Old Man Winter took his time arriving this year, but arrive, he has — in many places and according to Punxsutawney Phil will be staying around for at least another six weeks — which means the winter recreation period is finally underway, for the most part, across the country. With so many options and so relatively little time, what does one do between now and then? As much as possible.

Downhill Adventures
Did you know that forests are essential to ski bums’ happiness? Forests help stabilize a mountain’s snow, preventing avalanches and soil erosion. So even though hugging trees while swishing down the slopes isn’t recommended for your health, giving them a nod of thanks is always appreciated. Here are some universal U.S. favorite locations to hit the slopes (in alphabetical order):

  • Skiing in Aspen, Colorado

    Aspen, Colorado. Credit: Marcin Wichary/Flickr

    Aspen, Colorado: Home to ESPN’s Winter X Games for the last decade, the Aspen/Snowmass complex of four ski areas is a popular slope destination. From superpipes to race courses to slopestyle courses, the Aspen area offers 316 miles of trails, all within White River National Forest. Of course, Colorado is home to many more famous locales (Vail, Breckenridge, Beaver Creek, Telluride, Copper Mountain) that offer awesome vistas and fresh powder throughout the winter.

  • Jackson Hole, Wyoming: It boasts a few of the world’s scariest slopes, Corbet’s Couloir and S+S Couloir, according to Travel+Leisure and offers 2,500 acres of in-bound terrain and more than 3,000 acres of open backcountry. Grand Targhee, about 75 minutes from Jackson, is a lesser-known Wyoming resort, but is a favorite of many skiers with an average of 500-plus inches of fresh snow each year — more than Jackson Hole.
  • Park City, Utah: A little more than 30 miles from Salt Lake City, Park City is home to three renowned ski resorts — Park City Mountain Resort, The Canyons and Deer Valley, which was named the top 2011-2012 resort by SKI magazine. Also host to the annual Sundance Film Festival, Park City’s resorts boast more than 9,000 acres of skiing/boarding.
  • Stowe, Vermont: When it comes to East Coast slopes, Vermont reigns supreme, and Stowe arguably towers above them all. It has 116 trails, including six terrain parks. Also, the Trapp Family Lodge (yes, The Sound of Music von Trapps) offers some of the country’s premiere cross-country skiing — more on this sport to come. Other Vermont favorites include Killington and Smuggler’s Notch. If you can’t make it way up north, Whiteface, New York — with the highest peak in the East — tops SKI magazine’s list of East Coast resorts in America. Plus, it’s housed in the historic Adirondacks.

Cross-country Treks
Snow sports aren’t limited to those that take you downhill. Cross-country, or Nordic, skiing and snowshoeing offer ways to enjoy forests and nature in a more leisurely, but still energetic, way. While many downhill ski resorts offer cross-country and snowshoe opportunities, we’ve gathered a selection of some of the best locations in America dedicated to these fun times in the snow:

  • Snowshoeing on Oregon's Mt. Hood

    Snowshoeing on Oregon's Mt. Hood. Credit: Mt. Hood Territory/Flickr

    Anywhere, USA: If there’s snow and a trail, you can go snowshoeing (check out Snowshoe Magazine’s helpful first-timers guide), but a word to the wise: Be cautious, just as you would on a hike — perhaps even more cautious. Research your course. Steep slopes ahead are not always marked and can be hazardous for beginners. Furthermore, avalanches can occur anywhere, even on seemingly minor hills. For monitored, historic places to snowshoe, visit a national park or site, as many of them — including Alaska’s Denali National Park, Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park, Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and Maine’s Acadia National Park — offer trails for snowshoeing and even ranger-led snowshoe tours.

  • Lake Tahoe, California: Host of the 1960 Winter Olympics, this Sierra Nevada locale boasts many cross-country resorts, including Royal Gorge, one of the largest Nordic resorts in the country with almost 100 miles of trails. Bonus: The resort also allows man’s best friend to accompany skiers on select days.
  • Methow Valley, Washington: One of the largest Nordic centers in America is located in the North Cascades in Winthrop, Washington. With approximately 125 miles of groomed trails, Methow Valley is a favorite for cross-country professionals and recreationists alike. More than 50 percent of the trails traverse lands that are part of the USDA Forest Service.
  • Telemark, Wisconsin: While the fabled lodge has fallen on tough times in the last decade, it’s still the home base for the Midwest’s skiing, particularly Nordic, Mecca. Almost 40 years ago, Telemark’s famous owner, Tony Wise, launched the inaugural American Birkebeiner, aka the Birkie, which draws 9,000 competitors for the 50 km race and related festivities every year. The state of Wisconsin actually offers almost 250 cross-country facilities.

Southern Odysseys

While the northern part of the country is getting deluged with snow, winter in the South often means mild temperatures that still allow for oodles of outdoor favorites like hiking and biking. Some activities in the South, though, are ideally suited for the winter months:

  • Birding Trails: Follow our feathered friends south — or even east or west — in the winter and enjoy one of the country’s many birding trails. North America is home to almost 1,000 different bird species, and about 15 years ago, Texas kicked off the trend to create dedicated birding trails to aid those hoping to spot some winged creatures. With its prime location in migratory patterns, birding in Texas during the winter can be lucrative. Texas’ coastal birding trail spans 2,100 miles, hitting 310 different sites for ideal bird watching. Nearby Louisiana offers America’s Wetland Birding Trail, which traverses marshes, swamps, hardwood forests and more to reach 115 birding sites. Three-quarters of our states boast birding trails, so check out the American Birding Association’s round up of trails to find one near you.
  • Joshua Tree National Park

    Joshua Tree National Park. Credit: Dustin P. Smith/Flickr

    The Desert: Deserts are known for being dry, sparse and hot, which is why the winter months are the perfect time to experience their wonder — and don’t let the word desert fool you, as deserts in the U.S. offer much more than sand. California’s Joshua Tree National Park contains not one, but two of these intense ecosystems — the Colorado and Mojave Deserts. As you hike, bike and explore this park, you’ll discover stands of Joshua trees and fan palms and approximately 813 species of vascular plants. In Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, you can discover the fossilized remains of million-year-old former trees while reveling in the beauty of the Painted Desert by foot or even horseback.

  • Florida: The Sunshine State is the premiere winter destination for beachgoers across the country, but it’s also an ideal spot to embark on wildlife hunts in the winter months. Each winter, visitors flock to Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge to see the manatees basking in the area’s warm water springs. Further down the coast, the J.N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge’s mangroves provide habitat for a variety of bird species including roseate spoonbills, reddish egrets, snowy egrets and many heron species; visitors may also spot some endangered eastern indigo snakes, American alligators, American crocodiles, Atlantic loggerhead sea turtles and more.
  • Southern California: Every winter, monarch butterflies east of the Rockies flock to Michoacán, Mexico, to spend the winter months in the oyamel fir forests of the Transverse Neo-Volcanic Mountain range. Monarch butterflies west of the Rockies descend upon Southern California’s eucalyptus groves. Pismo Beach, Pacific Grove and Morro Bay are hotspots for monarch activity in the winter.