From the stark landscape of the Sonoran Desert to the glacial majesty of Mt. Rainier, the western U.S. offers some of the world’s most magnificent backdrops for outdoor adventure. Add the natural high of physical exertion to this raw beauty, and you’ve got the perfect antidote to those cubicle blues.
Whether your playground of choice is surf, snow or sand, these destinations have all the makings for an exciting winter getaway.
SURF THE CALIFORNIA COAST
Two of the top five beaches in the world for winter surfing are in the Southland, according to noted surf coach Sean Mattison. Topping the list is Black’s Beach, secluded beneath the Torrey Pines cliffs in San Diego, with awesome waves and equally awesome nude sunbathers. Also making the list is Oceanside Harbor — epic surf, but epic crowds too. If you’re no big kahuna, Malibu has some gentler breaks, not to mention the occasional Kardashian.
Heading north to Santa Barbara, catch a long ride at world-famous Rincon, then continue up the coast to Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz and check out the
On the isolated Lost Coast in Northern California, the breaks can be treacherous but the experience transcendent. Legend has it that there’s a perfect wave at Big Flat, accessible only by an eight or nine mile beach trek north of Shelter Cove. Check the tide forecast — when it’s high, the beach can be impassable.
Winter is the ideal time to explore the Sonoran Desert, with trails for every fitness level, stunning desert vistas and ancient Native American petroglyphs. The strenuous hike to the summit of Camelback Mountain will reward you with a breathtaking panorama, and in Saguaro National Park, walk through stands of giant cacti, some as tall as 50 feet and almost 200 years old.
In Sedona, hiking the brilliantly colored striations of Cathedral Rock is so enchanting you can almost believe the new age lore about a mystical vortex. Even more otherworldly are the spectacular swooping curves of a sandstone formation called the Wave in Coyote Buttes. The weather is colder here, but you can hike in winter if the skies are clear and the temperatures mild.
It’s possible to hike the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in fall and winter — but temperatures at different altitudes vary radically, and the weather can be unpredictable. That said, the payoff may be worth it. The hordes of tourists are gone, and you can experience the canyon’s haunting wonder in solitude.
MOUNTAIN BIKE IN NEW MEXICO
New Mexico is mountain biking’s best-kept secret — or was until this October when the International Mountain Biking Assn. held its World Summit there.
Riding feels easier when the temperatures cool down, and Albuquerque’s varied terrain and high elevations make it a favorite with pros in training. Las Cruces, with 350 days a year of sun, is surrounded by vast expanses of desert with tracks for every skill level.
Silver City, gateway to the Gila National Forest, has been called a bicycling paradise, and winters are usually mild here. Experts will find technical rides and fast descents along the Continental Divide, while beginners can take trails through the Fort Bayard Wildlife Refuge.
Even license plates in Utah boast “The Greatest Snow on Earth.” What makes Utah’s snow special enough for that trademark? A dry climate that produces light, fluffy flakes, and plenty of them — about 500 inches a year.
Two Utah resorts took first place in Ski Magazine’s 2012 reader surveys: Alta for Best Snow and Deer Valley for Best Resort. Alta is all about the powder and superb runs that draw serious skiers from all over the world. Deer Valley is synonymous with grande luxe — a five-star experience, featuring impeccable service, impeccable comfort, impeccably groomed trails.
The biggest ski area, Park City, has one landmark that’s definitely worth visiting — a ski-in gastropub at the 140-year-old High West Distillery and Saloon. Sip their Rendezvous Rye, dine on bison, elk or trout — and sober up a bit before schussing back down the mountain.
SHOWSHOE IN WASHINGTON STATE
Volcanoes and glaciers and bears … oh my. Mount Rainier and Mount Olympus reign imposingly over the winter wilderness, but don’t be daunted by them. One of the simplest and most pleasurable ways to explore these areas is snowshoeing. It’s almost as easy as walking — though with fat tennis rackets tied to your boots.
You don’t have to mortgage your firstborn for equipment, either. Snowshoes and trekking poles are inexpensive to rent, but you should probably make one important purchase — long underwear made of sturdy waterproof polypropylene.
Winter has its hazards in these mountains, so it’s wise to begin with a free ranger-guided tour. Once you get the hang of it, you can walk through untouched terrain and share the silent wonder of it all with the elk.
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