Winter Family Fun, Beyond Skiing: Off-the-Slopes Adventure in the U.S. and Canada
There’s a lot more to winter outdoor adventure than downhill skiing. Dogsledding, snowshoeing, cross-country treks, horseback riding, and cycling across snow with special “fat bikes” are just a few of the ways families can celebrate the coldest season off the piste while still getting out into nature. If you and your kids aren’t into fighting the crowds (and blowing your budget) on the ski slopes, there’s still plenty of fun to be found at these splendid places in the U.S. and Canada.
Drive your own team of sled dogs through the snowy landscape on trips by Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge. Each day, you'll glide 11–14 miles through the icicle-laden forests and across the frozen lakes of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness surrounding Ely, Minnesota. Musher-adventurer Paul Schurke designed the trips to be hands-on and the sled footboards support two people, so family members can pair up to share mushing duties. Guides teach you how to harness the huskies, command them to move, and encourage them to run fast and in tight formation.
These trips are rewarding—the dogs in particular seem to love it—but they’re physical, requiring standing for five hours at a time, so this vacation is best suited for kids aged 6 and older. Choose from three- to six-day lodge-based or camping trips; half-day and full-day outings are also available.
A classic New England village, the bucolic settlement of Grafton, Vermont, population 620, charms visitors with its restored 19th-century homes, covered bridge, tree-lined streets, and the Grafton Inn, which dates to 1801. At the 2,000-acre Grafton Trails and Outdoor Center, hike into the snowy woods or cross-country ski on separate trails of 9.3 miles (15 km) each. Or pedal through the winterscape on a fat bike, a mountain bike with big “fat” tires that can roll on top of the snow. It’s understandable if you don’t have your own fat bikes in your garage, so the center rents them, as well as adult- and kid-sized cross-country skis and snowshoes. Complete a winter getaway as perfect as a Hallmark Channel movie by snow tubing and sleigh riding at the Center and staying overnight at the historic Inn.
There’s something special about horseback riding through the snow on a crisp day, when the sun glints off the fields and the horse’s breath hangs in the air. Unlike many dude ranches that only operate when it’s warm, C Lazy U Ranch, in Granby, Colorado, offers an all-inclusive program for families in winter. Cleated horseshoes keep the steeds steady on slippery surfaces. On inclement days, opt for horsemanship lessons in the ranch’s enclosed 12,000-square-foot arena. Toddlers aged 3 to 5 ride ponies and “help” groom the horses and make snowmen. For out-of-the-saddle adventure, you can snowshoe, cross-country ski, tube downhill, ice skate on a frozen pond, and go on a sleigh ride pulled by Belgian draft horses. If you still crave downhill ski runs after all that, the resort operates complimentary shuttles to nearby Winter Park.
Winter may be the best season to visit Yellowstone National Park, especially for wildlife watchers. The crowds and traffic disappear, and the animals become more visible when they mass in the lower regions where the conditions are less harsh. In Lamar Valley, the elusive wolves (pictured above) and coyotes come down from the ridges to hunt for food in the meadows near the road. It’s easy to spot a red fox in snow, and bison look even more formidable with clumps of snow dangling from their shaggy coats. When Old Faithful's spray and other geysers meet the frigid air, ice pellets rain down and nearby trees turn ghostly with hoarfrost.
Since only one road remains open in winter and driving can be treacherous, it’s wise to book a snowcoach tour. Knowledgeable guides know how to spot the animals. You’re likely to see the most diversity of animals on the Lamar Valley Wildlife Tour, which departs from the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins, one of two park accommodations that accept winter visitors. The Madison Wildlife Tour leaves from the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, a hotel that also hosts free ice skating and evening bonfires.
With a noted spa, good food, and a 2,300-acre setting in the Allegheny Mountains, the Omni Homestead Resort, in Hot Springs, Virginia, packages winter with pampering. A National Historic Landmark, the hotel has a past that reaches back more than 250 years to when a small inn housed guests who came to soak in the mineral springs. The resort’s colonnaded lobby and rows of front porch rockers set a tone of Southern graciousness.
Although known for its golf courses, the grande dame resort shines in winter—you can stroll the snowy grounds, splash in the outdoor heated pool (there’s an indoor pool, too), and skate on the ice rink (pictured above). Through the resort's snow sports center, you can swirl down the hill on an inflatable tube or watch your adventurers aged 6 to 12 steer mini snowmobiles along a track at speeds up to 8 mph. (The resort also operates a modest downhill ski area that suits beginners). Because the property's Homestead Adventure Kids Club operates for ages 5 to 10 on winter weekends, including on Friday and Saturday nights, it’s possible for parents to slip away for romantic meals. Top the trip off with a spa treatment for yourself and your kids; even the 5-to-12-year-olds can indulge with manicures and pedicures designed just for them.
Québec’s French flair, historic sites, museums, and affordability (the U.S. dollar buys about 25% more in Canada) attract families year-round, but there’s no doubt that snow heightens the charm. Old Québec, a UNESCO World Heritage Site noted for its fortified walls and cobblestone streets, becomes radiant when illuminated in a winter twilight. The Québécois people love their outdoor winter sports, so it’s easy for families to intersperse visits to indoor sites with outdoor fun.
Cross-country skiing, ice skating, and snowshoeing are all free at Parc des Champs-de-Bataille (Battlefields Park). (Rental equipment is available there for a charge). At Village Nordik, a seasonal activities park at the Port of Québec, try ice fishing from inside a heated igloo. It's a highlight of any Québec City winter vacation to zip down the slides (pictured above) at Terrasse Dufferin (Dufferin Terrace), a broad walkway overlooking the St. Lawrence River. The Terrasse also attracts fans of the Winter Carnival’s annual canoe race, an icy a mix of portaging and paddling. Adjacent to the Terrasse, the iconic Fairmont Le Château Frontenac’s castle-like facade dazzles kids. After a day of exploring, share hot chocolate or afternoon tea at the iconic property.
You know a town takes winter seriously when its business district features a tubing hill. A former mining center situated on Lake Payette, McCall, Idaho, knows how to attract snow enthusiasts who crave a small mountain town (population: about 3,000)—it even has a special fleet of bumper cars on an ice rink. Just outside of town, cross-country ski and snowshoe through stately pines at 1,000-acre Ponderosa State Park.
Jug Mountain Ranch, 7 miles south of McCall, has cross-country skiing and fat biking (pictured above) through logging forests and along creeks. Accessible by a free shuttle from McCall, Brundage Mountain Ski Resort operates fat biking, snowshoeing, and snow tubing down 800-foot-long chutes. McCall accommodations include the lakefront Shore Lodge, ski condos, vacation rental homes, and inns.
For winter thrills, ride the luge at the aptly named Muskegon Luge Adventure Sports Park in Muskegon. One of just a few U.S. tracks open to tourists, the 850-foot-long run rockets riders up to 30 mph. The impressive speed and six curves satisfy adrenaline junkies who want to zoom down a run but aren’t quite up to an Olympic-sized challenge. (The attraction is popular, so reserve your passes well ahead of time.) Riders must be at least 48 inches tall for the luge and the zip line, which glides through the icicle-laden trees from 25-foot-high platforms.
For slower fun, skate on the ice rink or along a quarter-mile course through the woods. You can also cross-country ski on 4 miles of groomed trails and snowshoe on multiple loops that cover terrains of varying difficulty. Muskegon has plenty of accommodations, including a variety of chain hotels.