With many people still limiting their indoor activities due to COVID-19, Pennsylvania state parks and forests continue to offer access to outdoor activities -- even during the winter months.
A lot of people don’t think about spending time outdoors in winter due to the colder temperatures; but with proper clothing and other safety precautions, there are plenty of benefits to spending some time outdoors now.
What makes winter recreation special? The scenery! The bare trees and vegetation in forests help make spotting wildlife easier, provide additional scenery from vistas, and uncover the vast rock formations that make up Pennsylvania’s varied natural landscapes.
The scenery is also quite spectacular when Pennsylvania’s natural places are covered in snow!
“There is a wonder in the winter season that can’t be matched at other times of the year, and our parks and forests offer great outdoor adventures and breathtaking views for those who brave the cold,” said DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn.
You also don’t have to travel far to enjoy the health benefits of exercise and fresh air in the winter. Pennsylvanians are fortunate that with so many state and local parks and forests they can find an opportunity near them.
The winter season provides opportunities for activities that cannot be enjoyed year-round. Take advantage of some of these unique outdoor recreation opportunities.
Winter is a great time for birding, especially around lakes. You may catch a sight of bald eagles, which will be nesting soon; some lingering ducks that did not head south; and several species of birds that can only be found here in winter.
Did you know that birds from the far reaches of northern Canada, Alaska, and the Arctic Islands seek the warmer temperatures of Pennsylvania in winter?
These birds from the frozen North include the American Tree Sparrow, Rough-legged Hawk, Snow Bunting, Redpolls, Lapland Longspur, Snowy Owl, Northern Shrike, Tundra Swan, and Snow Goose.
Northern Shrikes are often seen at Bald Eagle State Park and have been spotted at Moraine State Park. They also can be found in fields and other rural areas of Pennsylvania.
Think you can’t explore Pennsylvania’s vast trail system when it snows? You can with snowshoes!
If you can walk or hike, then you will be able to snowshoe. Snowshoes prevent you from wasting energy by helping you “float” on top of the snow. The larger footprint from the snowshoes keeps you from wasting energy by sinking in the snow.
You generally need more than six inches to snowshoe. If you would like to give it a try before making an investment in snowshoe equipment, some Pennsylvania state parks offer loaner programs. However, due to COVID-19, availability may vary.
Some recommended snowshoeing spots (PDF) in Pennsylvania state parks include:
Cross-country skiing is a great way to experience the outdoors in winter and Pennsylvania’s state parks and forests offer some of the best places to ski.
Cross-country skiing trails can be found on:
- Hiking trails
- Equestrian trails
- Service roads
- Frozen lakes
- Old railroad grades
- Lake shorelines
Many trail networks are specifically designated and maintained for cross-country skiing.
State parks and state forests in the northern tier of Pennsylvania typically receive plenty of snowfall each year for cross-country skiing, particularly in the northern-most counties and the northeast and northwest corners of the state.
Nine state parks offer groomed trails specifically for cross-country skiing and there are 560 miles of cross-country ski trails in 15 state forests.
Snowmobiling enthusiasts found lots of riding opportunities with the substantial early snowfall this winter.
Pennsylvania state parks and forests offer thousands of miles and hundreds of acres of designated snowmobile areas for exploration.
Snowmobile riding opportunities abound on state forest lands. If you’re looking for a one-hour ride or a day long trek, you’ll find it in the state forest system among scenery that is unsurpassed.
Many state parks also offer trails and trailheads to state forest lands for riding opportunities.
DCNR operates a snowmobile hotline and Snowmobile Trails Conditions report updating snow and trail conditions twice a week.
Call toll-free hotline at 1-877-SNOMBLE before you head out to see if trails are open and ready for riding.
After the temperature hits rock bottom and Jack Frost is really nipping at your nose, get dressed in warm layers and head out to ice skate.
Natural ice is not usually as smooth as ice in a rink, but the view in a park can be spectacular.
Many state parks allow for ice skating opportunities at their lakes; however, not all state parks monitor ice levels for ice skating at their lakes.
If you plan to go where the ice is not monitored for safety, make sure ice is at least 4” thick for a single skater and 7” thick for a small group.
Always carry safety equipment, spread out on the ice and wear a life jacket.
Ice fishing has an allure all its own. Some say there is nothing like walking on a frozen lake, carving a hole and pulling up elusive fish from the mysterious depths below.
You can catch largemouth bass, yellow perch, crappie, chain pickerel, northern pike, bluegill, and walleye through the ice in Pennsylvania.
Bluegills occupy every corner of the state and make up a good portion of each winter’s catch.
Most state parks with fishing also permit ice fishing; however, not all state parks monitor ice levels for ice skating at their lakes.
If you plan to go where the ice is not monitored for safety, make sure ice is at least 4” thick for a single angler and a solid 7” of ice for a small group of anglers.
Always carry safety equipment, spread out on the ice, and wear a life jacket.
Recreate Responsibly This Winter
Ready to explore the winter wonders of Pennsylvania’s natural places? While each season brings unique safety challenges, winter is a time to be extremely careful when heading outdoors.
State forest roads are not maintained in winter -- know how to drive in winter conditions and pack emergency supplies in case you become stuck.
It’s also important to practice the following:
- Plan ahead: Check local conditions and prepare for the elements, packing extra layers and waterproof clothing.
- Practice physical distancing: Be prepared to cover your nose and mouth. Eat and rest outdoors. If you are sick, stay home.
- Explore locally: Follow the advice of health officials and stay close to home for healthy outdoor exercise to protect yourself and others.
- Play it safe: Know your limits and your gear. Choose lower-risk activities to lower your risk of injury.
- Leave no Trace: Snow feeds our water supply. Keep winter playgrounds clean. Take out or dispose of properly any trash or pet waste. Be respectful of natural resources.
With proper precautions, winter recreation can be just as exciting as any other time of the year.
Winter outdoor recreation enthusiasts can monitor snow and ice conditions with state parks by checking their Winter Report. The Winter Report is updated weekly (at a minimum) by state parks during the winter season.
The report lists the ice thickness and what ice activities are available at that park.