Some people would have you believe that hiking is a 3-season activity. Assuming a concerned tone, they'll warn you about frigid temperatures, park closures, and impassable trails. And, to a certain extent, they might be right. In the United States, winter is a season for skiing, snowboarding, and ice skating. Or gathering around a fireplace with a few friends and a mug of hot cocoa or mulled wine.
Hikers should know however, that they don't have to put off their kind of fun until the spring thaw, even if the snowdrifts outside continue to grow. They simply need to pick up a new piece of gear: snowshoes. A basic pair will only cost a little more than the waterproof, Gore-Tex boots you probably already own. Once you've chosen your snowshoes, all you need to do next is dress in layers, pack plenty of snacks and water (and maybe a few hand warmer packets just in case), and select a trail. To get you started, here's a short list of state parks in the Northeast with winter trails and on-site rental facilities.
Roughly three hours by car from the District of Columbia, Blackwater Falls State Park in West Virginia maintains ten miles of trails for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Stop at the Sled Run & Cross Country Ski Center (open mid-December until March 15th) to pick up equipment, consult the trail map, and get a few pointers from the snow-loving staff. Herrington Manor State Park in western Maryland has more than 15 miles of groomed trails for winter sports enthusiasts. On weekends, their concession (open 8:30am to 4:00pm) sells snack and gifts and rents snowshoes for $15 a day. Skis and sleds are also available by the day and half day.
At Pennsylvania's Laurel Ridge State Park, just over an hour's drive south from Pittsburgh, visitors can rent snowshoes for $20 from the Laurel Ridge XC Ski Center on Jim Mountain Road. Four color-coded trails are open Thursday through Monday from 9am until 5pm and require an addition $8 trail pass which can be purchased at the park concession. Further east, the High Point Cross Country Ski Center has full day and half day snowshoe packages from $13. Grab a pair and hit the trails in the hilly terrain of High Point State Park. This is the snowiest corner of the state, so if you have a good time and think you'll be back more than once this year, consider buying a season pass. It will pay for itself in eight visits.
Meanwhile, New York State has a number of parks where anyone new snowshoeing can get a little practice in. Fahnestock Winter Park is a relatively short trip from Manhattan or Westchester while Minnewaska State Park Preserve is about two hours by car. Both locations offer snowshoes at the reasonable rate of $15 a day or $14 for children 17 and under. Park Bring extra money to cover the trail pass/vehicle entry fee. Finally, in Massachusetts, there's the Great Brook Ski Touring Center at Great Brook Farm State Park. A 45-minute drive from downtown Boston, this center is open from the beginning of December until March 20th, depending on snow conditions. Visit on Tuesdays and Thursdays to try night snowshoeing by lantern light.
Need another excuse to try snowshoeing? How about this: Saturday, January 12 is Winter Trails Day, your chance to try snowshoeing for free at one of almost 100 resorts and Nordic Centers around the country. For more information about places to snowshoe in North America, visit the official website of the Cross Country Ski Area Association or check out the Appalachian Mountain Club's round up of family-friendly snowshoe hikes.
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