I stumbled off the frozen trail and tumbled into a snow drift. Instantly, snow filled my hiking boots and it seemed as if the designers of my socks might have originally been employed in a sponge factory. Within minutes, my socks were cold, wet, and soggy. And I loved it.
Last year at this time, I was wasting away in the bleak doldum days of winter. This winter, though, thanks to a little travel and better weather, I’ve been fortunate to lace up my hiking boots, pull on my navy blue thermal underwear, button up my gore-tex jacket, yank on my hat, and do a number of interesting hikes.
Here then, rather obliquely, are excellent winter hikes that I’ve done in the last six weeks and that I wouldn’t hesitate to do again:
This short 1.5 mile hike gets enough foot traffic in winter that the snow on the trail gets packed down and no snow shoes or skis are needed. There is really only one main reason to hike this trail in winter: frozen water falls! Frozen water falls, quiet simply, justify the whole reason for shivering for the three or four months (or more in Montana) of winter every year. They are some of my favorite things on the planet and the ones at Ousel Falls are especially great.
The Ousel Falls trail, after descending from the parking lot, will eventually lead you to a few different falls. The main falls are wide and stretch the width of a narrow canyon forming a solid wall of ice. Before then, though, is an area with a number of smaller falls that form free standing ice columns. In winter, with no people around and the noise of a stream flowing under a layer of ice, Ousel Falls is a peaceful, beautiful hike.
To reach the trail head from the Big Sky entrance, drive 2.4 miles along the main Big Sky road. Turn left on Ousel Falls Road and continue for 2.1 miles to the well marked parking area.
The capital city of Montana is lucky in that it claims an entire mountain as a city park. Mount Helena is covered with trails and the moderate hike to the top can be done it winter. The roughly four mile hike has an elevation gain of over a thousand feet, but it’s worth it. After you reach the top of the 5,500 foot peak, you’ll have a great view of the entire Helena Valley.
Be warned that snowy and icy winter conditions, combined with lots of foot traffic, can pack snow down on the trails and make them quite slippery. Trails that are exposed to sun (such as the Prospect Shafts Trail) tend to be easier. Hiking poles are recommended in winter. To reach the trail from downtown Helena, drive south on Park Avenue until you see the sign for Mount Helena City Park and the Reeders Village subdivision.
White Sands National Monument is only located about 55 miles from the US-Mexico border. Yet, while hiking in the blindingly white sand dunes in January, it’s easy to imagine that you’re hiking somewhere north of the arctic circle. Your body and mind might be confused because, although it will be warm out, the view will seem like you’re hiking through miles of snow drifts and hills. The dunes at White Sands are not like other dunes I’ve visited. Instead, they are fairly hard packed, easy to hike through, and the color of fresh snow or sea salt.
The 5 mile Alkali Flat Trail loops it’s way from the heart of the dunes to the edge of the dry lake bed of Lake Otero (where the dunes form) and back again. Winter is an excellent time to go as the temperature is reasonable and the crowds are few. After the first two or three miles, you’ll likely not see many people at all. Be sure to bring sunglasses as the sand can be especially blinding.
White Sands is about three and a half hours from Albuquerque. To reach the trail head from the entrance to the park, follow the only road for about 7 miles to the far end of the loop until you see the marked trail head.
Hike: East Sooke Coast Trail
Location: Vancouver Island, British Columbia
Winter Rating: Easy to Moderate, rain gear is always a good idea
This trail is located only about 20 miles from where we live and it has become our default in that we hike it a lot during all times of the year. Winter along the south coast of Vancouver Island can be rainy and windy but usually the weather is fairly moderate and hiking is enjoyable if not somewhat muddy.
Our favorite stretch of the East Sooke Coast Trail is to hike from the Aylard Farm Parking Lot to Beechey Head, which takes roughly two hours round trip. The trail hugs the coast and is not flat – it involves the scaling of rocks, the traversing of tree roots, and the scrambling up of short hills. The view from Beechey Head, though, is truly spectacular and a fine place to drink a cup of hot tea and hang out for a bit. In winter, sea lions and bald eagles can often be seen.
East Sooke Regional Park is about a 45-minute drive from Victoria. To reach the Aylard Farm trail, take a left when Gillespie Road comes to a “T” intersection with East Sooke Road. Continue on East Sooke for five minutes and then take a right on Becher Bay Road to the park entrance.