When those big, fat flakes start falling, it’s time to pull all the warm clothes out of storage and get ready for some winter activities. But if you’re not a skier, there’s no need to feel left out. Bundle up and head out into the snow with our 10 winter destinations for non-skiers. Our list covers adventurous pursuits like bobsledding and ice climbing, has a little something for animal lovers with dog sledding and snow monkeys, lets the hungry enjoy a king crab safari, and tops it all off with a great way to revel in the Aurora Borealis. Most destinations are in North America, but for those of you who yearn for international travel, we’ve thrown in a few far-afield places as well.
Ice racers, start your engines! On certain weekends in January through March, brave drivers race cars on the frozen Georgetown Lake, in the Rocky Mountains just 45 minutes outside Denver. Anyone with a four-wheel drive vehicle can enter, as long as they also have a driver’s license and the $20 entry fee. The races are organized by volunteers from the Our Gang 4 Wheelers ice racing club. The best days for spectators are Saturdays, when the experienced drivers compete. Saturday drivers must have tires with studs or bolts (called “cheaters”), which give the cars more traction on the frozen-over lake. Instead of subjecting your rental car to the icy racetrack, perhaps it’s best to watch the races from the sidelines. Since there’s no rookie school, watching is a good way to start. Weekend ice races in 2013 take place on January 12, 13, 26, 27, February 9, 10, 23, 24, as well as March 2 and 3.
If cold weather makes you want to take a long, hot bath, consider how much you have in common with the snow monkeys of Japan. Jigokudani Yaenkoen Park is located in the Yokoyu River valley, which flows down from Shiga Kogen. It’s called “Hell’s Valley” (Jigokudani), due to its steep cliffs and hot water steaming out from underground. Snow is on the ground here for nearly one-third of the year, and the Japanese macaques that live here take advantage of the warm water to get through the winter. Watch the snow monkeys play, take a leisurely onsen (a bath in the hot springs), and pretty much ignore the human paparazzi encroaching on their winter paradise. If you do visit, resist the urge to pet or feed the monkeys; they’re not tame, and may bite if they feel threatened.
Safaris aren’t just for Africa. Pack your warmest clothing and travel to Norway for a very different kind of safari – one that involves king crabs. The Arctic Adventure Resort’s King Crab Safari is a day trip from the resort on snowmobile or boat to a fjord to hunt for gigantic king crabs. Experienced divers do the fishing in the depths of the fjord and you do the eating. How could you go wrong? Resort chefs swear by the delicious accompaniment of lemon, homemade garlic dressing, white bread, and white wine with the tender crabmeat. And since you worked so hard to catch your prized crab (or at least made the trek to watch someone else do it), you owe it to yourself to see how it tastes. To top off the experience, a local king crab specialist regales you with tales of the creatures while you kick back and enjoy your meal.
Fancy yourself a competitive athlete? Head to the Olympic Sports Complex at Lake Placid – home to the 1980 Olympic Winter Games. The combined bobsled, luge, and skeleton track here is the only one east of the Rocky Mountains, and you can make your Olympic dreams a reality with a spin on the track. No, you won’t be alone; you’ll be in the company of a skilled driver and brakeman, but you’ll still feel the adrenaline burst of zipping along on the icy track. If that’s not enough of a thrill, combine the bobsled experience with a turn on the skeleton, with only a tiny sled between you and the hard ice.
There’s no shame in thinking that all of that sounds just a little too, well, fast. If that’s the case, head to the Lake Placid Olympic Museum and relive those amazing sporting moments without working up a sweat.
Get vertical at the Ouray Ice Park in Colorado , considered by many to be the ice climbing capital of the United States. Once a sleepy mining town, Ouray is where ice climbers go for winter fun and challenge, as well as for the largest ice climbing festival in North America. Taking advantage of both natural ice formations in the San Juan Mountains and the city’s water overflow, the ice park was the first of its kind in the world, with more than 200 unique climbing routes up the ice walls. Admission to the park is free to the public, and a list of guides is available for those who are new to the sport. The park also has a kids' climbing area, so you can get them started early. Just be prepared to buy them their own ice ax for their next birthday if your children get hooked! To really celebrate the culture of ice climbing (and meet some of the best climbers in the world), coordinate your trip around the 18th annual Ouray Ice Festival, which takes place January 9-12, 2013.
In 1973, Dan Seavey helped co-found the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the 1,000-mile sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. His family, including 2004 Iditarod winner, Mitch, raises and trains these furry snow racers that pull their riders through the harsh terrain. Try your hand at driving a dog team with Seavey’s Ididaride winter dog sledding tours. Dress in layered cold weather gear, because the winter weather usually ranges between 20 and 35 degrees. You’ll mush your own team of four dogs down the Resurrection River Valley to Exit Glacier before stopping for lunch and hot chocolate. The entire tour travels 16 miles through the Alaskan wilderness, among moose and eagles, until you return to the Seavey Kennel and play with adorable husky puppies. If you’d like to watch the experts mush their teams, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race begins on March 2, 2013.
Watch the spectacular lights of the Aurora Borealis from your own reclining, heated viewing seat that rotates 360 degrees. In Aurora Village, just outside the town of Yellowknife, a campground of glowing teepees sits under the vibrantly colored sky – the perfect backdrop for your Northern Lights vacation photos. Yellowknife is one of the best cities in the Northern Hemisphere to view the aurora, as it’s situated directly beneath the aurora oval – a halo-like ring located around the magnetic pole. Late-night snacks, hot beverages, and transportation to your hotel are included in the aurora-viewing price. Come earlier in the afternoon to add a winter excursion of dog sledding, snowshoeing, or snowmobiling before you settle in under the stars for Mother Nature’s evening show.
Enjoy a national park in the winter, when all of the huge summer crowds are gone. Slap on those snowshoes and go for a jaunt with Yellowstone Expeditions, with whom you can discover the quiet Yellowstone backcountry. Multi-day excursions cover the slopes of the Washburn Range, the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, the meadows of Cascade Creek, and a handful of backcountry hot-spring basins. Who knows, you might just make pals with the bison and elk herds, since you won’t have to compete with tons of other humans. After a day trekking among the frozen wonderland, head back to your private heated sleeping hut in the comfy yurt camp at 8,000 feet. Set in a small meadow surrounded by pine forest, the camp includes kitchen and dining room yurts heated by wood burning stoves, so you can stay cozy at mealtime. For those sore-muscle moments, spend some time in the cedar sauna and enjoy the tranquility of Yellowstone without the crowds.
Another ideal place to make the most of winter is Yosemite National Park. With the crowds of summer gone and a blanket of snow on the ground, the park falls silent – with the wind through the trees providing the most frequent soundtrack. Embrace your inner child, or just please your own kids, by taking in the breathtaking views from the Curry Village Ice Rink. No need to worry if you don’t have your own skates; rentals are available. After you’ve spun your heart out on the ice, settle down around a fire ring with some hot chocolate or even the makings for s’mores. Park visitors have been enjoying ice skating at Yosemite since the 1930s, so go see what the tradition is all about.
Simply enjoy the vista as you sit in the warmth of the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn, a small, red train in the dazzling beauty of the Alps. The Glacier Express runs from Zermatt to Davos or St. Moritz through jaw-dropping mountain scenery and across 291 bridges. The 7.5-hour journey on the “slowest express train in the world” provides riders with the opportunity to slow down and relax. The Gornergrat Bahn starts in Zermatt and travels through alpine meadows and fairytale forests as it climbs the Gornergrat. On a clear day, you can see the Matterhorn from the end of the line. Either path is your ticket to the Swiss Alps of your childhood imagination with sparkling snow and spectacular mountain panoramas. When you arrive at your destination, enjoy a steaming hot pot of fondue as you settle into cozy mountain mode.