I nodded off in the back of the black SUV on route 80, somewhere in rainy North Jersey, and when I opened my eyes a bit later, trees on either side of the highway were coated with ice. We had crossed into Pennsylvania, made a sharp left turn at the sign for the Inn at Pocono Manor in (tel. 570/839-7111; www.poconomanor.com), and were driving down a narrow road past snowy fields and houses. The Inn itself, a sprawling 250-room structure built in 1902, was quiet on a Wednesday in late January, and distinctly evoked a bygone era. We've all seen it, at least on a TV screen -- the rustic cottages, whole families learning the mambo, shuffleboard, the vast ballroom that doubles as a breakfast buffet -- and in the Pocono Mountains, it is evident that this kind of family togetherness and all inclusiveness is still the scene. But all "Nobody puts Baby in a corner" and heart-shaped tub jokes aside, the Poconos' charms are many and varied. And during these long, cold months, snow bunnies looking for a weekend getaway will find a seriously wintry destination, with an average low temperature of 16°F and an average monthly snowfall of over a foot just 95 miles from New York City.
Go Snow Tubing in the Dark
Tubing may sound like a tame alternative to skiing or snowboarding, but hurtling down a slope that was once used for downhill skiing in a hardy inner tube will make even the most jaded speed demon's stomach drop. I tubed at Fernwood Hotel and Resort (tel. 888/337-6966; www.fernwoodhotel.com), an all-inclusive resort in the town of Bushkill, PA. It was after 6pm, and the icy, slick snow shone eerily in the large, stadium-style lights. A cable mechanism pulled me up the slope at a pretty good clip, then unceremoniously tipped me over a small, steep hill. Some choose to run and flop down belly first -- I sat in my tube and edged as slowly as I could to the top of the slope. Even without the extra momentum, you'll fly down the slope at 30 to 40 mph.
Hang Out with the Dogs
It is incredible to stand on a sled behind 8 huskies, even if they run for only a minute or two before slowing down and tangling up. When I attempted dog sledding with Arctic Paws (tel. 570/443-9267; www.arcticpawsdogsledtours.com), the crusty, sharp snow on the ground made it difficult for the team to run far or fast. Though the experience is certainly a scaled down version of the Iditarod, the dogs are serious about what they do, and watching their well-muscled bodies strain against their harnesses helps you imagine what it might be like to ride at maximum speed and smoothness on optimal terrain. Arctic Paws prides itself on being one of the few dog sledding outfits that allows you, the guest, to be the musher. This means that you stand with your feet splayed duck-style on the back of a metal sled and hang on tight. When the dogs slow down, you help by pushing off the ground with one of your feet, as though you're skateboarding.
Strap on Snowshoes
If you've never tried snowshoes, you may feel a bit awkward at first, stomping around like a large animal in the snow -- but you'll quickly adjust. No longer the huge tennis-racket shaped contraptions of yesteryear, newer, smaller snowshoes (like Tubbs) still let you walk in very deep snow without sinking up to your thighs. Snowshoeing is very quiet and surprisingly aerobic. If you have the option to use cross country ski poles, do so -- you'll find yourself breaking a sweat in no time. I snowshoed with Northeast Wilderness Experience (tel. 570/729-1700; www.newildernessexperience.com), an independent company that has partnered with several resorts in the Pocono Mountain area. Dusk was falling, and the air was cold and clear. We walked single file through a substantial network of trails and, when it was over, drank thick hot chocolate as the sun went down.
Ride an ATV on Snowy Trails
Even if you're more of a serene, nature-communing sportsperson, these squat, noisy machines are worth a try. Tony and Sol of The Lost Trails ATV Adventures (tel. 570/730-8131; www.ridelosttrails.com), who maintain the trails at the Inn at Pocono Manner, carefully test and warm up each machine, then take a trial run on the trails before they begin a tour. After I overcame my nerves, it was pretty exciting to control a vehicle with the subtle pressure of my thumb. We bounced along follow-the-leader style at about 10 miles per hour, and the terrain was surprisingly rugged -- picture a hiking or cross country skiing trail deep in the woods. Tony led us up steep hills, through two feet of icy water, and down an abandoned ski slope, offering advice and instructions. It's an oddly exhilarating combination of horsepower and Mother Nature, mixed with just the right amount of danger. If you're bringing the kids, note that Lost Trail's policy is 16 and over. Also, make sure your gloves are adequate. I had to borrow Tony's.
Ski Eight Mountains
Though the Poconos are famous for their family atmosphere, don't overlook the skiing and riding opportunities concentrated here. The area boasts eight mountains that are open to the public, including:
- Camelback Mountain Resort (www.skicamelback.com)
- Blue Mountain Ski Area (www.skibluemt.com)
- Big Boulder Ski Area (www.jfbb.com)
- Alpine Mountain Ski & Ride Center (www.alpinemountain.com)
- Jack Frost Mountain (www.jfbb.com)
- Shawnee Mountain (www.shawneemt.com)
- Ski Big Bear (www.ski-bigbear.com)
- Tanglwood Ski Area (www.tanglwood.net)
All locals have their favorite spot, and each area highlights its strengths. For instance, Shawnee has a great lesson program (for ultra-beginners like me), Camelback has the most trails available, and Jack Frost and Big Bear double as live music venues. If you do plan to hit more than one area in a day, be prepared to put in some miles. Though easily navigable, the Poconos are a mountain range, not a pre-packaged resort town.
Note: Frommer's Editorial Assistant Jessica Langan-Peck was a guest of the Pocono Mountains Visitor's Bureau and Lou Hammond & Associates, Inc.