Just because winter’s on the way, it doesn’t mean you have to hang up your hiking boots. If you’re strategic about picking your destination, it’s easy to hit the trail year-round, says Karen Berger, author of the newly released Great Hiking Trails of the World (Rizzoli, $50). “Winter hiking is best done in the southern hemisphere or the southern part of the United States.” She shares with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY some short sections of world-class hiking trails that can be easily tackled in a day or weekend.
Ocala National Forest, Fla.
Wait until the January dry season to explore this wooded sanctuary north of Orlando, part of the Florida National Scenic Trail. Marked with orange blazes, the main route offers access to miles of footpaths with spurs leading to natural springs. Wildlife ranges from armadillos to black bears.
Potawatomi State Park, Wis.
This hike isn’t about avoiding winter weather, but enjoying it. The eastern terminus of the 1,100-mile Ice Age Trail follows a forested path ending at a bluff and observation tower overlooking Sturgeon Bay in Door County, Wis. The area is lovely on cross-country skis, and accessible throughout the year, Berger says. “The lack of mountains means that some of the dangers of winter hiking are ameliorated.”
Shenandoah National Park, Va.
For a gentle introduction to winter backpacking and the Appalachian Trail, head to this park, about two hours west of Washington, D.C. “There can be snow, but not a ton of it, and there are shelters along the way, which means you don’t have to pack as much,” Berger says. While it’s one of the most visited parks on the East Coast, traffic dies down after the fall color season. “You get lots of great views, and a lot less people.”
Long Island Sound, Conn.
No need to get cabin fever during a New England winter, says Berger, who lives in Western Massachusetts. She suggests stretching your legs along the Long Island Sound section of the 215-mile New England Trail, which starts at Jacobs Beach, Conn. “Every few miles the trail goes past a town, so you can make the hike as long or short as you want.”
Alta Via 1, Italy
Berger calls Italy’s Dolomites “a jewel box version of the Alps.” But during World War I, the area on the Italy-Austria border was a fierce battleground. Winter visitors can gain an understanding for the treacherous trench warfare by hiking pathways tunneled through the mountains, and on the surface. Guided tours on cross-country skis visit the sites as well. “It’s an opportunity to see the landscape the way soldiers would have seen it.”
Anza Borrego Desert State Park, Calif.
Plan to explore this section of the Pacific Coast Trail in late February and March when the desert scenery is transformed by wildflowers. “It’s spectacular, and hiking during the winter is nicer. In spring and summer, it gets really uncomfortably hot.” The state park provides wildflower updates on its website.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand
This short segment of the cross-country Te Araroa Trail cuts across an active volcano, and is so picturesque it made the cover of Berger’s book. Fans of the Lord of the Rings films will recognize the area, which was depicted as Mount Doom. “It’s a very dramatic landscape. There are these wild emerald-colored lakes in the grey-brown lavascape,” she says. “And it’s doable in a day.”
Makhtesh Ramon, Israel
This enormous erosion crater offers an exciting introduction to the Israel National Trail, which crosses the country from north to south. Visitors can see archaeological ruins, and Nubian ibex, a desert goat species. There are also opportunities for rock-climbing and rappelling, Berger says. “It’s a huge natural area in the Negev Desert.”
Miller Peak, Ariz.
While tackling the entire cross-state Arizona National Scenic Trail could be intimidating, just the first miles heading north of the Mexico border offer plenty of scenery. Berger suggests a trek from Coronado National Memorial into the Miller Peak Wilderness. The time to take the hike is winter, when temperatures are relatively moderate. “The first pass is not too difficult, and definitely passable in the winter time. There could be a little snow on the ground.”
Machu Picchu Sun Gate, Peru
Even if you don’t have time to trek the multi-day Inca Trail, you can still get a sweeping view of Peru’s famed archaeological site. Berger recommends walking up from the park entrance to the Sun Gate. “You can arrive on foot and see how the vista reveals itself.”