Top 3: Better in Winter

What off season? Bundle up and reap the benefits of colder weather in these snowy playgrounds.
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What off season? Bundle up and reap the benefits of colder weather in these snowy playgrounds.

Crater Lake NP, OR

Watchman Peak

Climb to views of America’s deepest lake.

Thanks to Rim Drive, this 1,900-foot-deep world wonder is mainly a drive-by attraction in summer. But when the annual average 44 feet of snow shuts down the auto parade, the views of the shockingly blue, cliff-lined lake await backcountry explorers. Soak them in on a 7.3-mile (round-trip) snowshoe up 8,013-foot Watchman Peak. From Rim Village, strike out on West Rim Drive through gently rolling evergreen forest. Start climbing Watchman’s obvious western ridge just past the Union Peak Overlook (mile 3.1), gaining 600 feet in .6 mile to views of the crater and the distant Cascades. Retrace your steps. Option: Camp among the hemlocks southwest of Wizard Island Overlook (mile 2.3; permit required). Save the trip for clear weather (routefinding gets tricky in storms). (541-594-300; nps.gov/crla) Trip ID2012667

The way From Medford, take OR 62 east 70 miles, then turn left on Munson Valley Rd.; go 4.5 miles to Rim Village. Start on the snow ramp west of the restrooms.

Voyageurs NP, MN

Black Bay Ski Loop

Glide through winter-access-only woods.

Getting to the Kabetogama Peninsula’s serene ponds and thick northern hardwood forest usually requires a boat—but come winter, Rainy Lake freezes (it’s usually solid by mid-January), offering an easy drive-in approach to miles of ski and snowshoe trails. Only four percent of the park’s annual visitors come in February and March, ensuring your own private paradise. Link the groomed Ridge, Pine, and Birch Trails for a six-mile skate or classic ski loop. You’ll glide past frozen beaver ponds, climb a rugged ridge, and wind through a naked forest of birch, aspen, and white pine; watch for fox prints in the snow, and listen for the howls of the park’s timber wolves. Stop at the Rainy Lake Visitor Center for $5 cross-country ski rentals or free loaner snowshoes. (218-286-5258; nps.gov/voya

The way From International Falls, take MN 11 E 10 miles. Turn right on CR 96. From the visitor center, continue a mile north on Rainy Lake Ice Rd. to Black Bay. 

Great Smoky Mountains NP, TN

Clingmans Dome Road

Get rare solitude at a Smokies peak.

Normally, tourists flock to Tennessee’s 6,643-foot high point like ducks on a June bug. But each winter, between December 1 and March, Clingmans Dome Road closes to cars, leaving the expansive views to the hardy few who are willing to trek 15 miles round-trip to the top. The gently winding route traverses just south of the AT, gradually gaining almost 1,600 feet en route to the peak’s lookout tower. You’ll ski or snowshoe (the track is ungroomed) through a balsam fir and spruce forest often frosted in thick rime ice, earning peeks at the rounded ridges of Deep Creek and Noland Creek valleys. On top, enjoy longer views and brighter colors than in the warmer months, thanks to less air pollution. February through March usually brings the best snow. (865-436-1200; nps.gov/grsm) Trip ID2006127

The way From Gatlinburg, take US 441 south about 16 miles; park at Newfound Gap and walk .1 mile south to the gate at Clingmans Dome Rd.