For years, the long winters of the northern United States kept rock climber Todd Goss on indoor climbing walls instead of natural rock faces. Goss grew up in Chicago, where the average January high is a chilly 25 degrees, and then lived in Maine, where up to 7.5 feet of snow falls each year. His favorite sport had seasonal limits, and by January, he was usually itching to get back outdoors. So instead of waiting for the snow to melt, he hit the road.
When he discovered St. George, Utah — where the sun shines 300 days a year, where climbing-perfect temperatures of 50 to 70 degrees grace the town January through March and where limestone routes dominate the sprawling landscape — Goss knew he’d discovered a little-known, but prime, climbing location.
“Walking into the Cathedral at Welcome Springs for the first time, and realizing the potential climbing experience it offered the community, was especially inspiring,” says Goss of one St. George climbing area. Hooked by the desert beauty and low-key vibe, Goss moved to the Utah town in 1992. Now the owner of Paragon Adventures, he shows outsiders the wintertime delights of the warm-weather wonderland.
St. George is hardly the only spot for an outdoor adventure sans long johns and wooly mittens. Throughout the southern United States, undiscovered paddling, rock-climbing and mountain-biking destinations offer the adrenaline fix the snow-bound crave when the mercury dips below zero.
If the only terrain your mountain bike sees in the winter is a dusty basement, you might consider a furlough to southern Arizona, where single-track trails spider through the Sonoran Desert. “The sun is almost always shining,” says Martha Lemen, president of the Sonoran Desert Mountain Bicyclists. “It’s pure heaven to be outside when the rest of the world is freezing.”
Thanks to the biking at 4,000 feet in the Santa Rita and Patagonia mountains, the tiny, artsy border town of Patagonia (pop. 881) has become an outpost for riders. Rent bikes at Broadway Bicycles (www.broadwaybicycles.com) and hit the Kentucky Camp Trail, a 38-mile figure-eight loop that connects to the 750-mile Arizona Trail between Mexico and Utah. The Kentucky Camp’s scenery and fun terrain have earned it an “Epic” designation by the International Mountain Biking Association. Later, bring your binoculars to Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve; the Nature Conservancy site is one of the best in the country for bird watching.
The longest off-pavement trail in the United States is the 2,714-mile Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, which runs through the Old West town of Silver City, N.M. Here, you’ll find consistently sunny skies, temperatures in the 60s and trails that loop around former mines. Gila Bike and Hike (www.silvercity.org), a local outfitter, can help make sure you’re ready to roll through some of the surrounding 3 million acres of the Gila National Forest.
For tropical two-wheeling, consider Ocala, Fla., home to the Santos Trail System. The 42-mile network has trails for all abilities, including the sprawling Vortex Pit free-ride area, with its dirt jumps and 20-foot drops. Check out the Santos Trailhead Bike Shop (www.santosbikeshop.com) and the campground right at the trails.
Wet and Wild
If the water in your region seems to come in only two forms — snow and ice — this time of year, you may be particularly drawn to a warm-weather spot such as Hattiesburg, Miss. Surrounded by the Okatoma Creek, Black Creek, Wolf River and Escatawpa River (all of which are lined with camping spots), Hattiesburg has become a paddling playground in the winter, when temperatures reach into the 70s.
“Hattiesburg is located near some of the finest streams for canoeing,” says Larry Estes, the 51-year-old president of the Mississippi Outdoor Club. “The area has outfitters and several streams that make it helpful for people who don’t have their own boats, and water quality on many of the streams is also better than other parts of the state.”
At Soggy Bottom, rent a canoe or kayak for just $20 a day. It includes a shuttle to your put-in spot and a pick-up spot on the peaceful Black Creek, which Congress has designated as a National Wild and Scenic River. Soggy Bottom also leads hiking adventures on a 40-mile trail through the De Soto National Forest. Back in Hattiesburg, you can wind down with a walk along the 39-mile Longleaf Trace Trail, a Rails-to-Trails conservancy project.
Pining for a white-water adventure? Make for San Marcos, Texas, where the San Marcos River remains a constant 72 degrees year-round and offers Class I to III rapids. Right in town, the recently constructed Rio Vista Falls Park is a training area for Olympic kayakers — and a school for rookie paddlers, too. “We even have lights in the evening so that you can paddle until 1 a.m.,” says Michelle Kvanli, a competitive kayaker who runs the Power Olympic Outdoor Center (www.kayakinstruction.org) and offers lessons for all levels. “San Marcos has everything you need while maintaining a small-town feeling,” she says. “We call it San Marvelous!”
In Beaufort, S.C., kayakers can glide through the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto (ACE) Basin, a 350,000-acre undeveloped estuary on the East Coast. “In winter, the spartina grass in the salt marsh turns a wonderful russet color, and bald eagles begin to breed,” says Kim Gundler of Beaufort Kayak Tours (www.beaufortkayaktours.com). Alligators, blue crabs, shrimp and even bottlenose dolphin keep paddlers company on these quiet journeys.
Climbers suffering from a case of cabin fever will find welcome relief in the scenic town of Ojai, Calif., whose bouldering problems and routes of 5.5 to 5.11 difficulty remain relatively undiscovered.
Ian Potter, who leads rock-climbing tours throughout Ojai Valley and Ventura County (www.hikingojai.com), calls it “friendly rock,” touting the interplay of light and shade that makes climbing comfortable. “Some areas are near water so you can go for a swim after rappelling from 80 feet,” he says. “And [the rock face] is so safe, you can drop a Suburban from the anchor systems.”
Ojai is also a balmy base camp for hiking, biking and trail running in Los Padres National Forest or for sailing on Lake Casitas.
A bit closer to home for East Coasters is the mountain town of Boone, N.C., where climbers can explore the Pisgah National Forest year-round. Practice your moves on the 30-foot climbing tower at the Footsloggers store (www.footsloggers.com) before venturing on a multipitch trip up Looking Glass Rock with Rock Dimensions (www.rockdimensions.com), which also offers underground caving trips.
Or, to see what inspired Todd Goss to relocate to St. George, Utah, sign up for a rock-climbing class with Paragon Adventures (www.paragonadventure.com), whose guides have the inside scoop on more than 1,500 red-rock routes and teach everything from basic skills to lead-climbing seminars.
Need a reason besides the cold to plan an escape? Small U.S. towns can be much more wallet-friendly than their big-city and Caribbean counterparts, says Justin Bergman, a senior editor at Budget Travel magazine. “To keep a trip even cheaper, join a bike shop’s weekly ride instead of hiring a guide, and kayak on rivers close to town instead of driving a car to a far-off destination,” he suggests.
So, while the northern half of the country is busy shoveling and scraping, you can be challenging yourself on an anti-winter adventure — by simply adjusting your latitude.
The Hidden Bonus
If you’ve landed in a town known for, say, mountain biking, chances are there are plenty of other adventures going on, too — from outdoor-oriented sports to festivals, shopping and live music. How can you find out what else is happening? “Walk around, get your bearings, and find a local coffee shop or bar and ask people,” suggests Justin Bergman, a senior editor at Budget Travel magazine. “Or just look out for free local magazines, bulletin boards and posters — in smaller places, that’s [often] how people get the information out.”
More Undiscovered Destinations
Hot Springs, Ark. — To try the Womble, a 39-mile single-track trail tracing the Ouachita River, rent bikes at Parkside Cycle: 501-623-6188; www.parksidecycle.com. (For more on Hot Springs, see “Total Immersion”.)
Boulder City, Nev. — This is your base camp for mountain biking the 35-mile Bootleg Canyon Trail. All Mountain Cyclery: 702-453-2453; www.allmountaincyclery.com.
Cullman, Ala. — Check out 15 miles of mountain-biking trails at Chigger Ridge, the 3.5-mile trail at Sportsman Lake Park and the 6-mile Hurricane Creek trail. Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce: 256-734-0454; www.cullmanchamber.org.
St. Mary’s, Ga. — This seaside town is the gateway to paddling the Cumberland Island National Seashore. Rent kayaks or take a tour from Up the Creek: 912-882-0911; www.jacksonvillekayakcompany.com.
Apalachicola, Fla. — Kayak or canoe through the 246,000-acre Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, or island-hop along the Florida Panhandle. Journeys of St. George Island offers guided trips and rentals: 850-927-3259; www.sgislandjourneys.com.
Pismo Beach, Calif. — For sea kayaking through caves and along cliffs, in addition to gliding past beaches and rock formations, contact Central Coast Kayaks: 805-773-3500; www.centralcoastkayaks.com.
Prescott, Ariz. — Granite Mountain Outfitters has maps to warm-weather climbing routes in the Granite Mountain Wilderness Area: 928-776-4949.
Oahu, Hawaii — Yep, Hawaii’s got rock climbing, too, with routes from 5.8 on the North Shore of Oahu, including a 90-foot wall. Contact Patagonia at 808-637-1245 for more information.
Baymon, Puerto Rico — More than 131 routes have turned this tropical island into a rock-climbing destination. Contact the Puerto Rico tourism board: 800-866-7827; www.discoverpuertorico.com.