Winter hiking. When temps drop and days get shorter, I turn into a total creature comfort connoisseur, seeking coziness at every turn, but that doesn’t mean I sit inside for months on end...no way. I’d go crazy. There’s nothing like being outside, soaking up the sun, freezing my tuchas off then returning to a crackling fire, a nice hot toddy, and steaming shower. It’s all about balance, right? So, keeping in mind that I’m more often in the mood for a day hike in the winter versus an overnighter in the snow, here are some of my favorite jaunts. At the end of the day, any trail you’re on is a good one. These, however, are the ones I’ll happily repeat ad nauseum. Here we go...
Highlights = big views, giant sequoias, deep/glacial cut valley with sheer granite walls and domes, mountains of moraine and massive boulders dropped in seemingly impossible positions.
If you’ve been to Yosemite in the summer, go back in the winter!!!! It’s a totally different experience. In stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of summer crowds, roaring waterfalls, and clogged roads, the entire park seems to be taking a deep breath, quieting down, sitting still. It is surreal to experience this depth of peace and tranquility while taking in the depths of the valley itself. I dream of soaking in the unbelievable majesty of granite domes while blanketing snow muffles echoes and quiets the canyon.
Even in low snow years, the quiet is noticeable. Fewer cars. Shorter lines. Open trails. In just a few days, you can experience waterfalls, snowshoe through old growth forest, and take in expansive, cross-valley views. Consider Vernal and Nevada Falls (via the Mist Trail and/or John Muir trails depending on winter conditions) for views upon views; take Glacier Point Road to the winter road closure at Badger Pass and snowshoe out to Dewey Point for snow covered meadows and valley views, the Upper and Lower Loops in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, and the Valley Loop Trail for lesser known gems.
Highlights: wildlife, hot springs, wide open expanses, geysers!
Like bears retiring to their dens for a long winter’s nap, the crowds have retreated and the park transforms in winter. Forget the traffic and “animal jams”, standing-room-only viewings of Old Faithful, and crowded walkways of the summer. Steaming rivers, wide open meadows blanketed in snow, bison huddled together for warmth around bubbling hot springs, frozen waterfalls, and a quiet peace are the stars of the season.
Ease in with a snowshoe hike along the groomed Tower Fall Trail where wildlife sightings are common. Take a scenic snow coach out to Old Faithful and cross country ski through the Upper Geyser Basin where you’ll find a diverse array of geysers from thin fountains to massive eruptions of thick plumes of steam. Strap on snowshoes to explore Biscuit Basin with its brilliant Sapphire Pool on your way to the ice curtain of Mystic Falls. At night, don’t forget to bundle up and step away from the cozy fire at least once to view some of the most breathtaking, vibrant starry night skies. You can even take your hot toddy to go. Mmmmmmmm.
Blue Ridge Mountains
The west is massive, grand, intimidating, and stop-you-in-your-tracks gorgeous while the east feels softer, wise, ancient, welcoming, and mysterious. It’s harder to capture in a photo. You have to sink into the depths of the Blue Ridge, breathe it in, and let yourself feel the beauty. One of my favorite day hikes outside of Asheville, NC (home base for me) is the Blue Ridge Parkway. With over 16 million visitors every year, the Parkway is the most visited national park in the US. It runs 469 miles and its route takes you along ridges with breathtaking views, down into stream filled valleys, through forests, and back out to the mountaintops. You’ll experience as much variety in ecosystems along this route as if you’d traveled from GA to Maine. Incredible. In the winter, most of the NC section closes to vehicle traffic due to ice, snow, and maintenance requirements but you can still access the route by foot. There are many access points and all of them are great. I love strolling through the spooky quiet of the tunnels where it feels like zombies might jump out at any second and water drips and echoes as you head toward the small light at the other end. Really. Super spooky. Twenty-five of the Parkway’s 26 tunnels are located in NC so it’s likely you’ll find one on your stroll. Careful, though, as most of these tunnels can be super slick with ice.
You might find a roadway blanketed in snow or an open pathway with long range winter views. Either way, it’s a lovely day. Have cozy layers? Stay for sunset at one of the hundreds of overlooks and walk back by the light of your headlamp. The road is super easy to follow!
You may have noticed a trend in the hikes I’ve highlighted above...I don’t love sleeping on snow and I’m not afraid to admit it to you. The Smokies, however, are the exception. If you’re up for some winter camping, I highly recommend a guided backpacking trip in this area. The weather tends to be more temperate than other, harsher environments, and taking a guided trip means someone else is dealing with the fire and chef-ing up delicious backcountry gourmet meals. Just a thought for those of you who don’t shy away from the cold....
Highlights: connect with history, incredible variety (elevations ranging from 250ft BELOW sea level to 11,049ft), largest national park in the lower 48, warm winter temps.
Ready to escape the chill? There’s no reason to be frozen to the bone when you can enjoy an adventure in the desert right? Considered the “off-season” in many other parks and destinations, Oct - May is the prime time to visit the lower 48’s largest national park: Death Valley. Don’t get me wrong, it can still get chilly, but temps regularly climb into the 60s with sunny skies. The perfect hiking weather, in my opinion! And the highlights: I can’t imagine anyone exploring this place without feeling the magic of walking in the footsteps of history. Ancient fossils, pre-historic petroglyphs, 19th century ghost towns, and trails of prospectors in the iconic Old West await. If you want a challenge, consider a hike to Telescope Peak. You can start below sea level and work your way to the summit at 11,049 ft. Incredible. Give yourself four days to fully enjoy that route. Along the way, you’ll encounter blistering salt flats, wind-torn desert, oases-filled canyons, lush slot narrows, ancient alpine forests, sloped mountain meadows, and the stunning vista of Telescope Peak. Seems like a solid winter activity to me!
Bonus: Ease of access. The park is just two hours from Las Vegas, NV!
Highlights: personal challenge, high altitude, stunning views of the Avenue of Volcanoes.
A common part of an acclimatization program for summiting nearby Cotopaxi Volcano, Illiniza Norte is easily one of my hands-down favorite hikes in the Ecuadorian Andes all on its own. It’s the most challenging hike I’ve listed here and has kicked my rear a few times but is oh so worth it every time. You can visit year-round but the best months to go are December and January when (you hope) winds are less severe. You’ll need a few days to acclimatize before attempting to reach to the peak at 16,818 ft and there are tons of lovely options along the Avenue of Volcanoes (Ecuador’s section of the Andes) to help you get ready. Once you’re feeling good at altitude, it’s time to go up! I recommend staying at the refugio and getting an alpine start for the best weather. At that altitude, I usually feel fuzzy and disconnected yet hyper focused on each step forward which is meditative in its own right. Reaching the peak is such a rush. You’ll be above the clouds and, if mother nature allows, have a stunning view of other volcanic peaks soaring above the sea of clouds. When I was there last, the nearby Volcano Cotopaxi was erupting and the large plume of ash soaring into the sky was awe inspiring to watch. The hike down is more of a hilarious running slide through soft volcanic material. Overall, it’s equal parts personal challenge, breathtaking views, misery, and elation. There are many non-technical peaks to tackle in Ecuador but this is easily my favorite. It feels just sketchy enough to keep your adrenaline soaring and your attention focused the entire time then offers views upon views when you take a moment to catch your breath. Even when it’s fogged in, the landscape feels other-worldly. If you like to feel as if you’ve “earned” your views, put this hike on your list!