Travel Ideas

7 Small Towns in the U.S. That Are Basically Winter Wonderlands for Outdoor Exploration

Photo: Getty Images/Marco Bottigelli
Something about the onset of winter makes folks want to explore cold-weather destinations that offer some seasonal magic. The good news is that doing so is also beneficial for your physical and mental health. In fact, a 2020 study out of Cornell University found that spending as little as 10 minutes in nature (yes, even in chilly winter temps) can help you feel happier and less stressed.

If that’s not enough to entice you, then consider this: Research, including the 2020 UN World Happiness Report, has found Nordic and Scandinavian countries like Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden—all of which are known for being real-life winter wonderlands—to be among the world’s happiest. What’s more is that people from these nations are known to spend a ton of time outdoors exploring the region’s vast natural beauty. This idea is known as friluftsliv, which translates to “open-air living.” In other words, instead of retreating indoors once temps drop, many Scandinavians and Nordics continue to embrace the outdoors by taking advantage of their postcard-worthy wintry scenery.

While travel restrictions and concerns related to COVID-19 and the recent spread of the Omicron variant may have you staying close to (or at) home right now, there are plenty of dreamy winter-forward towns throughout the U.S. worth visiting all season long for all your outdoor-activity needs—so long as you feel safe doing so while following all safe-travel guidelines. And if you don't, consider bookmarking them for a later date.

Intrigued? Check out some of best winter destinations in the U.S., each of which offers seasonal activities and outdoor attractions, dreamy surroundings, and plenty of charm.

Get outside and visit 7 of the best winter destinations in the U.S.

1. Brattleboro, VT

Photo: Elizabeth Ungerleider / LoveBrattleboroVT

Each winter, this quaint Vermont town transforms into a cold-weather oasis. The snow-capped Green Mountains make for a stunning backdrop when skiing, sledding, or snowshoeing, which you can try during a visit to the Brattleboro Outing Club Ski Hut. Ice fishing is also popular here, as are horse-drawn sleigh rides (be sure to bring your camera to capture the snowy scenery).

Once you’ve worked up an appetite, enjoy some "sugar on snow," a staple Vermont treat made by drizzling hot maple syrup over snow. Plan your trip around the town’s Winter Carnival Week, which runs February 19 to 27, 2022 and offers an array of winter programming, like ice fishing competitions and skating races. Late February also marks the start of the maple sugaring season here, which means there will be plenty of fresh maple syrup to go around.

2. Lake Placid, NY

Photo: Getty Images/Cavan Images

Nestled in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains, you’ll find the small but vibrant village of Lake Placid, which is perhaps best known as the home of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics. It's also packed with must-visit winter attractions, including the Lake Placid Bobsled Experience, as well as the Cliffside Mountain Coaster, which is the country’s longest mountain coaster. Here, you’ll also find around 31 miles of cross-country skiing trails. Up for even more adventure? Head to Mirror Lake. When the expansive lake freezes over, visitors can enjoy outdoor activities aplenty, including dogsledding, tobogganing, ice-skating, and ice hockey. And if you prefer something more laid-back, make your way up the SkyRide. This eight-person gondola takes you up nearly 395 feet, offering peaceful, panoramic mountain vistas.

3. Rockford, IL

Photo: GoRockford.com

Sure, Chicago is great for big-city vibes, but those in search of a more laid-back wintry locale might consider visiting Rockford, Illinois instead. The Nicholas Conservatory All Aglow Holiday Display (pictured), a free outdoor display that runs through January 9, 2022, features 300,000 sparkling holiday lights. Also be sure to take a walking tour (self-guided or guided) of the 369-acre Severson Dells Nature Center. Lastly, consider planning your trip around the annual Illinois Snow Sculpting Competition, which runs between January 26 and 29, 2022, and admire the beautifully carved works.

4. Hayward, WI

Photo: Getty Images/Joshua Komer-EyeEm

Hayward is located in Wisconsin’s picturesque Northwoods region, which borders Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The city is home to the country’s largest cross-country ski race, the American Birkebeiner, which takes place during Birkebeiner Week (February 23 to 27, 2022). Can’t make it? Don’t fret; instead, ski on your own anytime during the season at the 62-plus-mile Birkie Trail. Or, ditch the skis altogether and go fat biking instead. (There are more than 50 miles of groomed trails from which to choose.) The fun doesn’t stop there, though. If you ever wanted to go ice fishing, Hayward is the perfect place to do so, thanks to the abundance of nearby lakes, streams, and rivers. Before you skip town at the end of your trip though, embark on a scenic, snowy hike through the nearby Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, which spans more than 1,500,000 acres.

5. Casper, Wyoming

Photo: Getty Images/David Essex 500px

Along the base of Wyoming's Casper Mountain, you’ll find the town of Casper. The storybook-like setting has a historic downtown, which dates back over a century. David Street Station, which has its own outdoor skating rink with a tall, colorfully lit pine tree in the center, is one of the city’s best spots to visit during winter. You can also try your hand at almost any winter sport (from skiing and snowshoeing to snowmobiling and fat-biking) at the Casper Mountain Trails Center. Enjoy even more skiing at the Hogadon Basin Ski Area, which boasts around 28 miles of ski trails. Meanwhile, the 4.5-mile Bridle Trail at Rotary Park offers all-around scenic views and majestic wildlife, like deer and blue grouse. After you explore, admire the cascading, snow-covered waterfalls at Garden Creek Falls.

6. Estes Park, CO

Photo: Getty Images/Wayland Boland

This northern Colorado town is located at the base of Rocky Mountain National Park, making it the perfect jumping-off point for your winter adventure because its convenient location puts you in close proximity to many exciting winter attractions. The town’s surrounding natural landscapes—think: snowcapped mountains, towering peaks, starry skies, and rich wildlife—will leave you feeling like you’ve been plopped in the middle of a real-life snow globe. Admire elk, sheep, and other animals as they make their way through the powdery-white snow or hit the slopes at the nearby Hidden Valley Ski Area. Or, depending on the level of adventure you’re craving, embark on a photography-, wildlife-, sledding-, or snowshoeing-themed guided tour of the town and nearby landscapes. Nature and snowshoe safaris are also available, as are 4x4 tours and snowcat rides. Downtown Estes Park is home to a scenic Riverwalk, where you can admire public artwork and refuel with a bite to eat before going winter fly-fishing in the Big Thompson River.

7. Kalispell, Montana

Photo: Getty Images/Jordan Siemens

Kalispell is flanked by two of Montana’s most famous sites—Glacier National Park (pictured) and Flathead Lake—and this convenient location makes it an ideal home base for exploring. Plus, the tree-lined town—best known for its charming, vibrant, and easily walkable downtown—is especially beautiful come wintertime thanks to the heavy snowfall it tends to receive each year. Skiers can choose from two nearby areas (Blacktail Mountain and Whitefish Mountain Resort), while non-skiers can partake in other cold-weather activities like snowshoeing, skating, snowboarding, and snowmobiling. Ice fishing and dogsledding are also popular. If you need a break from the action – but still want to spend time outdoors, take a self-guided walking tour of Kalispell’s impressive street art.

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