai even if you don’t plan to camp. Temperatures rarely drop below 60°F, but winter weather can be less predictable, so check conditions before your outing.
Pro Tip: For a taste of the Kalalau Trail, plan a day hike to the remote Hanakāpīʻai Beach (4 miles round trip) or up to Hanakāpīʻai Falls (8 miles round trip); both require a day-use reservation.
Shawnee National Forest, Garden of the Gods Observation Trail
Just five hours south of Chicago, you’ll find one of the most photographed scenic spots in the state: Garden of the Gods in Shawnee National Forest. The wilderness area is characterized by unique natural sandstone rock formations and cliffs that are about 320 million years old as well as forests, rivers, and canyons. Winter decorates this amazing geological playground with dagger icicles and the occasional blanket of snow. For panoramic photo ops of the surrounding landscape, hike atop 70-foot bluffs along the 1/4-mile Observation Trail, a paved interpretive trail that’s open year-round and good for all skill levels.
Kenai Fjords National Park, Harding Icefield Trail
Alaska is an incredible year-round hiking destination. Heavily trafficked in the summer, the 8.2-mile round trip Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park is much more solitary and peaceful in the winter months. While the snow-covered trek is more strenuous, the epic day hike (allow at least six to eight hours) winds through forests and meadows before ultimately climbing above treeline and opening up to amazing views of the largest field of ice solely contained within the United States — a portal to past ice ages. If you’re not up for tackling the full summit, even a short hike up the trail affords impressive views of the majestic Exit Glacier. Check park conditions before heading out and come properly equipped for a mountaineering adventure.
Canaveral National Seashore, Castle Windy Trail
Just north of the Kennedy Space Center, the tranquil barrier island Canaveral National Seashore boasts the longest expanse of pristine shoreline in Florida and dune, hammock, and lagoon habitats. Since much of it is wild, it serves as a sanctuary for threatened wildlife like sea turtles — and welcome refuge for hikers in the winter — and also preserves ancient Timucua Native American mounds. Explore the canopied Castle Windy Trail, an 0.8-mile out and back path on Apollo Beach that’ll take you from the windswept Atlantic shoreline through a coastal hammock to Mosquito Lagoon.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Queen’s Garden/Navajo Loop Trail
Bryce Canyon National Park’s most defining features, hoodoos, are even more otherworldly when freshly dusted with snow. The park’s vertical, red-orange spires rising up from the canyon are strikingly beautiful set against the fallen snow, blue sky, and evergreen trees in the winter. Experience southern Utah’s winter wonderland up close by trekking the park’s more moderate, snow-packed trails like the combined Queen’s Garden and Navajo Loop Trail.
Plan on at least two to three hours for this 2.9-mile hike, which departs from Sunset Point to Sunrise Point along the canyon rim overlooking the red rock formations, then descends into the canyon’s main amphitheater via the Queen’s Garden Trail so you’re walking among the protruding hoodoos, including one shaped like Queen Victoria. Connect to the Navajo Loop (note: the Wall Street side closes every winter, so it’s not a full loop), which switchbacks through well-known hoodoo formations like Thor’s Hammer and Twin Bridges and ends at Sunset Point.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Forney Ridge Trail
Bryson City, North Carolina
Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s big draws in the winter is its majestic snow-covered peaks. Andrews Bald — the highest grassy Appalachian bald in the park — gives visitors some of the best views of these peaks. Beginning at the Clingmans Dome parking lot, the 3.6-mile round trip hike to Andrews Bald via the Forney Ridge Trail drops in elevation gradually before ascending to the grassy peak. From here, you’ll be able to soak in views of the frosty North Carolina mountains and surrounding highlands for miles.
Acadia National Park, Gorham Mountain Loop Trail
Bar Harbor, Maine
Most of Acadia National Park’s 3.5 million annual visitors come in the summer, so it can be worthwhile to venture out on the park’s popular trails when it’s chilliest, but still notably breathtaking. Winter hikers can strap on their snowshoes or cross-country skis to take in the coastal splendor sans crowds via routes like the 3.5-mile Gorham Mountain Loop Trail. The climb through spruce forests and over snow-covered granite offers panoramic ocean views of the rocky coastline and the scent of sea air. Extend your hike with a jaunt down to Sands Beach to collect shells.
North Shore State Trail
Duluth to Grand Marais, Minnesota
Minnesota winters can be brutal — with Duluth’s average high in January is a mere 20 degrees — but there’s no better place for some cold-weather hiking than a path that will give you epic views of Lake Superior’s icy blue frozen waters. The 146-mile North Shore State Trail in northeastern Minnesota runs along the lakefront and through serene protected forests on the ridgeline, but you certainly don’t have to hike all of it to experience some of the state’s most rugged and beautiful scenery. The trail is broken up into short sections, accessible from towns between Duluth and Grand Marais, and it connects with hundreds of miles of snowmobile club trails in the winter.
Oswald West State Park, Cape Falcon Trail
Arch Cape, Oregon
Two hours from Portland on the Oregon coast, Oswald West State Park features a secluded beach, one of the best preserved coastal rainforests in the state, and miles of trails with views of the Pacific Ocean, including a 13-mile stretch of the nearly 400-mile Oregon Coast Trail. Few coastal trails rival the scenic Cape Falcon Trail, a popular 4.6-mile out-and-back path through a forest of towering Sitka spruce trees to a lava headland that looks out over the Neahkahnie Mountain and a protected marine reserve, making its rocky cliffs a prime spot for whale watching, particularly in December and January when up to 20,000 gray whales migrate from the Bering Sea to Baja. Pack binoculars and look for their telltale spray.
Harriman State Park, Silver Mine Lake Trail
Bear Mountain, New York
The second-largest state park in New York, Harriman State Park, is just 30 miles north of New York City. With 46,613 acres, 32 lakes and reservoirs, three beaches, and more than 200 miles of hiking trails for various skill levels (even Appalachian Trail thru-hikers), the park is a haven for lovers of the outdoors, particularly city dwellers hoping to get a taste of the backcountry without having to travel far. The 4.5-mile Silver Mine Lake Trail is a leisurely wooded hike that’ll take you to the top of Black Mountain, where you’ll discover stunning panoramic views of the Hudson River and even the city skyline on a clear day.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Brandywine Gorge Trail
Families will love exploring Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s 1.5-mile Brandywine Gorge Trail, which features Brandywine Falls, an impressive 60-foot waterfall that freezes over in a longer cold snap. A wheelchair-accessible boardwalk leads to the gorge to view the icy waterfall head-on. Hikers can leave the paved trail, entering the woods past Brandywine Inn, and descend into the gorge. Go prepared with proper hiking boots since park trails aren’t generally cleared of snow or treated for ice (the boardwalk may be closed during icy conditions). Other spots to consider visiting: the Ledges Trail for dramatic icicles on the rocks and Blue Hen Falls.
Badlands National Park, Castle Trail
Interior, South Dakota
While winters are cold in Badlands National Park, you’ll avoid the blistering heat and crowds of summer by hiking the dramatic eroded landscape in the off-season. The longest marked trail in the park, Castle Trail, starts at the Door and Window parking area and journeys 5 miles one way to Fossil Exhibit Trail, which highlights fossil replicas and exhibits of now extinct creatures that once roamed the area. A moderate and relatively level 10-mile loop path, Castle Trail provides an up-close look at spires, buttes, and other badlands formations as well as panoramic views of the White River Valley. Since the trail is exposed the entire way, you’ll want to check weather conditions beforehand, and dress and plan accordingly.
Cumberland Trail State Scenic Trail State Park, Cumberland Trail
Tennessee’s first linear state park, Cumberland Trail, is perfect for adventure seekers, particularly in the winter when hikers tend to clear out from the popular trail. Stretching across the state from north to south, the in-progress scenic footpath cuts through 11 counties following a line of pristine high ridges and deep gorges along the rugged eastern edge of Cumberland Plateau. There are many completed hiking trail segments of this planned 330-mile trail. To wet your feet with a day hike, tackle the 9.5-mile Possum Creek section of the Three Gorges segment (just north of Chattanooga). Take in breathtaking overlook views and impressive geological formations, waterfalls, and rapids as you dip through steep river gorges and meander along the picturesque, wooded creek.
Big Bend National Park, South Rim Loop
Big Bend National Park, Texas
The lesser known Big Bend National Park, located in southwestern Texas on the U.S.-Mexico border, boasts one of the most stunning hiking areas in the state. Those who appreciate mild, dry hikes can explore its unique terrain for days in more inviting winter temperatures. If you’re up for a challenge, dedicate a day (or two) to the popular South Rim Loop. Depending on your chosen route, this fairly strenuous mountain hike is 11.6 to 14.5 miles total and attainable in a full day, but you can break up the journey with overnight stays at one of the many backcountry campsites along the way (if only to witness the rim’s amazing sunsets and sunrises). This trek ascends the Chisos Mountains, showing off the wooded bowls of Boot Canyon, summiting the 7,832-foot Emory Peak, and affording views of gorgeous vistas of the Chihuahuan Desert.
Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Boulder River Trail
Stretch your legs along the Boulder River Trail in one of the most visited forests in the country. Off the Mountain Loop Highway near the North Cascades, this relatively easy and popular riverside hike ambles through a mossy old-growth forest as it passes multiple waterfalls. The family-friendly trail is less crowded than many other hikes near Seattle, especially in the winter. Boulder River Falls, a frequent turnaround point, is a 3-mile round trip hike, but the trail can be followed to the end for a 8.6-mile round trip. Take time to admire the forest fairyland’s dripping moss and one of the state’s most beautiful waterfalls.
Yellowstone National Park, Observation Point Loop Snowshoe Trail
West Yellowstone, Wyoming
With snow blanketing the landscape and visitors at a minimum, there’s no winter destination more magical than Yellowstone National Park. The park has miles of snowshoeing trails for adventurers to experience the backcountry and popular active geyser areas. The 2-mile, snowshoe-only Observation Point Loop Snowshoe Trail, frequented by bison and elk, is a relatively low-effort hike that rewards you with unobstructed views of the the Firehole River and Upper Geyser Basin, the most densely concentrated geyser region in the world. The steamy hydrothermal wonders like Old Faithful seem even more spectacular in the winter.