Now that the holidays are over, reality has set in and we’re faced with at least three solid months of cold temperatures, short days and long nights.
Many of us have resolved to be healthier and maybe give up a few vices in the new year. But that can be extra challenging during winter and budget season. Driving home from work in the dark is a huge bummer. Lack of exposure to sunlight has been attributed to the “winter blues” and seasonal affective disorder.
Beyond the ugly horror of dirty snow leftovers and leafless trees, there is adventure to be had all winter long. Here are a few of my personal favorite ways to pass time in winter that don’t involve sitting at a bar drinking or staring at your phone.
The best way to train for summer and fall hiking is winter hiking! The Capital Region and surrounding areas has a number of great places to hike. Peebles Island, Grafton, Thacher and Schodack Island State Parks are all within ~30 minutes of Albany. A little farther south, the Columbia Land Conservancy offers ten preserves to explore and enjoy.
Climbing mountains is fun in winter, too. The Adirondack High Peaks are less crowded in winter but require survival and navigational skills and gear to climb safely. Closer to home, the Lake George 12ster covers a dozen peaks surrounding Lake George, many of which offer amazing views. Hadley Mountain Fire Tower in Saratoga County is a fairly gentle climb with excellent views over the Adirondacks from the tower.
Guided snowshoe hikes and tours can be found all over the area. Albany Pine Bush occasionally offers guided snowshoe walks, and Saratoga Spa State Park has a candlelight snowshoe/ski trip on January 31 starting at 6:00 PM. L.L. Bean at Colonie Center also hosts clinics to acquaint newcomers with a range of winter activities.
Wear and prepare to remove lots of layers. Avoid cotton and other fabrics that stay wet and pack a lighter, first aid kit, and compass – phone batteries die quickly in the cold and many areas lack signal. It’s safe to assume trails will be icy, particularly in the mountains. Microspikes are worn over hiking boots and make it possible to ascend and descend icy trails without fear. In snowy conditions, you may need snowshoes to be able to safely continue and avoid post-holing.
My personal favorite winter activity is getting up super early and flinging myself down steep, snow-covered mountains at 40 miles per hour on a pair of skis. It’s exhilarating, the views are great, and it’s hard to focus on how sad you are when you’re flying downhill.
I didn’t learn how to ski until I was 28, despite growing up in the Capital Region, and I wish I had started sooner. Part of this was because I thought skiing was a prohibitively expensive activity. While it’s true that full-cost lift tickets are $100+ per day and I always end up overhearing some guy on the lift complain about how he has too many yachts, it is possible to enjoy skiing & riding without breaking the bank.
If you know you’ll be skiing 10 or more days a season, look into a season pass that is good at multiple mountains. Buy as early as possible in the year for the best deals. The NY SKI3 Pass, good at Gore, Whiteface & Belleayre mountains, is an excellent way to support New York state-run resorts.
Ski Weekdays & Evenings
It’s a lot cheaper to ski on a Tuesday than on a Saturday, and you won’t be rubbing elbows with thousands of New Jersey weekend warriors, either! You can even ride after work. Jiminy Peak near Stephentown offers nighttime skiing from 3-10 PM for half the price of a regular lift ticket.
Public Employee Discounts
In Albany, everyone knows a bunch of people who are civil service employees. Members of the New York State Public Employees’ Federation (NYS PEF) receive deeply discounted lift tickets to pretty much every local mountain. Look at these prices!
Lesson Package Deals
My introduction to skiing in 2015 came through a legendary deal offered by Killington’s “Learn to Ski” program that included four lessons, rentals, and a pair of skis (to keep!) for just $300.
This year, the same deal includes three lessons and costs $399. Graduates receive either a Burton snowboard or a pair of Elan skis, plus 50% off window-price lift tickets through the end of the 2020-2021 season.
I have also tracked down a few other nearby beginner packages, ranging from “not bad” to “super affordable” – perfect if you want to learn to ski or ride, or are trying to convince someone else to learn.
Willard Mountain, near Cambridge, has an exceptional “Learn to Ski or Snowboard” package deal. For just $49, older kids and adults can attend one, two or three lessons in one day, including rentals!
West Mountain in Queensbury offers a “Learn to Ski 3” package for $159 through March 20, excluding holiday periods.
Ski Vermont’s Take 3 Beginner Package offers three lessons plus rentals for $129 at participating resorts. This is for beginners only and includes a limited lift ticket, equipment rental and a lesson – times three!
Ice fishing is wonderfully uncomplicated compared to open water fishing. Once you’ve schlepped all your gear onto the ice and drilled some holes, you’re basically there. Stick a wax worm or minnow on a jig, drop it down a hole, and see what bites. You can drill a bunch of holes and use tip-ups, which raise a flag when you have a fish on the line.
While many people use ice fishing as a convenient excuse to kill a case of cheap beer, I see it as a peaceful exercise in patience and a wholesome way to meet your protein goals. Panfish (sunfish, crappie, perch) taste best in winter, and those lucky enough to drop onto a school can bring home many meals’ worth of fish.
Walking on frozen ponds and lakes is generally considered to be safe if the ice is 3-4 inches thick – much more if you plan to drive a snowmobile or truck onto the ice. Do not ever walk on ice on moving water!
By midwinter, ice on big lakes like Lake George and Saratoga Lake can be over a foot thick, and the ice is dotted with shelters and snowmobiles by midmorning. Veterans Memorial Park in Bolton Landing has easy public access to Lake George and unbeatable views of Black Mountain and Sleeping Beauty, but not much in the way of solitude.
If you’re curious about ice fishing or looking for something different to do, DEC is offering free ice fishing clinics at Thompson’s Lake near Thacher Park on January 18 and at the Tomhannock Reservoir outside of Troy on January 25. I had the pleasure of attending the DEC clinic at the Tomhannock Reservoir in 2018, and brought home several bags full of delicious yellow perch fillets.
Playing off leash at Capital Hills Golf Course
Just off New Scotland Avenue, Capital Hills Golf Course has several miles of paved walking trails, Nordic cross-country ski trails, and terrain open for sledding and snowshoeing. It’s the only place in the area I am aware of that allows dogs and their people to play off leash during the fall and winter months when the golf course is closed. On any given day, there are probably a hundred dogs frolicking throughout the course and in the parking lot – drive carefully.
If you are a dog owner, Capital Hills is a great place for Fido to blow off steam, make new friends and work on training in high-distraction environments. There is also a nice fenced dog park nearby (Hartman Road Dog Park) for dogs who pose a flight risk if let off leash.
Even if you don’t have or care much about dogs, it is hard not to smile watching them chase each other around.
And something to look forward to…only 8 weeks until Daylight Savings Time begins!